Creative Destruction

August 15, 2006

More “Boy Crisis”: The Connecticut Mastery Test

Filed under: Education,Feminist Issues — Ampersand @ 1:25 am

Asher from Dreams Into Lighting emailed me this article, from the Hartford Courant:

While black, Hispanic and low-income children again lagged far behind others on statewide mastery test scores, another group of students also remained mired in a chronic – though often less noticed – achievement gap.

Boys continued to trail girls by substantial margins in reading and writing on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test. The pattern has persisted since Connecticut first started keeping track of scores by gender in 2000, and is consistent with longstanding patterns on national tests. […]

In writing, “Boys of every ethnic and socioeconomic group are falling far behind girls of similar backgrounds,” Kleinfeld wrote in a recent paper for the White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth. […]

“It’s a huge problem,” Kleinfeld said. The literacy gap between girls and boys “has been very large since the beginning of time,” she said. “Think back to Tom Sawyer and Becky.”

So wait, which is it – are boys currently falling behind, or has it always been this way?

Also, as I’ll show below, the evidence from the Connecticut Mastery Test shows that the boy crisis does not exist among “boys of every ethnic and socioeconomic group.” On the contrary, the results are consistent with my belief that without racism and poverty holding them back, boys do just as well as girls.

Most boys develop verbal skills later than girls do and may not be ready for the intensive reading instruction that some schools are now demanding as early as kindergarten, she said.

For boys who lag, she said, one strategy would be to “keep them in kindergarten for two years, or keep them out of school until they’re ready.”

In addition, Kleinfeld and others say, boys’ reading habits are geared more toward non-fiction – subjects such as sports or adventure – while girls often prefer novels and short stories.

Three points:

1) Notice, once again, the boyhood-as-disability theme, which is common in “boy crisis” writings. This expert actually suggests that boys should be kept back a year or two – which means, except for those boys who manage to skip ahead at some point, boys wouldn’t graduate high school until they’re 19 or 20. That’s a pretty radical proposal. Has anyone considered that if boys have to wait until the age of 20 to graduate, the result might be more boys dropping out before graduation?

2) I don’t know what data Kleinfeld is using (and I doubt her work for the White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth was put through a rigourous peer-review process). But this is an article about the results from the Connecticut Mastery Test, and it’s not true that Connecticut Mastery Test found that “Boys of every ethnic and socioeconomic group are falling far behind girls of similar backgrounds.”

At this website, you can look at the Connecticut Master Test results for boys and girls from different towns. (To keep things simple for myself, I’m just going to report the results for 8th graders, but as far as I could tell by spot-checking things are similar at every grade level).

Let’s first check out Bridgeport, a town in which few families have much money, and the majority of students are either hispanic or black (or both). In Bridgeport, 45% of boys and 46% of girls are proficient in math, a basically identical result. But for reading, 45% of boys and 53% of girls are proficient. And in writing, 55% of boys and 75% of girls are proficient – a 20% difference. That’s pretty huge.

Poking around the site further, I can see that 88% of eighth graders in Bridgeport are black or hispanic, and 97% are poor enough to qualify for the discount lunch program.

Now let’s look at the results from Westport, a town in which 94% of eighth graders (or, at least, of eighth graders who took the Connecticut Mastery Test) are white, and less than 3% qualified for the discount lunch program.

In Westport, 97% of both boys and girls are proficient in math, 96% of boys and 97% of girls are proficient in reading, and 97% of boys and 99% of girls are proficient in writing. There is effectively no difference between Westport’s boys and girls, according to the Connecticut Mastery Test.

As it happened, I spent my 8th grade attending public school in Westport. ((Yes, I admit it, I grew up in Westport. The shame will follow me forever.)) All the boys read fiction (we read To Kill A Mockingbird that year, I think), and I can’t imagine that has changed – because I think Westport parents would scream bloody murder if the schools tried to shortchange their boys’ education that way. What the “boy crisis” mavens are proposing would not only fail to help boys, it would deprive them of an education in literature.

3) As I wrote in an earlier post, it’s clear there is a real crisis going on here. But it’s not a “boy crisis,” and there’s nothing deficient in boy’s brains that makes them biologically incapable of doing as well as girls, or of reading fiction.

There are way too many boys from indian, black, hispanic and low-income families who are not benefiting enough from school, and whose future is needlessly dim; it’s a tragedy for those boys and for our entire society if things keep going the way they’ve been. I wish I had the solution, but I don’t. Nonetheless, wrong analysis leads to wrong solutions. The people who are focusing on nonexistent inherent deficiencies in how boys learn, and pretty much ignoring class and race, are coming up with solutions that will be expensive and unhelpful at best, and actually harmful to boys at worst.

4. Finally, as big as the 20% difference in reading achievement between Bridgeport boys and girls is, let’s not overlook the much larger differences in achievement between children in Bridgeport and children in Westport. That’s the real crisis, and that should be our main focus.

12 Comments »

  1. So wait, which is it – are boys currently falling behind, or has it always been this way?

    The statement “boys are falling behind girls” can be read in several ways. It could be interpretted as claiming that the gap between (say) thirteen-year-old boys and girls now is wider than the gap between thirteen-year-olds was (say) six years ago. Alternatively it could be read as claiming that the gap now is wider than the gap between the same children (then seven-year-old) were back then. It could even be interpretted as claiming that the gap between today’s thirteen-year-olds is larger than the gap is between today’s seven-year-old.

    I initially read it as you appear to have – the first of these interpretations. However I think it is clear from the text that the second, or perhaps the third, is the intended reading.

    1) Notice, once again, the boyhood-as-disability theme, which is common in “boy crisis” writings.

    I think this is a strawman. The “boy brain” theory, as I understand it, claims not that boys are less able to learn than girls, but that the learning environment for boys is comparatively suboptimal.

    This expert actually suggests that boys should be kept back a year or two – which means, except for those boys who manage to skip ahead at some point, boys wouldn’t graduate high school until they’re 19 or 20. That’s a pretty radical proposal. Has anyone considered that if boys have to wait until the age of 20 to graduate, the result might be more boys dropping out before graduation?

    The proposal was only for “boys who lag”. These boys, I suggest, are the ones most likely to to have to retake a year later on (having established a record of failure) and later, to drop out entirely. So I don’t think they would be greatly disadvantaged by this system.

    However, a year is a huge period of time for a five-year-old to fall back. A better system would be for the move from kindergarten to first grade be made on the basis of development, not age, and for there to be three or even four intakes to grade one in a year, two or three to grade two, and so on, so that by the time they reach grade three or four, they’ve been brought into the cycle of yearly advancement, some perhaps a year ahead of their identically aged contemporaries, but without the stigma and sense-of-failure associated with having been held back a year.

    it’s not true that Connecticut Mastery Test found that “Boys of every ethnic and socioeconomic group are falling far behind girls of similar backgrounds.”…

    …In Bridgeport, … for reading, 45% of boys and 53% of girls are proficient. And in writing, 55% of boys and 75% of girls are proficient – a 20% difference. That’s pretty huge.

    Or to put it another way nearly twice as many boys as girls are not proficient in socially deprived Bridgeport.

    In Westport, … 96% of boys and 97% of girls are proficient in reading, and 97% of boys and 99% of girls are proficient in writing. There is effectively no difference between Westport’s boys and girls, according to the Connecticut Mastery Test.

    Um, one third again as many boys as girls are not proficient in reading, and three times as many boys as girls are not proficient in writing.

    Bear in mind that “proficient” marks a somewhat arbitrary attainment level on what is a range of ability. It is highly unlikely that the 96% and 97% of proficient boys have the same level of achievement as the 97%-99% of proficient girls. Much more likely is that boys are underperforming girls to much the same degree as in Bridgeport, but the higher levels of achievement overall tend to mask this.

    As it happened, I spent my 8th grade attending public school in Westport. ((Yes, I admit it, I grew up in Westport. The shame will follow me forever.)) All the boys read fiction (we read To Kill A Mockingbird that year, I think), and I can’t imagine that has changed – because I think Westport parents would scream bloody murder if the schools tried to shortchange their boys’ education that way. What the “boy crisis” mavens are proposing would not only fail to help boys, it would deprive them of an education in literature.

    I don’t see anything in the article you quoted which suggested that boys should not read fiction in school, so this looks like another strawman.

    3) As I wrote in an earlier post, it’s clear there is a real crisis going on here. But it’s not a “boy crisis,” and there’s nothing deficient in boy’s brains that makes them biologically incapable of doing as well as girls, or of reading fiction.

    As I said before, this is a strawman. In particular, the ‘deficiency’ framing is yours, not the author’s.

    There are way too many boys from indian, black, hispanic and low-income families who are not benefiting enough from school, and whose future is needlessly dim; it’s a tragedy for those boys and for our entire society if things keep going the way they’ve been. I wish I had the solution, but I don’t. Nonetheless, wrong analysis leads to wrong solutions. The people who are focusing on nonexistent inherent deficiencies in how boys learn, and pretty much ignoring class and race, are coming up with solutions that will be expensive and unhelpful at best, and actually harmful to boys at worst.

    I don’t know whether boys brains are different from girls in any significant respect or not. I notice, however, that, despite characterising them as “non-existent”, you’ve not shown this to be true, nor have you offered any alternative explanation. The “boy brain” theory – for all its groping-in-the-dark-iness – is at least an attempt at an explanation.

    4. Finally, as big as the 20% difference in reading achievement between Bridgeport boys and girls is, let’s not overlook the much larger differences in achievement between children in Bridgeport and children in Westport. That’s the real crisis, and that should be our main focus.

    I agree that focusing on the gender dimension, while ignoring the class/race dimension is a flawed approach. I also agree that class/race appears to be the more significant factor. I disagree that it should be our main focus. We already have a fairly good understanding of the dynamics of racism and classism, and there is no shortage of attention paid to this aspect of the problem. We have have comparatively little understanding of the gender dimension.

    In an earlier discussion about Police Stop and Search you did not argue that our main focus should be on gender, (compared to race), even though gender was by far the more significant factor. Nor have you suggested that men should be “our main focus” when discussion gender-selective violence in Iraq.

    El at My Amusement Park asks rhetorically: “what is it that makes journalists and others define this issue as one of gender?” In my perception this is the only topic in which male disadvantage gets any significant mainstream media attention at all. God forbid!

    Comment by Daran — August 15, 2006 @ 8:26 am | Reply

  2. “It is highly unlikely that the 96% and 97% of proficient boys have the same level of achievement as the 97%-99% of proficient girls.”

    How did you arrive at this conclusion?

    Comment by perianwyr — August 15, 2006 @ 11:35 am | Reply

  3. First of all, obviously I do frame this differently than the “boy crisis” theorists do. I think that my difference in framing, far from being deceptive, is pretty obvious and explicit, and to call different framing a “strawman” argument is unfair.

    The “boy brain” theory, as I understand it, claims not that boys are less able to learn than girls, but that the learning environment for boys is comparatively suboptimal.

    To say that boys can’t learn as well if they read literature instead of sports is anti-boy bigotry. To say that boys aren’t capable of sitting and learning in an ordinary classroom environment (which isn’t a claim made in this particular article, but is a claim made by many boy crisis theorists) is anti-boy bigotry.

    What if someone said that the classroom environment is suboptimal for blacks, because most blacks have brains that don’t respond as well to classroom learning and reading novels? Would you really deny that was bigotry?

    Um, one third again as many boys as girls are not proficient in reading, and three times as many boys as girls are not proficient in writing.

    You’re talking about differences of one or two percent. I don’t think that’s significant – and certainly not enough to justify claims of a crisis in the education of boys among all socioeconomic and ethnic groups. (In many districts, boys have a one or two percent advantage over girls in math proficiency, but I don’t think that’s significant, either).

    I don’t see anything in the article you quoted which suggested that boys should not read fiction in school, so this looks like another strawman.

    They certainly suggested that fiction reading should be cut back, to defer to the supposed inability of boys to read novels:

    In addition, Kleinfeld and others say, boys’ reading habits are geared more toward non-fiction – subjects such as sports or adventure – while girls often prefer novels and short stories. […]

    Barbara Snyder, a reading teacher at Buttonball Lane School in Glastonbury, said, ‘One thing that interests boys more than girls is reading informational texts.

    ‘We’ve addressed that – teaching how to read non-fiction,’ she said. ‘Because boys don’t want to read books from beginning to end, informational texts are ideal. They can read short sections.’

    I guess you could interpret what I wrote as claiming that they intend to prevent boys from reading any fiction whatsoever. That isn’t what I intended, however. I think that cutting out lots of fiction to replace them with short informational texts is depriving boys of an education in literature, however.

    (Although to be fair, since the entire school is put through these changes, it’s both boys and girls who will be deprived, not boys alone.)

    I don’t know whether boys brains are different from girls in any significant respect or not. I notice, however, that, despite characterising them as “non-existent”, you’ve not shown this to be true, nor have you offered any alternative explanation.

    I think that boys are inherently taller than girls – because while that’s not true of 100% of boys, it’s universally true that the average boy is taller than the average girl within every ethnic, racial and socioeconomic category. That’s a sign that a gender difference really might be biological – if the difference is found regardless of what what ethnic or class group is examined.

    On the other hand, if a difference isn’t universal across ethnic and class groups, then that’s pretty strong evidence (although not absolute evidence) that the difference is not biological.

    If boys are biologically incapable of learning the same way girls do, that should be true among all ethnic groups and all classes. It makes no sense to say “boy brains are biologically different – except for the brains among boys who are Jews, and Asians, and middle-class whites.”

    My theory for the low achievement among some groups of boys is, to quote you-know-who, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Low-income boys, and Black and Hispanic boys, aren’t expected to do as well at reading, or at behaving in the classroom (“boys will be boys”), and so are allowed to slip by parents and by teachers. (In contrast, Jewish and Asian boys are expected to do well in reading and to be good students, and consequently have little or no gap).

    (In addition, I think the gender wage gap among high-school graduates leads to a greater belief that boys don’t have to go to college, which again leads to lower expectations.)

    So I do think this is a case of discrimination against boys. And the media attention the “boy crisis” is getting, which you’re so enthused about, is in fact counterproductive and bigoted against boys – rather than admitting the real problem, it’s making dubious essentialist excuses for the results of discrimination.

    In an earlier discussion about Police Stop and Search you did not argue that our main focus should be on gender, (compared to race), even though gender was by far the more significant factor. Nor have you suggested that men should be “our main focus” when discussion gender-selective violence in Iraq.

    Clearly, if I don’t treat traffic stops, war violence, and test scores in writing proficiency exactly the same way, the only explanation is that I’m a hypocrite. After all, all problems are identical; there are never different areas in which different modes of analysis, and different solutions, are called for.

    Comment by Ampersand — August 15, 2006 @ 11:45 am | Reply

  4. In Westport, … 96% of boys and 97% of girls are proficient in reading, and 97% of boys and 99% of girls are proficient in writing. There is effectively no difference between Westport’s boys and girls, according to the Connecticut Mastery Test.

    Um, one third again as many boys as girls are not proficient in reading, and three times as many boys as girls are not proficient in writing.

    This could also be read as being within the statistical margin of error. So far, this is a relatively small sample size, particularly for the determination of educational trends. Should the numbers cited above either remain the same or decline further, then there is a case to be made. Otherwise, it is simply screaming about numbers for the sake of screaming about numbers.

    (The blogosphere has been doing enough of that in regards to numbers and percentages in Connecticut over the past week. So why add this one into the equation?)

    The reports from Bridgeport students probably has more intrinsic meaning than those from Westport, Daran. There, the numbers are clearly delineated with a descending trendline. Also, it is not simply a gender-based convention, but also takes socioeconomic standards into account. This is much more suitable for analysis into what doesn’t work in Connecticut than looking at a district with a testing score average that most US-ian educators would give their left arms for.

    (This does not include shop teachers. They tend to give their left arms as a sacrifice to appease the angry gods of Saw and Blade, who prefer to feast on younger flesh.)

    Comment by Off Colfax — August 15, 2006 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

  5. perianwyr:

    “It is highly unlikely that the 96% and 97% of proficient boys have the same level of achievement as the 97%-99% of proficient girls.”

    How did you arrive at this conclusion?

    It’s a simple application of the Empirical Rule. Assuming that boys and girls respective abilities (as determined by some linear metric) are approximately normally distributed, (a very reasonable assumption) then

    About 68% of test results will be within 1 standard deviation of the mean
    About 95% of test results will be within 2 standard deviations from the mean.
    About 99.7% of test results will be within 3 standard deviations from the mean.

    More generally, if the tails of the distribution are cut off to any given percentage, we can work out how many standard deviations from the mean the cut off point is, by using the inverse normal function available in any good spreadsheet, and probably some scientific calculators.

    In the case of writing in Westport, we are told that 1% of girls are so far below the mean (for girls in Westport) that they are judged to be not profficent. An additional 1% of girls will be a similar distance above the mean. The remaining 98% span, I caculate, a range of 2.3 standard deviations from the mean.

    Repeating the calculation for boys, we find that 3% are below the profficiency level, an additional 3% are a similar distance above the mean (for boys). The remaining span 94% span accounts, I calculate, for a range of 1.9 standard deviations.

    In other words, the average ability of girls is about 2.33 standard deviations above the minimum standard to be judged profficient, while the average ability of boys is just 1.88 standard deviations above the same minimum standard.

    If this is correct, then there are two possible explanations. Either boys are worse at writing than girls on average (by about .45 standard deviations) or boys abilities are more widely dispersed about the mean than girls.

    Now let’s repeat the calculation for Bridgeport. In brief, the figures I get are:

    Boys: 55% – 0.13 standard deviations.
    Girls: 75% – 0.67 standard deviations.

    A difference of 0.54 standard deviations, a differential between boys and girls scarcely more marked than for Westport.

    Is it correct? There are two possible sources of error. Firstly the calculation is so sensitive that the rounding to the nearest percent may introduce significant errors. Secondly the small number of failing students means that statistical noise may have a significant effect.

    However, to conclude from this data, as Barry apparently does, that “the difference isn’t universal across ethnic and class groups” is a fallacy.

    Comment by Daran — August 15, 2006 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

  6. To say that boys can’t learn as well if they read literature instead of sports is anti-boy bigotry.

    Boys’ lack of interest in the literary materials present could have a drastic affect on their proficiency in reading. It is hardly bigoted them to present them subjects pertaining their known interests.

    To say that boys aren’t capable of sitting and learning in an ordinary classroom environment (which isn’t a claim made in this particular article, but is a claim made by many boy crisis theorists) is anti-boy bigotry.

    That is a strawman. No one has made such a claim. The argument most commonly presented is that “ordinary” classroom environments are structured to better help girls learn while ignoring the needs of boys. Much research exists demonstrating that once the environment has changed to better appeal to boys’ learning habits, their scores and grades rise.

    I think that cutting out lots of fiction to replace them with short informational texts is depriving boys of an education in literature, however.

    It does no harm if the boys are disinterested in fiction to begin with. A simple solution is presenting short stories dealing with subjects that interest boys. Who knows whether boys would read more if a teacher presented the novelized version of Spiderman or Batman Begins. The point is that the subject matter fails to interest boys, not the act of reading.

    If boys are biologically incapable of learning the same way girls do, that should be true among all ethnic groups and all classes. It makes no sense to say “boy brains are biologically different – except for the brains among boys who are Jews, and Asians, and middle-class whites.”

    Well, the biological differences have been studied for some time. Those differences do appear among all ethnic groups and classes. Perhaps Jews, Asians and middle-class whites have a greater expectation to do well. But that does not mean that they learn the same as girl. It could mean that they work twice as hard as girls so as not to disappoint their parents. I do not think one can jump to the conclusion that because certain groups are expected to perform better there is no gender-bias problems schools’ learning environments.
    In order to be “anti-boy” one must fail to acknowledge their issues and their needs. At this point, no one suggesting that boys be educated in single-sex classrooms is doing that. In fact, most of the data backs their positions. And having gone to an all-boy high-school, I can testify that our introduction to literature was hardly curtailed. Our learning environment was not “sexist” and we were pushed to go college. There was a difference in the way classes were taught, though, and in my opinion it was better for boys.
    So I do not think the media focus is counterproductive or bigoted. There is a real problem and it is unfortunately stems from bias against boys in our schools. The media is doing a decent of presenting those issues. The only thing that is counterproductive or bigoted are the attempts to downplay or deny the gender-bias problem, ironically using the same arguments made 20-30 years ago when the “girl crisis” was mentioned.

    Comment by toysoldier — August 15, 2006 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  7. Off Colfax (Reordered slightly for reply):

    This could also be read as being within the statistical margin of error… The reports from Bridgeport students probably has more intrinsic meaning than those from Westport, Daran. There, the numbers are clearly delineated with a descending trendline.

    I agree, but if the figures from Westport have little meaning, then Barry has little basis to draw the conclusion from them that he does. (In fact, as I showed above, he has no basis at all.)

    So far, this is a relatively small sample size, particularly for the determination of educational trends. Should the numbers cited above either remain the same or decline further, then there is a case to be made. Otherwise, it is simply screaming about numbers for the sake of screaming about numbers.

    The subsample size for Westport is certainly small, however my understanding is that the finding of a general gender gap is robust.

    (The blogosphere has been doing enough of that in regards to numbers and percentages in Connecticut over the past week. So why add this one into the equation?)

    I can only find 45 blog postsrefering to the Connecticut Mastery Test including this one and it’s duplicate on Alas, but yeah, any attention paid to issues negatively affecting men (or, in this case, boys) is too much attention.

    Comment by Daran — August 16, 2006 @ 11:31 am | Reply

  8. Can someone please debork my last comment? The final paragraph is mine and should not be in the blockquote.

    I’ll refrain from responding to those parts of Barry’s comment to which my reply would be essentially the same as toysoldier’s.

    Ampersand:

    To say that boys can’t learn as well if they read literature instead of sports is anti-boy bigotry.

    Why not literature about sports?

    To say that boys aren’t capable of sitting and learning in an ordinary classroom environment (which isn’t a claim made in this particular article, but is a claim made by many boy crisis theorists) is anti-boy bigotry.

    The claim, as I understand it, is that “ordinary” in this case means in practice “adapted to the needs of girls”. Substituting the phrase for the word into the above (and substituting “suboptimal” for “incapable”) yields a sentence which does not appear to me to be anti-boy bigotry.

    What if someone said that the classroom environment is suboptimal for blacks, because most blacks have brains that don’t respond as well to classroom learning and reading novels? Would you really deny that was bigotry?

    It’s novel to have this argument deployed against me by a feminist. Had I not been away, I would certainly have applied it against you here.

    Were such a remark made about blacks, I would want to look very critically at both the claim and the claimant. This is because such claims historically have been made from a West-centric perspective which was not recognised at the time, and were based upon now-discredited theories of anthropological development. similar claims are currently made by the more intellectual wing of the white supremicist movement. (Pardon the oxymoron), and are essentially the claims of the less intellectual wing given a shave and change of clothing, in an attempt to pass them off as respectable company.

    However I would not automatically regard such a claim about blacks as bigotted. That white supremicists make such claims does not imply that everyone making such a claim is a white supremicist. The claim is essentially empirical, and if supported by evidence gained through impartial scientific investigation then I would not reject it, nor vilify its proponent, merely because it didn’t suit my political agenda, or because it played into the hands of the racists.

    I would take a similarly critical view of the claim about boy brains if its proponents had a similar history of anti-male bigotry. In other words, if its proponents were representative of mainstream feminism. However that does not seem to be the case.

    (I am not suggesting that I do not view the claim through the critical lens through which I would view any essentially empirical claim made about a politicised topic. Only that I do not regard it as facially bigotted, and therefore requiring that particularly jaundiced view.)

    You’re talking about differences of one or two percent. I don’t think that’s significant – and certainly not enough to justify claims of a crisis in the education of boys among all socioeconomic and ethnic groups.

    You are simply mistaken. Assuming that test results are normally distributed (I presume you do not dispute the reasonableness of that assumption) then even small differences at the margins of the distribution are highly significant (assuming that they are real, i.e. not caused by statistical noise or swamped by rounding error).

    As I show here, the small difference between the tests results of boys and girls at Westport is entirely consistent with boys being at about the same level of disadvantage compared with girls as they are in Bridgeport.

    (In many districts, boys have a one or two percent advantage over girls in math proficiency, but I don’t think that’s significant, either).

    They certainly suggested that fiction reading should be cut back, to defer to the supposed inability of boys to read novels:

    If boys were unable to read novels, then the logical approach would be to eliminate the reading of novels entirely from the curriculum. They do not appear to be proposing that, nor do I see or infer any suggestion that boys have such an inability. This is a strawman on your part.

    …Barbara Snyder, a reading teacher at Buttonball Lane School in Glastonbury, said…

    ‘…boys don’t want to read books from beginning to end, informational texts are ideal. They can read short sections.’

    Either you edited the story to include the link that was not there originally, or it was there originally, and I have demonstrated my own “boy brain” inability to read. Whatever. I did not see the link, therefore did not see this when I wrote my first reply.

    The last sentence by Snyder can be construed in several ways. She could be asserting that the school permits boys to read short sections, or that boys are capable of reading short sections (with the implication that they are incapable of reading longer sections/entire works). She could even have meant that boys were less able than girls, but phrased it badly.

    The claim that boys are unable to read long texts is false, absurd, and prejudicial on its face. However, I would not infer on the basis of this one statement, that Snyder herself is prejudiced. For a start, I would want to confirm that she wasn’t misquoted. I’d also want to read a fuller exposition of her views.

    But even if Snyder is personally prejudiced, I do not agree that it follows that the “boy brain” proponents generally are. Similarly I regard the claim that feminists or rape victim advocates support false accusations to be a strawman, despite what Catherine Commins of Vassar college reportedly said.

    I guess you could interpret what I wrote as claiming that they intend to prevent boys from reading any fiction whatsoever. That isn’t what I intended, however.

    I interpretted what you wrote as claiming that they intend to cut fiction entirely from the required reading part of the curriculum. That isn’t the same as preventing them from reading fiction.

    This interpretation, as I observe above is the logical consequence of your strawman version of their position, that boys are unable to read novels.

    I think that cutting out lots of fiction to replace them with short informational texts is depriving boys of an education in literature, however.

    If a boy (or a girl, for that matter) does not achieve reading proficiency then he will be deprived of such an education no matter how many weighty tomes you throw at him.

    (Although to be fair, since the entire school is put through these changes, it’s both boys and girls who will be deprived, not boys alone.)

    No curriculum can ever be complete. No school can ever teach everything that they would want to about every subject. There simply isn’t the time. Every (good) school is constantly rejigging it’s curriculum. “Let’s drop continued fractions so that we can do a bit more set theory”. “If we have one less set novel, we could do a lot of informational texts”. “Let’s replace the Bronte with H. G. Wells”.

    The basic demand here is that, in the process of rejigging, the particular needs of boys be taken into account. Given the gender gap, it is “anti-boy bigotry” to refuse to do that. (Provided, of course, that the interests of girls were not sacrificed in the process. I do not believe that they would need to be.) The “boy brain” proponents have a particular theory about the cause of the gender gap, which informs their view as to appropriate remedies. Whatever the merits and demerits of that theory, (and I don’t have a strong view on it), it does not appear to be motivated by anti-boy bigotry (or anti-girl bigotry, which would concern me just as much).

    Let’s move the debate therefore, onto the merits and demerits of the theory (and alternatives) rather than engaging in an extended ad hominem attack on its proponants.

    On the other hand, if a difference isn’t universal across ethnic and class groups, then that’s pretty strong evidence (although not absolute evidence) that the difference is not biological.

    You haven’t shown that this is the case. Not only have you not shown that there is no gender gap in the most sucessful schools, but even if you had, it does not follow that the teaching of boys is optimal in those schools. You’ve already suggested a very plausible explanation for why boys might not be failing in these schools:

    perhaps schools – due to racism and classism – are more willing to write off low-income black boys as a loss the first time they fall behind, but attempt to rescue middle-income white and asian boys. And perhaps such “rescue attempts” given boys in the right income and racial classes enough of a boost to overcome the academic disadvantage of having boy brains.

    And perhaps such “rescue attempts” given boys in the right income and racial classes enough of a boost to overcome the academic disadvantage of whatever other theoretical cause of the gender gap might be proposed.

    But surely it would be better to address the root causes of the failure of boys, than to attempt to rescue boys who have failed.

    (By the way, the “rescue theory” also has the virtue of being testable. If true, it should skew the distribution of test results away from the normal in a very characteristic way.)

    If boys are biologically incapable of…

    less well suited to

    …learning the same way girls do, that should be true among all ethnic groups and all classes. It makes no sense to say “boy brains are biologically different – except for the brains among boys who are Jews, and Asians, and middle-class whites.”

    You have not shown that it isn’t.

    My theory for the low achievement among some groups of boys is, to quote you-know-who, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Low-income boys, and Black and Hispanic boys, aren’t expected to do as well at reading, or at behaving in the classroom (”boys will be boys”), and so are allowed to slip by parents and by teachers. (In contrast, Jewish and Asian boys are expected to do well in reading and to be good students, and consequently have little or no gap).

    You’ve not shown that they don’t have a gap. However I’ve no doubt that your theory is true and accounts for at least a portion of the gap for these social/racial groups. However this theory is not incompatible with the boy brain theory.

    (In addition, I think the gender wage gap among high-school graduates leads to a greater belief that boys don’t have to go to college, which again leads to lower expectations.)

    That seems to be less plausible. I would expect the perception that women are likely to marry and become homemakers would lead to a greater belief that girls don’t have to go to college.

    Neither of these theories accounts for the fact that the academic gender gap is subject specific.

    So I do think this is a case of discrimination against boys. And the media attention the “boy crisis” is getting, which you’re so enthused about, is in fact counterproductive and bigoted against boys – rather than admitting the real problem, it’s making dubious essentialist excuses for the results of discrimination.

    Regardless of what theories they are based upon, any proposed measures put in place to combat it will have to be tested. If they don’t work, (or if they adversely affect girls) then they can be modified or abandoned, so there is little risk of longterm harm to boys.

    If the media were not addressing this issue, then who would be? Not feminists, that’s for sure.

    Clearly, if I don’t treat traffic stops, war violence, and test scores in writing proficiency exactly the same way, the only explanation is that I’m a hypocrite. After all, all problems are identical; there are never different areas in which different modes of analysis, and different solutions, are called for.

    On the contrary, you do appear to treat all these things in exactly the same way. If a problem adversely affects females in particular, (or if you perceive it to do so) then you focus upon gender. If a problem adversely affects males in particular, then you argue that the focus should be on some aspect of the problem other than gender. I do not recall any departure from this pattern in any of your writings I have read, but feel free to cite yourself doing so.

    In the matter at hand, the only reason for your proposed focus is that there is a “much larger differences in achievement between children in Bridgeport and children in Westport”. In the light of your approach to stop and search (not specifically traffic stops. Stop and search applies to people on foot too), that does not appear to be a sufficient reason.

    I suggest that the main focus in the case of the educational gap should be on gender, because it’s the least understood dimension of the problem. In the case of stop and search, I agree that the main focus should be race, despite gender accounting for the greater part of the differences because the racial aspect of the discrimination has a deleterious effect upon black and Asian communities in the UK, and there is no such thing as a ‘male community’ which is deleteriously affected by the gender aspect of it. It’s just an individual pain-in-the-ass for those men affected. However race does not merely receive the main focus. It gets sole attention (outside the weird and wonderful world of Men’s Rights Activism). And the complete absence of attention to the gender aspect is a manifestation of society’s general prejudice against men.

    In the case of wvictimisation in war situations, I suggest that the main focus should be other than gender, but to an extent that a gender focus is appropriate, it should be predominantly on men’s experiences, for most of the above reasons.

    Comment by Daran — August 16, 2006 @ 3:15 pm | Reply

  9. Oh, for a preview button…

    , nor do I see or infer any suggestion that boys have such an inability. This is a strawman on your part.

    Should have been deleted, since I address the point more accurately in the paragraphs immediately following.

    Markup borked in several places. If it doesn’t make sense, it probably wasn’t what I intended.

    Comment by Daran — August 16, 2006 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

  10. […] In his recent post here (also duplicated at Alas), Barry takes issue with the claims made in this news report. Barry: Also, as I’ll show below, the evidence from the Connecticut Mastery Test shows that the boy crisis does not exist among “boys of every ethnic and socioeconomic group.” On the contrary, the results are consistent with my belief that without racism and poverty holding them back, boys do just as well as girls. […]

    Pingback by Creative Destruction » The Connecticut Mastery Test. - Ampersand is Wrong. — August 16, 2006 @ 9:31 pm | Reply

  11. […] his recent post here (also duplicated at Alas), Barry takes issue with the claims made in this news […]

    Pingback by Feminist Critics — February 3, 2007 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  12. Is there anyone out there that believes as I do that the Connecticut Mastery Tests are:
    1. An ill-defined attempt at measuring teacher capability
    2. Timed tests, which are too stressful for elementary school children, and therefore not only leaves their scores questionable but ends up alienating them from the whole school environment.

    I’ve search for logic in the test preparation/test scoring and found none. Hello, why aren’t more parents and teachers outraged that they are participating in a student-lose-all situation?

    Comment by Jennifer — January 29, 2008 @ 11:40 pm | Reply


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