The trouble with girls — and boys

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.”

Mead asks:

(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.

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  1. I suspect that part of the problem for boys is teacher gender. Apparently we’re at a low point in number of male teachers – and, apparently, this matters to boys’ achievement.

    my results confirm that a teacher’s gender does have large effects on student test performance, teacher perceptions of students, and students’ engagement with academic material. Simply put, girls have better educational outcomes when taught by women and boys are better off when taught by men. These findings persist, even after I account for a variety of other characteristics of students, teachers, and classrooms that may influence student learning. They are especially important for young men when one considers that the percentage of 6th-grade teachers who were female ranged from 58 to 91 percent across four core subjects (math, science, reading, and history). Although these percentages decline in later grades, 83 percent of the English teachers in 8th grade are female, as are more than half of 8th-grade math and science teachers (see Figure 2).

    I think the situation is going to get worse before it gets better, because baby boom teachers are retiring. (That’s another story.)

    In our middle school retiring teachers are typically replaced by young unmarried childless female teachers, many of whom don’t seem to have much feel for 6th grade boys.

    It’s not an optimal environment for boys. Not even close.

  2. Has the male/female ratio changed that much? I’m recalling my elementary school around 1963: out of 25 or 30 staff, there were only 4 men: one teacher, the principal, and the two janitors. K-6th grade, I had just one male teacher, and that was for half a day. He split teaching one 5th grade class with his wife, taught boys gym for the entire K-6 school, and popped into the 6th grade classrooms for science.

    There were more men at the higher levels (where the pay was better, I presume).

    Of course, remember that in those days women’s career opportunities were artificially limited. Although a few very talented women broke through the barriers, most educated women believed they had to choose between housewife, teacher, nurse, and secretary. The schools benefited greatly, getting many very able women teachers at ridiculously low pay. We can’t do that now, and it certainly wasn’t fair.

  3. wayne martin says:

    > Has the male/female ratio changed that much?

    I only remember one male in my elementary school, which had 20-25 staff. He was the janitor. Men teachers began to appear in Junior High School (Band, Gym, and Principal, Assistant Principal, etc). High school probably had about 25% men, which is the current national average for female-to-male teacher ratios.