It’s all in the data…
Have you seen the latest Harry Potter movie? Read the books? If you are a fan, you know in six years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the female character Hermoine was responsible for Harry and Ron’s academic survival. She read the textbooks, wrote the papers, memorized the charms, incantations, and studied all the history of magic they ultimately draw upon in their battles with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named…Harry embodies the physical prowess–talented Seeker and Quidditch Captain–as well as determination, courage, and often irrational go-for-it chutzpah behavior befitting his destiny. Ron, Harry’s “best mate,” who was also more interested in everything but Hogwarts rigorous academic expectations, rounds out the threesome.
In her wildly popular series, it seems J.K. Rowling unwittingly–or maybe not–mirrored a gender gap in educational outcomes that has led to numerous studies, a blizzard of articles, books, and blogs, and startling data that likely doesn’t surprise intervention teachers in the trenches–where the boys are.
Read 180 teachers frequently have classes with significantly more boys than girls. This anecdotal observation is borne out by voluminous data identifying alarming gender gaps in literacy as boys and girls move through school, and not just in the USA–Australia began tackling this problem long before we were acknowledging it as a nation. Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail (2010), lays out some numbing statistics in his first chapter:
The growing majorities of women on college campuses may delight freshman guys, but they trigger worries among others nervously watching the trend…with average graduating classes at four-year colleges approaching 60 percent women…The U.S. Department of Labor estimated that 80 percent of the fastest growing jobs of the 21st century will require postsecondary education or training. And yet of every one hundred ninth graders, only sixty-eight will graduate from high school on time, only forty will directly enter college, and only twenty-seven will still be enrolled their sophomore year. Finally, among those one hundred, only eighteen will graduate within six years. And if those figures were sorted by gender, boys would dominate each fallout point. Men need these degrees as much as women, and yet somehow only women are responding logically to the education demands of this new economy. That leaves tens of thousands of otherwise talented boys stalled at the starting gates, unable to win entry-level jobs in the new economy. If anything, the urgency for men to acquire more post-high school training has accelerated. More than 80 percent of those laid off during the global recession that began in 2008 were men. By the spring of 2009, as the recession deepened and the layoffs continued, women became the majority of the workforce.
How could a societal change as significant as boys falling so far behind girls in academic ambitions come about so quietly and quickly? Until that question gets answered, any school interventions drawn up to help boys will be based on little more than guesswork.
Whitmire devotes Chapter 6 of Why Boys Fail to “Solutions: What Works for Boys?” In it, he explores specific schools in the country who have become success stories, changing students’ lives and expectations, producing achievement, pride, and success with reading and reading as a path to better lives. He concludes:
Of all the schools described above, I find the Frankford story most compelling. All the reforms at Frankford were designed to overcome the learning gaps found among the poor and minority students at Frankford–not gender gaps. Brittingham and the other teachers who got caught up in the revolution just wanted their students to have a shot at jobs beyond chucking, plucking, or landscaping. Amidst their improbable success they barely noticed they were producing equal outcomes in boys’ and girls’ performance. That was never the goal…as with KIPP, there’s no boys’ strategy at Frankford, no sex-segregated classes, no special hands-on teaching techniques aimed at boys, no major recruitment drive to hire male teachers. Frankford has only two male teachers. So the question is, absent a boys’ strategy, how did it end up doing right by the boys? And the answer is…when you refuse to let even a single student slide by, you end up helping boys the most because the boys are the big sliders.
Interestingly, Whitmire’s analysis parallels Nancie Atwell’s in her book The Reading Zone (2007) in which she rails at the identification of a “boy” problem in literacy being rooted in popular educational stereotypes leading to solutions that target boys. In her Chapter 8 titled, simply, “Boys” she notes:
As a teacher who writes about teaching, my topic for the past twenty-five years has been kids and how to help them, girls and boys, become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers and writers…In the arena of the language arts, the arguments and evidence for a boy crisis are rich in stereotypes, about boys in general and boy readers in particular, to wit:
• Boys perceive books as isolating, unnatural, and antisocial.
• Boys find it difficult to imagine fictional worlds.
• Boys are unable to engage with writing that describes complex emotions and relationships.
• Boys are drawn to nonfiction because it’s practical, while novels aren’t.
• Boys need comics, magazines, sports pages, gaming guides, and The Guinness Book of World Records, because of their shorter attention spans.
• Boy culture regards reading as a sissy thing.
• Boys are born competitors and kinetic learners, so a passive experience such as reading a book thwarts their nature.
• And even, get this one, boys’ brains have less neuron density in the temporal lobe cortex, which is associated with verbal ability, so genetic differences put males at a disadvantage when it comes to reading.
Atwell goes on:
I read the essays, articles, and books about the boy crisis, and I shake my head. Who are these boys? I cannot recognize a single one of the guys I teach in these stereotypes. And I teach guys…my male students hunt with their fathers and uncles. They play basketball, baseball, and soccer, domesticate rats and ferrets, play disgusting practical jokes, master Magic Cards, drive ATV’s illegally, bait and haul lobster traps, blow things up, play computer games for twelve hours straight, haunt the video arcade at the Portland mall, watch The Simpsons and South Park, live for hip-hop or heavy metal, and collect roadkill and freeze it for use in future “experiments.” And they read books. And they love books…Anyone’s achievement, male or female, is driven by interest. Give boys stories and main characters that grip them, and they will read books with passion. Give them a boring, inaccessible curriculum of assigned readings from textbook anthologies and the novels of the American secondary school canon, and they will dread reading just as much as I did when I was in middle and high school…When boys and girls choose their own books, when teachers make it our business to put the right story into every reader’s hand, and when we create quiet, comfortable spaces in kids’ lives for them to enjoy books on a regular and predictable basis, then every student can enter the reading zone, and no one ever thinks in terms of testosterone or neuron density.
At first blush, it seems Atwell’s views run counter to the statistics bearing witness to a growing and alarming gender gap in reading. But not really–her caveat as to how to make readers out of both boys and girls echo Whitmire’s analysis of the Frankford School. It’s what she terms as stereotypes about boys and books that raise her ire.
So what are the implications of this perceived and proven gender gap in literacy for Read 180 teachers? What do we do with this information?