27 January 2006

the trouble with boys

Newsweek's cover story this week is called "The Trouble with Boys." The cover calls it "The Boy Crisis." Naturally, as a mother of two boys, I'm wondering what's causing this panic. The problem? Boys as a group are falling behing girls, academically, in all levels of education. Why? Author Peg Tyre blames biological, developmental and physiological differences, along with curricula and standards that apparently favor girls, including sitting still and behaving, among other things.

This reminds me of remarks made by the president of Harvard last year on the innate differences between the sexes. Some people, naturally, are blaming feminism for the problems of boys. A 17-year-old boy has even filed a complaint against his high school, alleging that the school system favors girls and discriminates against boys. An interesting quote from this high school senior: "The system is designed to the disadvantage of males," Anglin said. ''From the elementary level, they establish a philosophy that if you sit down, follow orders, and listen to what they say, you'll do well and get good grades. Men naturally rebel against this."

Here's what I'm confused about: when our modern educational system was created, more than a century ago, there was, as far as I know, a strict expectation of obedience and good behavior. Generations of American men were educated in this system and have gone on to make America the most powerful nation in the world. But now, all of sudden, when girls start outperforming boys, it's a crisis! There must be something wrong with the system!

I like how no one is even entertaining the possibility that girls might be smarter than boys. I'm not saying this is necessarily true, but for most people it's not even an option. I find it interesting, though, that girls, who were grudgingly admitted into a system created by men, for men, and who in the last few decades were given a more even playing field with Title IX, are now surpassing boys in performance, and that this automatically means there is something wrong with the system. Girls are turning out to be better suited to the academic system men created, so we must change the system. Girls are not smarter; the system that served men for so long is suddenly biased.

And I wonder how much of it is "hard-wired," as the article says, and how much is culturally and societally influenced. The "boys will be boys" mentality is still very widespread: boys are naturally more energetic, rambunctious, and agressive than girls and these inborn qualities should be indulged; girls, meanwhile, should be encouraged to play quietly. When I was in school, well, I was the kind of kid who chose to read and play quietly, but I understood that in a school environment, these were the universal expectations of every child. There was a time and place to shout, to act up, to let off some steam. The classroom during school hours was not that place. If you didn't comply, you got sent to the office. You were disciplined, or suspended, or expelled. Now, if you don't comply with expectations, you can play the victim, file a complaint against your school and ask that they retroactively raise your grades.

You know, it reminds me of many of the kids I know, my preschooler included: losing the game? Change the rules. Blame someone else for your failures and shortcomings. What I'm trying to teach James already, when he makes excuses, is to take responsibility for himself. It's interesting to note that in my high school class, 11 of the top twenty students were girls, and two of those girls were teenage mothers. Two teenage girls with babies at home outperformed a majority of the boys in their class. This wasn't because of some bias in favor of girls -- this was because they took responsibility for themselves and succeeded, just like every other kid who earned a spot in that top twenty.

I would think that after so many years of boys succeeding in a structured environment where they are required to sit still and pay attention, it would be evident that they can meet difficult expectations whether it's in their nature to or not. It's evident to me after only four years: I have a rambunctious little boy; I know how hard it is to rein in an active child. But even James, at age four, is beginning to understand that there are things expected of him that he may not like and may not want to do, but that he will do.

If it's true that this is becoming a trend in America, girls outperforming boys in academics, then I wonder if in twenty or thirty years, we'll see a corresponding shift in the gender make-up of the professions. Will a 60/40 ratio of women to men in college in 2006 turn into, say, a 60/40 ratio of women to men in medicine, in law, in government, in science, in 2036? If women become the dominant professional leaders in society, will women as a group finally be paid equally to men for the same job? Call me pessimistic, but I think not. Although, my views on this have more to do with our cultural discrimination against mothers -- all parents, really, but particularly mothers -- but that's a post for another day.

All in all, I think the panic over boys' academic performance is overblown. I think there probably is something wrong with the educational system, but that the problem has less to do with gender than with schools' tendencies to lump kids together without allowing enough flexibility for kids who don't fit the mold. Newsweek does mention some things that could help kids who are falling behind -- both mentoring programs and single-sex classrooms have shown to improve kids' performances. But you know, when my boys get to public school, no matter how the system has changed by then, they will understand that good behavior and attentive work habits are expected of them; we will help them, but for most people learning is work, and if you want to succeed you will work for it.

(Dawn, and any other teachers I know who might happen to be reading this, I'd be interested in your opinion on this topic from the point of view of an educator. Thoughts?)


kim said...

Good post! I think you are dead on about taking responsibility - it's amazing how much power conservatives give to feminists.

The "boys will be boys" excuse for poor behavior has always bothered me. I've known many energetic girls and plenty of less energetic and/or well-behaved boys who have helped me realize that so much of "boys will be boys" boils down to some parents trying to excuse their own lack of discipline. (I am curious to see how Evan and Molly will shatter that myth as they get older - I think it's pretty clear even at this point that Molly has much higher energy and rambunctiousness than Evan. I'm guessing they will both be pretty well-behaved.)

There are some good comments out there about how race and class play a huge role in this gap but are being ignored - read this and this. Additionally, one blog I read reported that this education gap still hasn't translated into wage parity for men and women - on the whole, men with less education still earn more money than women who have more education.

Anonymous said...

You have lifted my guilt on finding that article almost entirely off target.
I am quite angry that such a usually forward-thinking and left-leaning publication printed that article.

I was a very entergetic child. I played with worms, danced in the rain, set up doubledare courses daily in my home and usually couldn't be kept in doors. In fact, I was even considered annoying by some because I just couldn't shut up or sit still. Believe it or not I wasn't and am still not a boy.
However, I knew when the time to sit down and be quiet was. That place was school and I was a model child.

Since when are manners feminine? Since when is behaving in school a female thing to do? The day we start telling boys they can act like little punks (and let them combine it with the social pressure that is already telling them this) is the day we can kiss womanhood goodbye and welcome back ladyhood.

I look forward to the day when gender means only gender. When being a woman means only that I am physically different from the other sex. (That physical difference is what makes us into mothers and fathers, but more importantly parents.)
We will know we have won when a person equals power and opportunity, not a gender.

On a side note, thank God you are raising beautiful children.

Samay said...

Yeah, I don't think the whole "boys will be boys" thing really took off until after the '50s, anyways. If you look back at the way our grandparents behaved, there wasn't any lenience given to boys to act like assholes, or to disdain learning and culture.
It's really weird, this whole trend of being a "I don't care" fuckup.
I know I do it plenty, but still, it shouldn't be encouraged.

l'aube said...

Professional educator reporting... haha, just kidding. My opinion weights the same as everyone elses. Actually, I just think it's a lot of hype that masks a different problem - Traditional education models aren't working for kids today in general (not just boys), not with the way our society has changed. I'd love everyone to behave - sit still, keep quiet, pay attention to my lectures, and learn - but it just doesn't work that way. We need to change the way we teach / the models of our schools (and we're getting there, although more slowly in this country than our northern neighbors, mostly because all children in the united states are supposed to take standardized tests and be perfect by 2014, but there's a whole other issue) to be more student-centered / focused on discovery learning. There are a lot of wonderful new ways of teaching that differ from the lecture-worksheet-debrief form of teaching I grew up with.

This may seem like it deviates from the boys vs. girls debate, but really, society has changed to this (like it or not) immidiate gratification / visual imagery culture and the old ways aren't working, especially for kids who are caught up in that, which many boys often are. (My kids could tell you every PS2 game ever made but they still read luge as lug in our Weekly Reader about the Olympics. :))

The ways we teach have a lot of ties to stereotypical female-centered modes of learning (or so the professional literature says) and that's always been the case (look at the sex of 95% of teachers). The reason for this sudden "acheivement gap" is simply because we have only recently begun standardized testing to this extent / judging everything about ability by these tests. Results to these tests can be fairly bogus anyway, but yes, boys are performing more poorly. Why? Well, the way of testing is incredibly traditional, and I've just explored the problems with that.

I'm not sure if any of this makes sense because it's past my bedtime and I'm just babbling, but anyway, just another perspective. In sum: boo Bush & standardized testing.