As the mother of 3 boys aged 9, 12 and 18 I can see direct comparisons with state education here in the UK and the increasing underachievement of our young males. It’s my belief, and has been for many years, that young boys are floundering in our political correct schooling system which favours non-competitive sports and teaching methods and exams which inadvertently discriminate against males. — Jane Turley, “Reading Underground: The Question of Male Reading Habits and the Rise of Illiteracy“
As I’ve toiled over the opening graphs of this essay about boys and literacy, I found myself sifting through the work on various women writers in order to find a starting place that may mitigate gendered attacks. There’s more than a subtle irony in this fact: I’m a writer, a man, and a trained reading instructor, yet I’ve held off writing about the subject of boys, literacy, and teaching because I fear the gendered backlash.
We live in a good, but complex, time in debate. So I write this aware of two facts:
- Whenever a white dude writes that he’s afraid of “gendered attacks,” the assumption is that nothing good is coming; and
- It’s possible that backlash will be well-founded.
Still, I’ve found that it’s important to acknowledge all of these forces before writing about a topic that is likely to cause a stir. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to find women writers such as Jane Turley and Allison McDonald who have argued — in various ways — the points I seek to make here.
The fact that so many women are writing about the topic is heartening, but the issue still feels like one that should be taken up by more men.
Let’s begin this way: If I told you that 87 percent of executives in a chosen field are of one gender and that correlated with decreased achievement in said field, we would likely determine that there was a problem and work towards fixing it.
Society has proven quite adept at dealing with some of the obvious inequalities in the workplace, particularly those of gender and race. There are countless programs set up across the country meant to improve access into the business world for traditionally underrepresented populations. These are good and wonderful things, if for no other reason than the Wisdom of Crowds tells us that we make better decisions when we have a diversity of opinions.
To be great means to be diverse.
One area in which we’ve proven to be less than adept is dealing with the achievement of boys in our elementary and secondary schools.
To connect this to our initial word problem, in the most recent data we have found that 87 percent of U.S. teachers are women. For some, this is problematic for reasons of pay and respect, and I leave that to scholars more qualified on that subject. For my purposes, this number is important because of the correlated achievement levels of boys in school.
While we have attacked the Girls and Math & Science problem, we’ve done almost nothing about the Boys and Reading problem. (As a fun exercise, search for programs dedicated to improving the equality of girls in the maths and sciences, and then do the same for boys and literacy and the humanities.)
It’s almost as bad once those students leave school. Nearly 85 percent of people entering the book publishing industry today are women. One presumes that those fresh-faced employees bring with them the same stereotype threat to the industry that undermines boys in schools.
As I have tried to sort out my own thoughts on the Boys and Reading problem, I’ve had this amalgam of ideas smashing around in my head:
- We’ve removed competition from education
- As a man, I’m reluctant to talk about why boys are failing
- Boys are failing
- In business, gender and racial inequities (at the very least) create subtle barriers to diversity
- Diversity is always better
- Schools and book publishers increasingly lack gender diversity
But none of those really answer the real question I have: Why can’t boys read?
The Stereotype Threat
It’s too easy to fall into the “anecdotal argument” issue when talking about controversial topics. I might talk about my own experiences in schools, but this wouldn’t get us any closer to answering the systemic issues that have prevented boys from reading.
Likewise, I don’t believe in inherent inequities and inabilities. I don’t believe that women teachers are inherently unable to teach boys how to read, nor do I think that women in publishing inherently filter out boys as they pick and choose books.
I find neither of those types of argument compelling when trying to answer a systemic question, which also means my list of six elements in the previous section are mostly useless when it comes to answering the question of why can’t boys read.
Instead, I looked to science for experimental data that might better explain what is happening.
For that, I turned to Bonny L. Hartley and Robbie M. Sutton’s (2013) “A Stereotype Threat Account of Boys’ Academic Underachievement” in the journal Child Development. The researchers wanted to understand how expectations and stereotypes impacted the achievement gap between boys and girls in school.
The study provided “the first evidence that direct messages about boys’ academic inferiority can become self-fulfilling through the stereotype threat phenomenon.” The researchers also found that when girls became aware of that stereotype, their scores didn’t go up, but knowledge of the threat didn’t cause the boys scores to go up either.
In other words: knowledge of the negative expectation had no impact. Girls still did better, and boys still did worse.
The research also concluded that boys’ performances were enhanced when different measures are used for testing. Standardized tests, for instance, have shown to play into boys’ stereotype threat, in which anxiety based upon stereotypes decreases one’s ability to perform. This is not that dissimilar than the findings that explained why African-American students traditionally scored lower on standardized tests or why calling out gender differences impacted the girls’ test-taking abilities.
On the surface, this backs the notions that the unspoken biases that teachers have towards boys’ achievement and the ways in which elementary and secondary schools have developed have made it impossible for boys to achieve.
As with much of science, though, the results are not that simple. Hartley and Sutton said their findings showed that teachers, regardless of gender, can make changes in their classrooms that impact results once they acknowledge their biases. (To put it another way: saying “I don’t have any biases towards my students” is the surest way to continue the problem.)
That’s heartening as it gives us a path towards adjusting both our educational testing mechanisms and our attitudes about boys and academic achievement.
And Yet, Still…
Even if schools immediately began training teachers on gender bias towards boys, we know it would take decades to see functional changes. The rise of standardized testing and the de-emphasis on competitive learning won’t be addressed overnight.
Plus, schools need to find a way to incorporate multiple models of teaching and assessment into classrooms to accommodate both girls and boys. We can’t solve the Boys and Reading problem by abandoning the gains with the Girls and Math & Science problem.
Thankfully this conversations has already been started. Gwen Ifill’s “Harnessing boys’ strengths and passions to improve academic achievement” and Christina Hoff Sommer’s “How to make school better for boys” are steps in the right direction.
However, the limitation of the stereotype threat is that it absolves parents, and in this case fathers, of their role in addressing the Boys and Reading problem.
The Dad Solution
Many years ago when I was training to teach reading and English in secondary education, my professor Dr. Alan Frager said that the surest way to determine a child’s ability to read was to track how much their parents read to them. Children learn to read, he said, by sitting on the lap of a parent and observing.
His point was two-fold.
We can all agree that the first exposure to education that most children have is with their parents. There is nothing any school can do in those early years, and thus parents have the most powerful impact on developing those early skills.
However, there are more subtle forces happening as well. Children understand where adults place their time and energy. They are adept at understanding. If you don’t take the time to read to your child, they internalize the idea that reading isn’t important. If you don’t take the time to explore words and ideas, it becomes exponentially difficult later to convince a child that those things matter.
I wanted to end this essay with an idea expressed by Harry de Quetterville in “Dads who don’t read to their kids are idiots.” He points to a survey that found that only 19 percent of fathers aged 16-24 enjoy reading to their children. That number rises substantially to 78 percent for fathers more than 55 years old.
While this isn’t a scientific study and thus can’t be taken as fact, it brings up an important point. It’s easy to decry that our schools have not taught our young boys the importance and the love of literature, but fathers have failed at their job long before their children step foot in a classroom.
Certainly Hartley and Sutton said that teacher gender isn’t a factor in deconstructing the stereotype threat in classrooms, but that doesn’t relieve men of their role in solving this problem. In fact, we should understand better than anyone how expectations of learning impact young boys. More importantly, as fathers and mentors, we have the ability to subvert many of those biases by simply reading with our kids and the young people we mentor.
The schools will come around eventually, but as fathers and men we can begin solving the Boys and Reading problem today.