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Are the Boys Really in a College Ready Crisis?

This is the first in a series of posts examining the “gender gap”

As I read Michael Sadowski’s “Putting the ‘Boy Crisis’ in Context” in the July/August issue of the Harvard Education Letter, I was reminded again of what appears to be an emerging national gender gap. Girls are outperforming boys on many college readiness measures. Girls have higher high school GPAs and outnumber boys in both becoming their high schools’ valedictorians and graduating from college.

Sadowski, an assistant professor at Bard College in New York City, notes the recent report by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) in Washington, D.C., which included results on state accountability tests. The percentage of boys scoring “proficient” or higher in reading was below that of girls at all grade levels tested in every state for which sufficient data were available.  It is cold comfort to note that the gender gap is not just a problem in the United States. Sadowski cites the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study which measured literacy indicators in 40 countries and found that girls outscored boys in all educational systems from which data was collected.

One of the strongest voices about the problems boys face in the American educational system is that of Richard Whitmire, the highly regarded author of Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind. A long-time education reporter, Whitmire says that, as the father of two girls, he fell into a trap in the 80’s when he read stories about girls being treated unfairly by the U.S. system, “shunting them aside in favor of aggressive boys…” As it turns out, he says, a close examination of the research shows that girls fare better in college readiness efforts and that boys’ literacy deficits put them behind in subjects across the curriculum, including math and science.

Are our boys really in crisis? There has been considerable debate about that in a variety of publications. In a 2006 Washington Post article, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett refer to the “boy crisis” as a myth manufactured back in the 1900’s and recently hyped by the media. They note convincingly that the problems faced by boys have more to do with class and race than gender.  They argue that what some perceive as gender differences have more to do with individual differences.

Writing for the think tank Education Sector in 2006, Sara Mead published “The Truth About Boys and Girls”. She argues (and supports with research) that it is not so much that the boys are doing so poorly, but that the girls are just doing better in the early grades.  Whitmire counters by noting that boys fall further behind the longer they stay in school and by seventeen are “faring terribly, especially in reading and writing skills needed to survive in college or job training…” He provides some compelling data: Only 65% of our boys graduate from high school. Among Hispanic males, the rate is 49% and for African American males the rate is 48%. In addition, fewer men are marrying and voting, and we imprison our men at the greatest rate in the world, surpassing even Russia.

For those of us in AVID, who work in the college and career readiness field, the 60/40 gap between boys and girls on many college campuses is an increasing reality, and our own AVID results perplex us.  At the AVID Center, we have been examining our college readiness data for the past several years and have found that significantly more girls are enrolling in the AVID academic elective class and this trend continues through graduation. For example, among last year’s graduating class of more than 20,000, the gender gap exceeded 33%. The boys we recruit and retain through graduation do well on most of our college readiness indicators, but we are getting a sense—backed up by research—that young men are developing a notion that it “isn’t cool to be smart.”

In 2007, we began looking closely at the data for our male students of color and were particularly alarmed by the gender gap between our African American graduates, which at the time was 33% in favor of the girls. Through some concerted efforts, including our Up Where We Belong Conferences and our African American Male Initiative(AAMI), we have closed the gap by nine points. Serious work remains to be done in the AVID world, where, if we can recruit male students of color, they perform equal to the girls on course completions, AP test participation, and completion of their college applications. See our sessions on this topic at our upcoming National Conference.

We are conducting research to discover why we face challenges recruiting boys into AVID, and what it will take to retain them, prepare them to be college ready, and succeed in college. Our African American Male Initiative, implemented in six districts nationally, is giving us some preliminary answers about how we can increase aspirations.  In my 2004 interview with Dr. Pedro Noguera, who has written extensively on the subject in numerous articles and in books like The Trouble With Black Boys, he made a number of good points about urban students and we are finding these true for many of our AVID male students in general, especially those from poverty.  As is true for many adolescents, boys are affected by popular culture, fear of failure, and their peer groups. According to Noguera, it’s with the peer group where we can make significant headway. He said, “I think that AVID, when it’s implemented well, creates an environment where kids are encouraged to take learning seriously, and, secondly, to see themselves as scholars. AVID also creates an environment for peer support, and for kids, that’s everything.”

My own perception of a nationwide college and career readiness issue is, of course, influenced by my experience raising our daughter and two sons. One begins to monitor the college readiness factors more closely in middle school, as courses become more challenging, competition ramps up, and anxiety (more often on the part of the parents) increases. Our daughter was our eldest and, shall we say, a more traditional academic student than the boys. She had neatly organized binders and notepads, legible handwriting, organizational and time-management skills, and a more persistent academic focus.

Beginning when she was in elementary school and continuing through high school, after a night of studying following activities like drama, soccer, softball or tennis, we would frequently find her asleep with a book – often a heavy textbook – on her chest. Don’t get me wrong.  The boys were also busy with school and sports, but were more likely to be found asleep with multiple action figures or a cookie on their chests. I also can’t recall having to engage our daughter in the “backpack dump” on the living room floor. This became a ritual for our boys that yielded some interesting artifacts such as old sandwiches, someone else’s shoe, a smashed harmonica, in addition to paper salads of worksheets, lost assignments, and outdated notes from the teacher.

It is easy to stereotype boys as more “rough and tumble” than girls, and it is true that our sons did occasionally ride a mattress down the staircase, jump over trashcans on skateboards, and roll down embankments for the pure joy of it. But I’d like to point out that our daughter liked to “mix it up” on the sports fields, had a higher pain threshold as an athlete, and might still be a tad more competitive.

While I know we need to study the gender gap and must address the issue, I tend to side with Rivers and Barnett, who said in their article, “Obsessing about a boy crisis or thinking that American teachers are waging a war on boys won't help kids. What will is recognizing that students are individuals, with many different skills and abilities. And that goes for both girls and boys.”

Next time: How can we create a scholar identity in young men?

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Reader Comments (4)

As the mother of a son, I can see maturity being a factor. Also, young men have a lot of expectations placed on them in our society to be bread winners. That means different things to different people depending on social and economic status.

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJill DIckens

I am the author of The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World, a work habits, time management and organizational skills workbook and curriculum for grades 6-8. I actually designed this curriculum with boys in mind, as they seem to be the ones struggling most with these skills. Things like missing assignments and a failure to follow directions will destroy their grades and their motivation. Poor organizational skills can cause even very bright students to underachieve -- sometimes the brighter the boy, the worse the problem is my observation. Boys often simply don't value the things that count when it comes to grades: neatness, timeliness, precision etc. Maybe it's a developmental thing, but some basic training and simple (I repeat, simple) solutions and strategies can help. Another good book on the subject is Peg Tyre's The Trouble with Boys.

October 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Mulcaire

The anecdotal stories of your own children bring home a host of memories around going to school as a young boy, being aware that by third grade the girls pretty much out-competed me academically in every arena. Continuing on to middle school, I realized that school work was basically a drill-down check-off sheet to be completed and forgotten after the bell rang; that's when life began again. High school had its rare moments of intellectual bloom, but in a school where low-expectations were the norm, I had no idea how to prepare myself for college. I basically received straight-A's by showing up and completing homework. Knowing that an academic identity was viewed as subversive anyway, I slacked with the best of them. Seeing my son - now a high school junior and our fellow AVID traveler for the past 11 years - navigate his own high school cruise, I cannot begin to tell him how much his high school is out-preparing him in comparision to my own high school slumber-fest. Accepted with honors to the local CSU, I found myself surrounded by other honors candidates, mostly girls who ran academic circles around me. From schools across town, I found out later that almost all had tested out of college coursework before arriving on campus. My college career was instead a testament to crash-test dummy survival, sheer will and finally pragmatic wisdom to hang out with the best and the brightest, generally women.

October 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhill Britton

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December 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershine

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