Monday, January 23, 2006

The Boys Project and the Messiah

I have now been pounding away on the problems of boys in education (especially higher education) since 1995 and I have nothing to show for it. Clearly talking about the scarcity of boys in college accomplishes little more than making people aware that it exists.

For several years reporters (usually women, who like to write about this issue) have been challenging me: Okay, so what do we do about the problem? What do you recommend be done? I just don't know. As one who studies demography I can see that there is a serious problem. I only know that affirmative action for boys in college admissions could diminish opportunities for better prepared and motivated women. I oppose affirmative action for males because it addresses symptoms and not causes--although I am not sure what the causes are.

So, after a fruitless decade where males continue to fall ever farther behind females, a messiah steps forward and agrees to lead a national effort to do something based on real science. And sure enough, as I had long suspected, it is a woman: Prof. Judith Kleinfeld of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Dr. Kleinfeld has written on the subject of males in education in the past. She is now organizing a national boys project and is gathering the kind of scientific talent that we might expect to provide answers to the question: Okay, so what should we do about the problem?

This boys project will begin at the beginning: How are little boys different from little girls, and what does this mean for the educational experience we design for each? At last I can see a way to make progress on this terribly important issue.


At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read that boys are, on average, 18 months behind girls in some aspects of development. In the old days, i.e., some 35 years ago, kids were not expected to enter first grade reading. Lessons began at a later age.

Nowadays, we expect a "good" kindergarten program to begin working on reading and writing. This is easier for girls than boys (on average) at that (very young) age. More girls are fluid readers at younger ages than boys. By the time they reach 5th grade, most of the children can read, BUT the girls still have the advantage, because the average girl has been reading for a longer period of time than the average boy. It is as if you filled the class with 8 year old girls and 10 year old girls, and expected the younger students to catch up to the older students, without any extra tutoring.

I believe that reading is a skill which one must practice, and that that extra year and a half of reading gives the girls an advantage which cannot be overcome. On average, boys are not developmentally ready for reading instruction in kindergarten.

What if a school system were to counsel parents to hold their boys back, to begin kindergarten at a later age, so that the boys were a year to 18 months older than the girls? I am not speaking from any personal experience, as my son began reading before kindergarten. It strikes me, though, that if so many boys are being held back, perhaps it's because they were pushed to read before they were ready to read, and must labor on with the perception that they are "not good at reading."

If boys must begin school with girls of the same age, then move back the time at which the school introduces reading. An early push for literacy does not seem to have raised achievement to any great degree.

At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Scienceguy2 said...

Actually Tom Mortenson has had a great effect, as have Michael Gurian and a few others. Tom has been an indefatigable publicizer of the enrollment problem. He can take much credit for initiating for spate of articles in the mainstream press, beginning with Business Week's 2003 story. The press is now calling attention to the problems of boys' education generally. The recent Knight Ridder series and the recent Newsweek story are important examples. They describe both K-12 and college level problems. I think Gurian's book on the difference between boys' and girls' learning styles has had some influence on K-12 teachers and the effects are starting to show up in college enrollments. Whatever one thinks of single sex classrooms (and the evidence for benefits is clearly mixed) their growing popularity is an admission that boys and girls do need to learn the basics in somewhat different ways.

As a scientist, I am pleased that the Larry Summers flap has had the beneficial effect of bringing male/female brain differences to the attention of the scientific community. Scientific American (a semi-popular publication that has a large audience among professional scientists) has recently published a dispassionate article by Simon BarCohen on male/female brain differences (complete with a picture of a young male chimp pushing a toy truck)and another on the effects of oxytocin on women who become mothers.

Science (the house organ of the U.S. scientific establishment) touches on the college/grad school problem once in a while in a somewhat gingerly way. A couple of years ago it pointed out that the increasing percentage of female science graduate students reflected both increased female enrollment and decreased male enrollment. The number of American men receiving Ph.D.'s in science and engineering fields peaked around 1998. That is not good newsto anybody who knows how rapidly science and engineering are improving in both China and India.

The NY Times has almost completely ignored boys' problems on its education pages. But its columnists have not. David Brooks, John Tierney and Bob Herbert have all commented recently.

I do wish that they (and Tom) wouldn't raise the issue of educated women unable to find mates. It is true, but not very productive. A better argument is that we need all the help we can get to keep the country economically viable in the 21st century. A large, sullen uneducated group of men doesn't do us any good. Better that we increase the group of energetic, ambitious and educated men who will help build the industries of the future.

At 7:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The coverage of the growing gender disparity in recent times (meaning, the last 5-10 years) has, indeed, been overly-topical; assigning causes in proximate geography and historical time to a process that has been ongoing, worldwide, for the past century and is reflective of a much deeper imbalance that goes over and above the education field.

In the process of writing up "The Fall of Mankind", I have started placing some of the supplements, notes and articles on the web from the large repository that has been accumulated here over the past 3 years. One can begin to see the extent of what we're dealing with in the links provided with the Chapter 5 cover page

and in the supplementary notes

Which is only the tip of the iceberg. The gender disparity exists in college-level education even in the most patriarchal nations where the male/female population ratio is the most heavily skewed -- (i.e., nearing 60% female in Saudi Arabia; up to 75% in the Gulf States; just crossed over 50% in Iran and Libya; the UAE which is nearly 2/3 male has a college-attendance ratio going nearly 2/3 the other way).

The full extent of the gender disparity in college-level education and elsewhere

Some USENET references:
Russia and the Disappearance of Men, Period
2004 October 17, sci.anthropology

Female-Baring Fashion & Power vs. Purdah & Impotence (includes stats on the Arab world, and elsewhere)
2004 September 13

The change, as seen in the supplementary notes, is of a scope far exceeding the education field and reflects a much deeper, historic long-term transition that has been underway since the late 19th century.

One of the major issues noted by Mortenson has been the loss of direction and rise in relative suicide rates for males. In fact, this occurrence is worldwide and the general rise in suicide rates has become an issue with the WHO as of late (though it has not yet made an issue of the gender gap).

The Worldwide Gender Gap in Suicide Rates
2004 September 13

The loss of direction for males, its source, the historical change being reflected by it, are the central themes of The Fourth Wave, which was previewed in 2004 at TransVision 2004.

This section, in particular, is of interest; making reference to a little-known, but highly-revealing, comment posed by Toffler in Future Shock which really gets to the root of the issue

Understimulation and Future Shock

this is placed within the broader perspective of the overall change

The Third Wave Unmasked

The changes are already upon us, even as the old issues get debated. The wage gap in the US, with a figure around 70-80 cents on the dollar widely cited, actually breaks down almost entirely on a generational basis. The color graphics provide a revealing picture:

The Glass Floor

The societal change has led to an imbalance that is already upon us in the managerial sector

Born To Rule, The Emerging Supremacy of Women in Management

discussed also preceding the "Glass Floor" section.

It is the missing link provided by the "Lost Horizon" insight that shows not just what the problem is, but its full depth, what's wrong with the world that has brought it on, and ... ultimately ... what needs to change.

Women outearn men in certain contexts.
British Women Overtake Men On Millionaire's Row
The Sunday Times; 2003 September 7

Women Surpass Men in the Forbes 400
Daily Policy Digest; 2003 October 15
(Two articles down from the previous reference)

Over time, the contexts will become less and less restricted, and the reversal more general.

The Fall of Mankind is merely a prequel to the main volume of what will become a trilogy; one that puts the older synthesis Toffler began with Future Shock in a new perspective. The succeeding volume

The Fourth Wave

will address what I believe the current imbalance in society at large (and in the world at large) is ultimately leading us to.

At 7:07 AM, Blogger Wendy Hoke said...

As a freelance journalist and mother of three boys (ages 13, 11 and 7), I can tell you that the problems begin in our educational system very early. My children used to attend parochial school and I had been warned about its "anti-boy bias" by several other mothers of boys. I didn't believe it until it manifested in gargantuan proportions as my oldest son entered fourth grade.

A naturally bright student (who tests in the 97 percentile on national tests), his grades began to drop and his motivation dwindled to scary levels. I had to fight with him just to get him to school every day.

We switched our children to the local public school and found huge improvements both in the quality of instruction and the teachers.

But these schools are not immune. My son, who is now in seventh grade, has a young teacher (in her second year), and she told me during parent-teacher conferences that she just doesn't "get" boys. I chuckled at first but then realized she was serious.

My son and his friends constantly complain about her favoritism to girls and how they shouldn't even try because everyone knows she doesn't like boys. Now I know much of this is 13-year-old griping and posturing. But after hearing her dismay at teaching boys firsthand, all I can think is how she must receive some kind of professional development to help her understand boys and how they learn. After all, they are going to continue to be a significant part of the population she teaches.

Boys aren't necessarily going to decorate a social studies project with spiffy borders. But is the content in place? Is it presented factually, neatly and grammatically correct? If so, then I don't believe she should penalize them for not coloring borders.

I am interested and skeptical about the Boys Project efforts, though I have immense respect for Michael Thompson. His Raising Cain program on PBS was wonderfully done. My 13-year-old actually stayed up to watch the entire program with me. After it was over, he said, "Mom, that is all so true."

Not one to dismiss it completely and certainly not one to hail it as the "Messiah," I will follow The Boys Project progress. If you wait until high school and college to address these issues, you're already too late.

Research must focus on the inequities at a much earlier age.

Thank you for giving this attention and I do hope that soon there will be more of a focus on how we fix the problem instead of repeated attempts at determining whether or not exists. It does, not let's move on to strategies for encouraging our boys.

At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some points that seem to get missed:

1. Is today's bachelor's degree necessarily the ultimate measure of whether one is educated? As higher ed strives to continue to increase enrollments to continue to feed the beast - how many "soft" degree programs have arisen. Is a certified Information Technology professional, which does not require a bachelors degree, less educated than say a librarian, or social worker, or kindergarten teacher, or administrative assistant? You will find the fields that pay higher wages without a 4-year degree are heavily male. In nearly every case there are private avenues that do a far superior job than 2-year or 4-year colleges. Have boys left the colleges, or have the colleges left the boys? Gather the numbers on jobs held by bachelor degree holders that require skills less than same, you will find the majority held by females.

2. The export of the manufacturing job base from the United States to other countries via the near-religious idealogy of "free trade" has hurt men far, far more than women. The transformation of the economy from one that builds and creates to one that provides services has been a massive blow to men - primarily our inventors and builders - and a boon to women, who are generally better at process support. As we continue to create less, and jobs flow more towards counting things and reporting things and counseling things - men will be at a deeply inherent disadvantage.

Boys haven't changed - the powerhouse that built the infrastructure of modernism still lives in them. Society has simply offers less to interest and challenge them. Frontiers are shrinking, the big pictures reduced to minutia and tedium. As a Presidential candidate said once, "It's the economy stupid."

David M. Case
Community College educator


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