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Boys Gender and Schooling

September, 2007
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Leave a Boy In School, but You Won’t Make Him ThinkThe Australian 17.7.01

Is it a war on boys? In all Western cultures boys are not achieving as well as the girls in many areas of education, and evidence would suggest that this gap is widening. One must give credence to the counter-argument that “girls have simply improved their performance” (S.Mead. 2006). Mead argues that girls have not just narrowed the academic gaps, but in some cases, closed some academic gaps. Mead believes that we should not see the statistics as bad news, but rather good news for girls. She sees the situation as evidence that society is moving toward a sense of equality for women. Mead further argues that “the idea that women might actually surpass men in some areas seems hard for many people to swallow. Thus boys are routinely characterized as `falling behind’ even as they improve in absolute terms.”

  I think we need to give Mead’s argument certain credence. She is right in acknowledging girls’ academic improvement, and the “swinging pendulum theory” would support her assertion. But she does not seem to take into account the glaringly obvious statistics that point to boys decline in literacy levels. Both the Australian Department of Education and U.S Department of Education statistics show “a shift” in boy’s literacy skills. There has been a decline in boys’ academic performance, not only a bridging of the gap, as Mead suggests. This postulates the idea that boys are disengaging in education, and the statistics show strong evidence that this is happening between the ages of 10 – 15. There is a plethora of statistics that support this notion, but at the risk of turning this into a presentation of stats, suffice to quote two sources. Between 1975 and1995, the proportion of 14-year-old male students who demonstrated mastery in literacy, declined from 70% to 65%, while the corresponding proportion of female students changed little from 73% to 74%.” (Australian Dept. Of Education, Science and Training 2006 Report). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) conducted by the U.S Department of Education, using a large representative national sample of American students, tracked students performance in reading, math and other academic subjects in 2005. It looked at fourth and eight graders, and in short, findings demonstrated that boys did perform worse than previous testing in 2002 in almost all subject areas, (math remained consistent), but particularly literacy.

  Although I think Mead articulates sound concerns about the new growth industry of experts and educational advisors who are on the band-wagon “touching on America’s deepest insecurities, ambivalences, and fears about changing gender roles and the battle of the sexes,” I think she is at risk of being dismissive of a glaring body of evidence that supports the idea that boys are falling behind academically. I would also argue that the spin-off from this academic “fall-out” is conversely impacting on boys’ social behaviour. I think that Mead’s fear of a free market of theories, a growing ‘boys-industry’ which is attracting pop psychologists, boy sermonizers, ‘vicars of vapour’ and researchers who offer contradictory pedagogical practices has an element of truth to it. I found this part of her discussion refreshing, and I wondered when someone would dare to attack this new bastion of ‘boys’ practioners’. Yet, as stated, I do not think she can ignore the evidence, whatever we think of this rise in new age boys’ practioners, there is a problem and it cuts a swath through the social and academic performance of boys’ lives. A random illustration of this could read as follows:

  •   Boys five times more likely to commit suicide than girls Fact
  •   More hospital presentations related to injuries/accidents are boys Fact
  •   Boys nine times more likely to go to hospital with inflicted injuries Fact
  •   Boys biggest category of head injuries Fact
  •   Disproportionate number of boys being identified with learning disorders Fact
  •   Disproportionate number of boys with emotional disabilities (Autism/ADD) Fact
  •   Disproportionate number of boys being suspended/dropping out of school Fact
  •   Declining academic performance (particularly literacy) Fact

  This list serves as an exemplar of some of the research evidence that shows boys decline in performance at school and beyond. It by no means claims to be definitive, nor comprehensive, but offers a brief snapshot into some of the problems that are facing boys. The research supports a range of biological and social causes, including differences in male and female cognitive abilities, as reasons for differences (which I touched on last issue). There is no doubt some evidence which needs to be handled with a great deal of caution and skepticism, as the supporting information provided can at times be rudimentary and sketchy. My message to parents is, not to despair, boys are responding well to parent- teacher cooperation and collaboration. My personal experience supports my previously stated maxim:

  • Show them you like them
  • Listen to them and encourage them to articulate their thoughts
  • Remind them regularly that they are fundamentally good people

On a lighter note, here is a list of “real bloke” maxims:

  • A real bloke not only eats red meat, he often kills it himself
  • A real bloke does not need a contract – a handshakes is good enough
  • A real bloke knows how to sharpen his own knives and kitchen utensils
  • A real bloke should have at least one good scar he can brag about getting, this does not include elective surgery
  • A real bloke will have hobbies and habits that his wife and mother do not understand, but that are essential to his manliness
  • A real bloke knows how to tie a Windsor knot when wearing a tie
  • A real bloke DEALS with IT, be it a flat tyre, break-in into your home, or a natural disaster, you DEAL WITH IT!

By Laraine Reason, Beijing BISS International School

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