Remember the girl crisis? These days educators are trying to redesign classes to engage boys but it wasn’t long ago that all the talk was about how to keep girls from being ignored, silenced and turned off to math and science. On The Quick and the Ed, Sara Mead reviews a 1993 Washington Post Magazine article on the problem of “smart girls” who are “hesitant to speak up out of fear that they’ll look foolish if they’re wrong.” Newsweek’s boy-crisis story raised the same point:
Middle-school boys will do almost anything to avoid admitting that they’re overwhelmed. “Boys measure everything they do or say by a single yardstick: does this make me look weak?” says Thompson. “And if it does, he isn’t going to do it.”
(Would it be too radical if I suggest that everybody, regardless of gender, really dislikes and tries to avoid appearing wrong, foolish or weak?)
Montgomery Blair, the high school attended by the exceptionally “smart girl” in the story, “added group work and downplayed collaboration to attract girls.” Now schools are “being urged to do the opposite in order to better serve boys,” Mead writes.
Most significantly, both the boy crisis and girl crisis stories seem to rely heavily on rather dubious research and anecdotal reports about individual boys and girls whose experiences, while they make for compelling narrative, are often not representative. Today the girl crisis issues that garnered so much attention in the 1990s are often dismissed as wrongheaded analysis based on bad research that has since been debunked, or folks say that the achievement gains girls have made mean whatever problems there were have been resolved. Reading this 13-year-old article, I couldn’t help but wonder if, 13 years from now, we’ll see today’s boy crisis hype largely the same way.
The difference is that stories about the problem with girls focused on high-achieving girls with the potential to become leaders in science, technology and business. The boy problem is about low-achieving boys, who “aren’t obtaining the basic skills and knowledge they need to make a decent life for themselves in the mainstream economy today.”
In The Trouble with Boys and Girls, released earlier this year, Mead looked at the data. Overall, boys are doing about the same in school, but girls are doing much better.
I wonder how much of the problem for non-achieving boys stems from the absence of fathers in so many families: Boys find it difficult to learn self-control without a responsible male role model. (Girls are hurt too but in other ways.)
I never bought into the idea that girls are “silenced” in adolescence or that they lose confidence. Girls grow up faster than boys and abandon grandiose ambitions at younger ages. Smart girls are competing successfully with smart boys. We need to worry about the average and left-behind boys who aren’t meeting new and higher expectations.