I have been following the reporting and discussion of the gender gaps
and writing with a great deal of interest, as well as concern. Most
it is the WASL results, but those gaps are similar to others throughout the
country and abroad. To be honest, the gaps are not what concern me most.
is the divisive tone, however subtle, that emerges so easily from almost
consideration of gender. It is distracting and, to be truthful, comes from
advocates for girls, as well as those specifically concerned about boys.
overarching concern is the relative lack of advocacy for educational reform
that is wholly conscious of gender (that is, girls AND boys) while also
intently focused on the goal of mutual empowering and enriching school
environments for girls and boys that serve to close the gaps.
Clearly, the gaps in reading and writing are very real and have gone
unacknowledged from a gendered perspective for quite some time. They do
as some have suggested, reflect the neglect of boys resulting from gender
equity efforts focused on girls' need. They exist and persist, in large
part, because many of the boys represented in that data have always been
expendable and neglected in schools. Here we cannot ignore the critical
variables of SES, race and "identified" special needs (this acknowledges
many girls whose special needs go unidentified); these variables do give
dimension to the concerns. But, I want to stay focused on the issue of
gender because these variables often serve to obscure the importance of
consciousness about gender.
Further clarifying my concern, the time is long overdue for the gender
community to move beyond parenthetical advocacy for these very real need of
boys. I find some of the commentary on the achievement gaps "dancing
the obvious," as if to minimize its significance or even deny its
as a gender equity issue. Such response only lends support to the
that gender equity is about girls (and boys, too). I don't see it is an
issue of test bias or the ineffectiveness of coeducation to address boys'
needs. Nor, as I suggest above, can the concerns be explained away or
with more effectively as issues of SES, race or ability. We are still
talking about a predominance of boys here. These are genuine concerns about
differences in boys and girls academic performance. As advocates using
gender as a lens through which we view issues of educational equity, they
warrant our sincere attention.
There are very real reasons gender equity has focused on girls and
women...economic self-sufficiency to name one...and that work is far from
over, as critics so quickly suggest. Perhaps the issues for boys are not
grave as economics...the broad labor force and earnings data supports that.
But, that cannot be the prime motivation for gender equity advocacy,
especially when the difficulties many boys are experiencing emerge in early
childhood and elementary school.
Early gaps are difficult to close and can have a lasting impact on healthy
development, not to mention economics. Early childhood socialization that
encourages boys to stifle healthy emotional development is undeniably and
inextricably woven into many boys' school experiences. One of my concerns
about those focused on the achievement gaps for boys is their apparent
unwillingness to acknowledge where male socialization and stereotyped
expectations fit into the picture. Anecdotally, I cannot tell you how many
stories I have heard about fathers reluctant to read aloud to their sons
fear of it being "too soft."
Research reveals that "fear" and the "feminization" of literacy resonate in
the attitudes of many boys at all levels of school. Yet, stereotyped
expectations for boys' behavior (e.g., "boys will be boys") are often
characterized in essentialist and immutable terms...boys' nature. The
current support for single gender schools and classrooms is too frequently
tied to a permutation of this argument and a resistance to questioning male
stereotypes in any way. This is just another form of "dancing around the
obvious" when there is increasing reason to believe that peer "attitudes"
about the importance of school, including stereotyped perceptions that
well is not masculine, increasingly serve as barriers to success;
low income and minority boys.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
This brings me to my own revelation as a gender equity advocate for girls
boys. In many ways, and for some understandable reasons, gender equity
advocacy too often steers clear of informed discussions of gender
differences, biological or otherwise. I have come to realize that my
equity lens" has skewed (or, at least, limited) a full understanding of how
to best meet the needs of girls and boys in schools. Clearly, the "nature"
discussion has rarely served in girls' or women's best interests or
well-being; it does, to some extent, reinforce the inequality we have been
working hard to overcome.
At the same time, ignoring difference is not in anyone's best interest. We
must honestly consider all variables. Just as we were willing to
pedagogy's insensitive to girls' needs in mathematics and science, we must
willing to look for parallels in reading and writing. I suggest looking at
"Reading, Writing and Gender: Instructional Strategies and Classroom
Activities that Work for Boys and Girls" (Goldberg and Roswell, 2002) as an
excellent example of this practice.
To further address this issue, I have designed a professional development
course, "Girls and Boys in the Schoolhouse: What's the Difference?" So
there hasn't been a group of educators I have worked with who, when given
opportunity, didn't appreciate an honest conversation about the
girls and boys exhibit in their schools and classrooms...especially at the
elementary level. Many would talk all day about it if they could. For
example, I have found insightful discussions of differences in activity
levels not only yield new understandings of it as a gendered issue in
classrooms, but also pave the way for ideas about how to work with it
developmentally for the benefit of all students. When discussion such as
this is framed as a way to acknowledge difference, while not allowing it to
be a barrier to achievement and equitable classroom practice, a truly new
wonderful consciousness about girls and boys emerges.
With all of this in mind, the following quote from frequent EDEQUITY
participant and colleague, Rochelle Riling, captures the shifts that gender
equity advocacy must make in order to more meaningfully address the needs
girls and boys:
"Among the equity community, I doubt that boys and equity can become a
legitimate focus unless the discussions, strategies and work on behalf of
boys occurs in a way that continues to also advance girls. I believe this
possible and that the key is grounded in acknowledging that girls and boys
have different experiences, challenges, advantages and disadvantages -- at
school, at home and in the economic and political arenas -- that are tied
Having worked with Rochelle and several of her colleagues in an online
course, I can share that her work as a school district gender equity
truly reflects the intentionality and understanding of gender reflected
above. This approach is possible and, ironically, it is through the
acknowledgment of the differences that girls and boys bring to the
schoolhouse that makes all the difference in our understanding how best to
meet their needs in mutually beneficial ways.
Craig P. Flood, Ph.D
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