More and more women are on college campuses, with devastating implications for the life chances of American men. Perhaps the root of the problem lies in our flawed approach to teaching reading early.
articles in the the Wall Street newspaper, the New York Times and other publications recently reported that the gender gap has reached record levels, with a roughly 60-40 distribution in enrollment and even wider at graduation. It may not be a coincidence that the number of working-age men who are neither employed nor looking for work has increased dramatically. “Is the American man disappearing from universities and the workplace?” One commentator wondered.
There is no shortage of men at the top levels of elite professions, of course; men most likely to skip college come from low-income families. This can produce what Thomas Edsall has described as a vicious generational cycle: men with little education are less likely to marry but may very well have children, resulting in more boys growing up without a male parent at home, resulting in in turn leads to a low level of education. results.
The superior academic performance of women is nothing new. In the 1990s, it was generally believed that girls were discriminated against in school, but in 1997 55% of full-time students were women and 45% were men. However, things got worse.
Edsall worries about the “legions of left behind” – presumably white – who express their anger by joining an “attack on democracy”. Others focus on the poor academic performance of black and Hispanic men. Efforts have been made to recruit more black and Hispanic teachers, based on the theory that the problem is a lack of role models, and to create boys-only public schools for students of color.
One such institution is the Statesman Academy for Boys, a charter school in Washington, DC, which provides a learning environment that “honors the way boys experience the world,” according to the school’s website. . This includes things such as “making space and movement part of learning” and involving students through “competition, collaboration and games”. The school claims that it “completely reinvents … the student experience to Black and brown men, using the latest research and best practices. (Emphasis in original.)
The evidence for the benefits of single-sex education is inconclusive, and the constitutionality of single-sex public schools is questionable, especially if they claim that they are designed for students of specific races. But the number of these schools is increasing and few legal challenges have been initiated. The prevailing attitude seems to be this: maybe it violates the equal protection clause, but if it can work, who cares?
Some commentators won’t go so far as to advocate for male-only schools, but have pointed out that standard teaching practices in elementary grades are the root cause of the gender imbalance in college. Education writer Richard Whitmire argues that education reforms have raised expectations of early reading and writing and that girls, with their brains maturing faster, are better able to cope. adapt. Michael Petrilli, who heads the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, argues that a fundamental problem is low teacher expectations, citing research showing that teachers tend to underestimate boys’ reading skills.
I agree that much of the problem lies in early literacy and that, as Whitmire and Petrilli point out, many children never get the systematic teaching of phonics that would enable them to decipher words fluently, in large numbers. partly because of gaps in teacher training. Boys are more likely to become disruptive when they have difficulty reading, entering a cycle that often leads to disengagement from school. But the problem goes beyond poor phonetic instruction and inadequate expectations, whether low, as Petrilli would have them, or unrealistic, as Whitmire argues.
The typical primary school day appears to have been designed to encourage boys to commit disciplinary offenses. For most of the teaching time, the teacher works directly with a series of small groups while the rest of the class is expected to be engaged in independent work. This means that very young children are expected to regulate their own behavior and direct their own learning. And a lot of what is expected of them is quite boring, especially during the “reading block,” which can take two or three hours a day.
This is not necessarily because they are trained in phonetics, as some might assume; children can become very involved in songs and games related to phonetics. Much of the reading block is devoted to comprehension practice which emphasizes “skills” like “finding the main idea”, with students independently reading simple books on random topics. Or children may be given worksheets or computer programs that ask them to do things like compare fruits and vegetables, on the baseless theory that mastering the “skill” of compare and contrast will allow them to read. complex texts.
Girls may find these activities tedious, but, perhaps because of their brains maturing faster, they seem to be better able than boys to control their behavior and boredom. In a school of great poverty, I attended a first year class for several months. Unfortunately for the professor, there were 14 boys and six girls, and most of the time it was a scene of barely controlled chaos. One day a little girl, encouraged by the teacher, pleaded for calm, explaining that she couldn’t think with all the noise. The professor did nothing more, and the noise continued. But when the teacher disciplines a student, it is almost always a boy.
A few months later, I started taking another first grade class at another very poor school – a girls’ charter. The atmosphere was much calmer. But because the instruction focused on the same illusory comprehension skills, the girls still didn’t learn much.
At the same time, I was taking a second grade class at another school for very poor people, this one using an atypical literacy program focused on rich content, including history and science subjects, rather than decontextualized comprehension skills. The students spent time reading on their own, but much of the reading block was devoted to informative stories that the teacher read aloud to all the students, which the class discussed. Discussions were often at a level far beyond what most people would expect from second graders, and although there were a lot of boys in the classroom, I observed few disciplinary incidents.
One of the best candidates for the discipline was a boy I’ll call Amir, who was black (all students were either black or Hispanic). Amir was bright and charming, but he needed attention: he walked around the classroom, made noise, spoke in turn. Her teacher had developed ways to deal with her seizures, but what really worked was to get her interested in the content that was being taught.
One day, for example, the reading aloud was about the human excretory system – an unpromising topic for Amir, who has already started exuberantly shouting the word “shit” just because a story mentioned plumbing. But after the story explained that urine was actually cleaner than saliva, it was Amir – to the teacher’s surprise – who thoughtfully asked if that meant people could drink their own urine.
Of course, this evidence is anecdotal. But a recent study found that a kindergarten curriculum focused on science content dramatically increased motivation to read for boys and girls – and its the positive impact on reading comprehension was greater for boys. We need more research on the effects of content-rich elementary curricula, especially with regard to boys and literacy.
There is no doubt that there are multiple reasons for the gender imbalance on college campuses, and switching to a content-rich elementary program won’t solve them all. But that could prevent untold numbers of boys from concluding that school just isn’t for them at a time when their college careers have only just begun.