Equity & Diversity Commentary

Common Ground on Gender

By Lise Eliot & Richard Whitmire — March 26, 2010 4 min read

The recent news that wives are becoming primary breadwinners in many marriages signals a remarkable shift in women’s workplace achievement.

But the downside is what’s going on with men, who have fallen substantially behind women in educational attainment. Men now constitute just 43 percent of full-time college students and an even smaller share of part-time students.

As colleges struggle to maintain an equal balance of men and women—which both sexes understandably prefer—they are stuck with rejecting more-qualified women. Recently, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced it was investigating whether that admissions bias amounted to discrimination against female applicants. But what truly needs investigating is why colleges have to dip so deep into their applicant pools to find good male candidates.

The real problem begins in K-12 education, when not enough boys are developing the skills they need to succeed in higher education. As detailed in a report released this month by the Center on Education Policy, boys underperform girls in reading at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, often by a substantial margin, while girls have completely closed the math gap. (“Boys Trail Girls in Reading Across States,” Page 10.) Rather than relying on affirmative action for males at the college level, parents and schools need to pay greater attention to ensuring boys’ academic success early on.

We’re two authors converging on this issue from very different perspectives—a neuroscientist disputing the notion that boys’ and girls’ brains are fundamentally different, and a shoe-leather journalist profiling schools that succeed with boys as well as girls. In spite of our different approaches, our research has brought us both to two important conclusions.

First: Boys are no less “hard-wired” to perform in school than girls, as many have come to believe based on faulty extrapolation of brain studies. But we must do more, from preschool to high school, to make school a positive, engaging experience for them.

Second: The feminist movement is not to blame for the so-called “boy crisis” in education, as some conservatives have claimed. Education is not a zero-sum game, and boys have not suffered as girls have excelled academically. Both sexes are graduating from high school at higher rates than ever before. It’s just that boys have not improved as rapidly as girls. So it’s time to stop the bickering on both sides and move toward solutions that will get even more boys on track for successful college careers.

Roughly 15 years ago, schools launched highly successful interventions to boost girls’ performance in math and science. Girls now take virtually the same number of advanced classes and score as well as boys on standardized tests in these subjects. There is still farther to go to keep women in the pipeline for quantitative and technical careers, but all of this progress proves that gender gaps are malleable and that we can help one sex without harming the other.

Now it is time to do the same for boys. Though they have long underperformed girls in reading and writing, there is ample evidence these gaps can be closed just as the math and science gaps have been. Schools such as the Knowledge Is Power Program academies and others have done exactly this, through strong literacy programs that emphasize phonics, a broad array of literature (including nonfiction, action, humor, and even comics and graphic novels), and generous exposure to male role models as both readers and writers.

The fact is that boys and girls are more similar than different in their learning styles, academic aptitude, and emotional needs."

Beyond improving verbal skills, schools can take other steps to make boys feel more engaged and motivated. First, we have to back off on some of the hyper-academic expectations of early elementary school. Young children learn through play, and must have the opportunity for make-believe, artistic creation, and lots of physical exercise through frequent breaks outside the classroom. (Anyone remember recess and daily gym class?) While early literacy is crucial, it must be taught in a developmentally appropriate, meaningful way, without the drill-and-kill approach that has descended of late to kindergarten and even preschool.

Boys also need strong relationships with teachers who respect their interests, energy level, and need for structure and positive discipline. As academic expectations have intensified, some teachers may be less tolerant of boys’ more boisterous ways. Such anti-boy attitudes must be rooted out, just as any kind of sexism is no longer acceptable.

Some argue that the best way to make classrooms more boy-friendly is to take the girls out of them. But the recent surge in single-sex classes and schools is not backed by authoritative research, and coeducation has many benefits in a diverse, democratic society. The fact is that boys and girls are more similar than different in their learning styles, academic aptitude, and emotional needs. While the extremes in a classroom’s mix of boys and girls may look as different as night and day, the actual range of temperament and ability within each sex is far greater than the average difference between them.

If boy-girl differences teach us anything, it is that every child is a unique individual who deserves an equal chance to learn. Fortunately, there are many enlightened educators who appreciate this and are beginning to tailor classrooms to better meet the full range of children’s needs. Girls will not suffer (and many will actually benefit) by making classrooms more boy-friendly.

For better or worse, college is the new high school: a basic requirement for even many blue-collar jobs. We can’t go on letting so many boys slip through the cracks. Everyone—male and female—stands to gain by making schools work better for both boys and girls.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Common Ground on Gender


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