Sunday, June 11, 2006

Notes on education: Boring the boys to death 

Smart mothers of boys talk about "the boy thing" all the time. The schools do not have a clue how to deal with boys. Increasingly, the failure of schools to educate boys reflects a political decision to ignore manifest differences among children that are highly correlated with gender.

David Brooks has an excellent column on the subject this morning behind the Times Select firewall, the "Gender Gap At School." Brooks' first line sets the stage for a discussion of the sharp diversion in reading habits between boys and girls: "There are three gender-segregated sections in any airport: the restrooms, the security pat-down area and the bookstore." He goes on to detail the differences between male and female reading habits -- the former being much shallower than the latter, on average -- and then searches for an explanation:

There are a couple of reasons why the two lists might diverge so starkly. It could be men are insensitive dolts who don't appreciate subtle human connections and good literature. Or, it could be that the part of the brain where men experience negative emotion, the amygdala, is not well connected to the part of the brain where verbal processing happens, whereas the part of the brain where women experience negative emotion, the cerebral cortex, is well connected. It could be that women are better at processing emotion through words. [Du-uh. - ed.]

Over the past two decades, there has been a steady accumulation of evidence that male and female brains work differently. Women use both sides of their brain more symmetrically than men. Men and women hear and smell differently (women are much more sensitive). Boys and girls process colors differently (young girls enjoy an array of red, green and orange crayons whereas young boys generally stick to black, gray and blue). Men and women experience risk differently (men enjoy it more).

It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture. Women who have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which leads to high male hormone secretions, are more likely to choose violent stories than other women.

This wouldn't be a problem if we all understood these biological factors and if teachers devised different curriculums to instill an equal love of reading in both boys and girls.

The problem is that even after the recent flurry of attention about why boys are falling behind, there is still intense social pressure not to talk about biological differences between boys and girls (ask Larry Summers). There is still resistance, especially in the educational world, to the findings of brain researchers. Despite some innovations here and there, in most classrooms boys and girls are taught the same books in the same way.

Young boys are compelled to sit still in schools that have sacrified recess for test prep. Many are told in a thousand subtle ways they are not really good students. They are sent home with these new-wave young adult problem novels [Gack! - ed.], which all seem to be about introspectively morose young women whose parents are either suicidal drug addicts or fatally ill manic depressives.

It shouldn't be any surprise that according to a National Endowment for the Arts study, the percentage of young men who read has plummeted over the past 14 years. Reading rates are falling three times as fast among young men as among young women. Nor should it be a surprise that men are drifting away from occupations that involve reading and school. Men now make up a smaller share of teachers than at any time in the past 40 years.


Brooks is spot on, and if he had more space and did not want to annoy his colleagues at the Times, he might well have made several additional observations.

Part of the problem is that the chattering classes do not care. Why? Because boys are not, in and of themselves, a legitimate victim class. If reading rates of girls were falling three times as fast as boys, is there any question that it would be the topic of endless hanky-twisting?

That having been said, it may also be that video games, which are disproportionately popular among boys, have displaced reading to some degree. I believe that to be true in my house, sad to say.

In any case, we are strangely schizophrenic in our willingness to get to the heart of Brooks' point, which is that average gender differences matter. Big employer "diversity" programs go to great lengths to make employees aware of differences in cognitive and emotional style, but without stating the obvious point that at least some of these differences are correlated to gender. This is our attempt to recognize that there are big differences between people that can and should be reflected in an organization's management, but to give effect to our value that people should be treated as individuals.

Of course in school there are boys who can read a Jane Austen novel without wanting to jam an icepick through their temple falling asleep on page 3, and there are girls who like Robert Heinlein (if I had to guess, there are more of the latter than the former). We could fairly easily examine the cognitive style of individual children and teach them accordingly. This might well result in classes with significant gender imbalances -- the "boy-thinking" class would have a few girls, and vice versa -- but most schools have multiple sections at each grade and therefore have the capacity to divide the children into classes that teach differently. The problem is that most kids go to monopoly schools that have very little inclination to respond to the requirements of the students, however sensible and scientifically sound they may be. They are run for the convenience and job security of the teachers, many of whom today do not understand this problem, have no interest in understanding this problem, and would not consider it their responsibility to do anything about the "boy thing" even if they did understand it.


By Blogger moose, at Sun Jun 11, 04:28:00 PM:

Hey, video games are educational... they are doing wonders for our troops overseas...  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sun Jun 11, 05:12:00 PM:

Back in the day, there was a reading program at my school called (I think) SRA. There were folders on a variety of different subjects any of which we could read and answer questions about. We students had complete discretion to choose what, and how much, we wanted to read, with little or no direct intervention by the teacher.

I don't know if this program taught me to be a better or more literate reader than I would have become otherwise, but it did provide a wide variety of subjects and stories that interested me. If my own experience counts for anything, I'm guessing that a self-directed (not to mention slightly independent-minded) student is going to be happier--and thus learn more--than one who is constantly directed and told what to read and learn.  

By Blogger Grumpy Old Man, at Sun Jun 11, 08:31:00 PM:

Another piece of it is that schools assign a lot of group projects. I happen to have girls who are academically skillful, and they and up having to carry the weak members of the group. At the same time they still have carefully calibrated grades because the BoBos are all obsessed with getting Ashley and Jason into an Ivy.

I suppose the social skills involved are useful, but some at least are learned on the athletic field or other non-academic setting.

It's also crucial that boys and girls have different physical and mental growth curves. Girls are bigger and more mature in the middle-school years. That's exactly when they teach things like basic math and grammar.

That we should have to be talking about average differences between boys and girls and how they affect education is amazing. (Of course, if we did, the next thing you know we'd be talking average differences between racial groups. Does anyone want to bet on the Japanese marathon runner in the next Olympics? Or that the next Nobelist in mathematics will be of African descent?)  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jun 11, 09:18:00 PM:

To make matters worse, friends of mine who have daughters applying to colleges tell me that the guidance counselors warn that there are "too many" qualified girl applicants! Meaning that these girls had better be prepared to apply to several schools and recognize that boys with lesser academic credentials will be admitted in order to achieve gender balance in the entering class. Bottom line: we are failing to meet the educational needs of the boys through high school, and then we give them a leg up in college admission. As one of my friends noted, we are incentivizing the boys to keep playing video games while his daughter spends her time reading.  

By Blogger Wolfen, at Sun Jun 11, 09:46:00 PM:

I don't know what's going on here. You don't have to go back all that many years to see boys scoring better on both the verbal and math sections of the SAT. What changed? Schools don't seem to me any more female-oriented now than they were then. Male superiority then was explained by girls maturing earlier, going boy-crazy by age 13, and then spending all their time on clothes and make-up; the boys, meanwhile, were collecting bugs, building model rockets, and doing other stuff that paid off in general knowledge and later coursework.

Somebody needs to do some detailed studies of how these kids are spending their time outside of school; the idea that school and what goes on there is the most potent set of explanatory variables is probably wrong. I'd like to see how many hours a week girls spend reading outside of school and schoolwork, compared with boys. And I'd like to see how that comparison has changed over time, and what US data look like compared with other countries.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jun 11, 10:00:00 PM:

It's pretty obvious what happened. Remember that for years girls lagged significantly behind boys by just about all criteria. A perfect example of "emotional welfare". We no longer prize thinking in any truly relevant sense in our educational system. Instead we grade students on their ability to complete busywork and their willingness to "participate" regardless of whether they have anything relevant to say. The most shocking "gender gap" that still exists is in the proportion of engineering majors in any college.

Women are not helped by being condescended to as though they were children.  

By Blogger Wolfen, at Sun Jun 11, 10:19:00 PM:

All kinds of things go into the grades that students are given, but standardized test scores are different. Fact is, girls are now getting superior standardized test scores, which did not used to be the case. That means to me that differences in major choices, like engineering vs. health sciences are preference differences largely unrelated to ability, and destined to narrow and perhpas even disappear. More women are in medicine now than nursing, by far, and women outnumber men in law schools.

The sex-linked characteristics of the human genome have not undergone some mysterious change in the last 30 years. Something has changed about the differences in the typical life experiences of boys and girls. I doubt that school experiences have changed very much. If "Mr. Wizard" was on TV every Saturday morning today, who would watch?  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sun Jun 11, 10:52:00 PM:

I think there is something worthwhile behind most of the comments here, as well as the points made in the OP.

Our best converts on the "boys get screwed at school" front are the ex-feminist mothers of sons. As feminists, they learned to challenge conventional wisdom and speak up. As mothers of sons, they got to see the unfairness up close. Mothers of sons are also the largest pool of ex-feminists.

I have four sons, the third and fourth adopted from Romania, with very erratic educational backgrounds. Girls outnumber boys on the honor roll 2/1, and in high honors 4/1. Does anyone believe that 80% of our brightest children are girls? There were years at my sons' small highschool when they would be the only boys in high honors - for all four grades. For anyone who has a shred of doubt that schools are designed by women for girls, I can list examples endlessly, and back it up with objective evidence.

My two younger ones never read a book except at gunpoint. But they read and write a great deal online. It is seldom sustained reading, and is geared almost entirely to information exchange. My two older boys still read some books, but get most of their content online now as well. It is a different type of reading, but it apparently is just as, if not more effective, than what the girls are doing.

I think the unfairness toward boys may actually be an educational advantage for some of the brighter ones. They learn to take their curiosity elsewhere, they learn that life isn't fair, and they learn there is more than one way to skin a cat. Girls (in general) learn to play by the rules and get frustrated when they reach adulthood and find that school rules were only half of the real rules.

As sirius suggests, autodidacts have some specific advantages later on. Geniuses in most fields, including the humanities, are disproportionately drawn from that group. That schools have long tended to favor stereotypically feminine behavior is also not new: read Tom Sawyer or Little House On The Prarie. (Cf. Science Fair)

anonymous - those boys with "lesser academic credentials" are often brighter and more worth having at your college. The girls are being cheated only in that they are under the misapprehension that what they are doing means they are smarter. (And they wonder where feminist outrage comes from).

As to the chattering classes, they tend to have zero children, or one, and so can remain unchallenged in their prejudices.  

By Blogger Wolfen, at Mon Jun 12, 12:52:00 AM:

Schools have always been friendlier to girls than to boys; that hasn't changed enough to matter. Nothing about schools has changed enough to cause this. Standardized test scores are not much affected by school and classroom variables anyway. The explanation for the achievement gap favoring girls is not going to be found at the level of the school. Something else is going on here, and nobody knows what it is. Keep in mind that significant changes in test scores are not easy to produce, as the entire history of educational innovation and intervention demonstrates. If for some reason you wanted to effect relative achievement changes like the ones we are discussing here, you would have a very, very difficult time doing it.

As for who is smarter, smarter is as smarter does. If girls have consistently higher standardized test scores, they will (absent affirmative action quotas and aside from factors involving patterns of personal choice) enter selective universities at higher rates, enter more selective majors at those universities, and be more likely to graduate and receive superior job offers. Girls will also be more likely to seek graduate and professional training and to be admitted into and receive graduate degrees from higher-ranking graduate programs. As a result women will, on average, end up in higher status and better paying occupations. Claims that boys are "really" just as smart may be metaphysically true, but so what?

This is also not about geniuses and where they pop up or don't. It's about changes somewhere in the culture that are altering average, aggregate educational outcomes for males and females, with everything that implies downstream. This alteration involves a reversal of traditional patterns, it has occurred in a very short period of time, and it shows no signs of slackening. Something potent is going on here, but it is far from obvious what it is. If this were the product of the additive effects of a few big factors, then that would have been obvious before now. If it's the product of complicated interactions among a large number of causal factors, then good luck.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Mon Jun 12, 10:22:00 AM:

In my high school class the top 5 graduates were female. They were also all shorter than 5'3", but I don't think it's because teachers favored shorties.  

By Blogger Charlottesvillain, at Mon Jun 12, 05:34:00 PM:

Its a shame boys are not reading, and that they are only being exposed to books in lame ass schools. Most of this is not new. I think parents need to take some responsibility. My schooling in the 70s was full of progressive blather, and the few assigned books were were crap. Fortunately I was exposed to great books outside of school. You shouldn't have to be assinged Heinlen to read Heinlen, after all. Or Raymond Chandler or Twain, or Frederick Exley. (If Exley isn't "guy lit," I don't know what is).

But its hard to start a book if the TV is always on, or you're holding a joy stick all the time.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Mon Jun 12, 09:08:00 PM:

Please update me on the newer test scores. When I search online I am still seeing higher scores for boys on the SAT's (admittedly some selection bias there), and higher scores on other tests, especially in math.

I am also encountering many sites from the late 90's and early 00's complaining about the persistent gender gap against girls on tests. Several note that the tests were changed in the 90's to make them more gender equitable. I do recall that the SAT's have been changed several times over the decades for exactly this reason, so what we are seeing on the tests may be an artifact of the tests themselves.

I didn't mean to suggest that there is nothing new here. I suspect that there may indeed be a worsening situation for boys that has not yet come to full flower. On the sites I frequent, laddism may be old news, but it doesn't seem to have reached the educational establishment. Grants to encourage one gender over the other in various ways are all slanted toward improving girls' achievement. I found no counterexamples, though I imagine they exisit.

For those still with young children: Read. Aloud. To. Your. Kids. That environmental factor dominates all others in reading success. We got rid of our TV in 1979 and read aloud like crazy people to our boys.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Jun 13, 09:28:00 AM:

It would probably help clarify this connundrum (sp?) immensely if some of these brilliant, theorizing statisticians and academics bothered to just, you know, ask the kids. Being only in my early 20's, my experience might still be relevant...

Most of the brilliant young males in my High School had only moderate grades (though usually in the advanced classes) because by and large school bored the crap out of us. I was far less interested in regurgitating literary 'analyses' and progressive (read: revisionist) history lessons spoonfed to us by our teachers or doing bullshit algebraic busy work than by reading Machiavelli, debating the merits of Communism and Capitalism and various religions, finding new ways to push the limits of the local authorities, getting smashed on copious amounts of beer and liquor, and chasing girls. School was mostly just an inane social excercise that I had to put up with; all I learned in High School was semi-advanced mathematics, (I got as far as Calculus) rudimentary French and physics, the rules of mixed gender social conduct, and that I couldn't trust authority figures to know what the hell they're talking about.

Everything else was way under my (and most of my peers') level, or flat wrong... like the history teacher who taught that Patrick Henry gave his 'Liberty or Death' speech from the side of a road to passing Redcoats, or that atomic weapons were developed by 1917 in time for WWI but just weren't used, or that the Normandy Invasion was called 'Operation Overload' (rather than Overlord). Or the English teacher who taught that 'Lord of the Flies' was not a tale about law vs. chaos or basic human nature, but rather a deeply symbolic Christian parable; despite the inclusion in our copies of the book a letter *by the author* specifically saying that his book was about law and chaos, period. When I brought this up in class, I was literally told to shutup, I was a sophomore in High School and had no business trying to challenge 'the authorities.'

Free thinking and dialogue (with the exception of a few, treasured classes) were discouraged or squelched. The curriculum was padded with worthless simple exercises so that any idiot, whether they paid attention or not, could do enough of them to furnish a passing grade. Most of the 'literature' we were forced to read was garbage (Silas Marner anyone? The Hatchet?) and the worthwhile stuff (Lord of the Flies, occasional Shakespearian works that escaped the censors' axe) were, as I mentioned, spoonfed to us so that we got the 'right' message. It's no wonder that so many kids (including me and mine) just said 'Fuck it, I don't care,' and smoked, drank, and otherwise caroused the time away just doing what we needed to do to get by. I'm not sure that I did a single homework assignment; I cruised by on high test scores. And I graduated with a 3.9.

High School was, for me, a collossal waste of four years of my life. Yet parents were flocking to that school district because my high school was, get this, the best school in the region. With all of the tedious BS, lack of tolerance for free thought, drug abuse, teachers fucking students, (twice, same teacher, never fired) giving athletes/cheerleaders preferential treatment, and outright falsehoods taught as fact, it was the best in the region.

For those parents out there who think that my example is isolated, there aren't such issues with your kid's school; you might be right. You probably aren't. To this day, my parents know little or nothing of what actually went on during my high school years. None of my friends' parents knew either. That's pretty typical.

This is the state of the public educational system. More broken than anyone in any position of authority really knows.

For the corollary point concerning, as I think George Carlin put it, 'the Pussification of the American Male,' please visit http://emosong.ytmnd.com/. Thankfully, I missed this little trend...

One final note before I go to bed. Standardized Testing = stupid way to keep track of educational standards. My state had a uniform standardized test that every student at every school in certain grades had to take. It was a joke; only the mental basket cases failed it. And from 3rd grade to 11th, it never really seemed to get any harder...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jun 15, 06:39:00 AM:

You don't have to go back all that many years to see boys scoring better on both the verbal and math sections of the SAT.


Fact is, girls are now getting superior standardized test scores, which did not used to be the case.

Unless scores took a dramatic reversal in the last year, these assertions are completely incorrect.

Boys outscore girls on both sections of the SAT, all but a couple AP tests, and two of the four sections of the ACT. (Cites here.

There's no gender gap in performance. There's a gender gap in college attendance, but that's because a substantial number of girls are going to college without the skills to succeed.

I responded to the Brooks bit here: Tolstoy and Homer and Hemingway...oh my!.  

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