Enough already with the “boys left behind” shtick

Any of you in North America who work in public libraries, college libraries, schools, or who are raising kids have probably heard the refrain. I see it in the news all the time. I see it in our provincial library association’s children’s division newsletter. I see it in the flyers that are sent home from my kid’s school.

It goes something like this:

Oh noez! Teh boyz! They haz teh st00pidz! What ken we doez? Teh sky is fallin!!!1!

Well, more or less, anyway. Sound familiar? How about it I phrase it like this?:

“The Boy Crisis. At every level of education, they’re falling behind. What to do?”
—Newsweek cover headline, Jan. 30, 2006

I remember grinding my teeth through our whole cultural “Reviving Opheliaphase, wherein all our preteen girls were supposedly turned into vapid selfless dumbed-down peer-approval-seeking bimbos with disordered eating. Now, a decade or so later, the problem is allegedly the opposite. Those same girls who were trying to make themselves disappear a decade ago are now crushing their male counterparts in standardized tests, crowding them out of post-secondary education.

Wow, must be that darned feminism just went too far, eh? (<– sarcasm)

Here’s the thing: There is no “boy crisis.”

Boys in North American are doing more, better, academically than ever before. So what’s the problem? Well, the problem appears to be that girls are also doing more, better, academically then ever before. And sometimes (*gasp*) they are improving faster than boys!

Oh noez! Teh grrlz! They haz teh schooling! Do smthg, quick!!!1!

An awesome, level-headed look at the alleged “Boy Crisis” through US Statistics comes from Sara Mead at Education Sector. Her report, “Evidence Suggests Otherwise: The Truth About Boys and Girls” is a chart-illustrated walk through 35 years of educational stats, showing the gender breakdown of tests, post-secondary attendance, and the rhetoric of the crisis. Her conclusions? Mead writes “with a few exceptions, American boys are scoring higher and achieving more than they ever have before. But girls have just improved their performance on some measures even faster.” This “boy crisis” doesn’t exist. Boys long have and still do score a little better in math; girls long have and still do score a little better in reading. The gaps, overall, appear to be narrowing in most areas.

While the difference in average scores for boys and girls is not much different, the range within boys and within girls is highly stratified, however, by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic class. The real crises, if one wishes to use such language, are

  1. the lack of academic achievement among secondary students of all genders, and
  2. the fact that our socioeconomically underprivileged children always have and still do perform far below average in schools.

But all that doesn’t make “sky is falling” headlines. Socioeconomic disparity is the way a capitalist patriarchy is supposed to work. Narrowing the academic gaps between the genders is not.

What about the fears over gender-imbalanced post-secondary education? Well, the easy response would be to point out that the sky stayed up there for centuries of gender imbalanced universities when the imbalance was in the favour of boys. But for a more statistically-based answer, let us point out that the issue not is not that boys are going to college/university less than before – in fact they are going more than ever before. It’s just that girls are going, well, more more. Including all the non-traditional (older) female students who are going back now to make up for their younger years when fewer women attended post-secondary.

Now, between my two jobs and all else going on I haven’t (yet) taken the time to get complete data to do a thorough Canadian equivalent of Mead’s report, but from glancing over the publicly available data files reporting on our provincial exams and Statistics Canada’s reporting on Educational Indicators, the story seems to be much the same in Canada as in the US – with perhaps a faster gain in women’s representation in post-graduate education.

It’s worth noting here, as we discuss post-graduate education, that men still make more money than women at the end of their educational careers anyway (due to lack of pay equity, due to unbalanced division of unpaid work, due to women being more frequently employed as marginal/non-regular employees, due to the careers women end up in as compared with men…) so it doesn’t really look like these gains in women’s education really mean much in the capitalist economy anyway, sadly.

Why am I so worked up over this fictitious “boy crisis”? The answer is twofold. The obvious answer is because I’m a gender studies teacher, and I make a career our of analysing gender, both the biology and social construction aspects of it. The perhaps less-obvious answer is because I have a school-age (and not always gender role conforming) son. And I think this rhetoric is bad bad bad not just for his female friends, but for him.

As Sara Mead writes,

“Unfortunately, the current boy crisis hype and the debate around it are based more on hopes and fears than on evidence. This debate benefits neither boys nor girls, while distracting attention from more serious educational problems—such as large racial and economic achievement gaps—and practical ways to help both boys and girls succeed in school…

…The problem is most likely not that high schools need to be fixed to meet the needs of boys, but rather that they need to be fixed to meet the needs of all students, male and female.”

Our schools are broken, dysfunctional. This is hardly a new or radical statement. The very tests that generate the data upon which Mead’s article – and most of this whole boy crisis hype – is based are part of the broken-ness, natch. But the “fixes” that we are beginning to see come out of this alleged boy crisis are scary things, and we need to call them for what they are. For some reason, the response to kids seeming disengaged from school, or from reading, appears to be to paint our activities with a broader brush of stereotypes and generalisations, rather than championing and replicating the highly successful, innovative, small programs that work on a level of meeting individual and small-group needs and interests.

We know that there is far wider variation – in test scores, in interests, even in testosterone levels – among boys and among girls than there is between a group of boys and girls. We know that individual learning styles are far more significant than group affiliations. Why, then, is there this sudden push toward sex-segregated education and programming? (See Ann Friedman at AlterNet on the Bush administration’s freaky efforts to re-segregate education here.)

Sure, there are times and places when sex segregated elective programs are a very positive thing. Having worked in sexual assault and domestic violence I have seen the way women-only spaces have been very empowering for some women. Father-baby storytime groups have proven very successful in encouraging male caregivers to build caring skills – skills they were often denied growing up, due to gender roles (which can now be reinforced in boy-only schools!).

But providing sex-segregated programs with no integrated option is problematic on so many levels. There’s the very valid point that separate is never entirely equal. There’s the fact that very idea of having to chose one or the other – identify as male OR female – can be difficult and traumatic for some of us. There’s the alienation of individuals on the margins of what is considered “normal” for a particular group.

And there’s the actual way these “boy specific” programs are being conceived, which appear to be heading in a few directions:

1) Good opportunity to teach/reinforce a whole lot of sexist gender role crapola to the kids,

2) Dumb everything down and lower expectations because boys are boys and they can’t be expected to apply themselves, and, more frequently

3) Boys need more stimulation/kinetic learning/excitement so they get the really fun and challenging programs while girls have to stay in boring traditional programs

As Zuzu at Feministe wrote, “This sounds suspiciously like that episode of the Simpsons when they split up the boys and girls and Lisa had to pose as a boy to get decent math classes

I’m deliberately not linking to library literature or programs in this post. I’m not trying to embarrass anyone, do any “calling out” or point fingers. This is an issue on which I have seen many very intelligent and caring people led quite astray. I think a lot of librarians have, in an attempt for more of a “meet them where they’re at” approach, mistakenly adopted the boys vs. girls mentality. I am tired of all the well-meaning librarian handwringing about the boys who can’t/don’t/won’t read. I always want to yell, “Who cares? They’re going to make twice your salary anyway!”

Of course I want every child to share my love of reading. (Or anime. Or guitar hero. Or punk music. Or…) Should my own son get “turned off” to reading someday, I would want a librarian or teacher to reach out to him with reading materials that will hook him back in, definitely. Looking at him now, though, I’m guessing that a car repair manual is probably not going to be that hook for him, despite his ownership of a penis. I hope that this cultural phase of ours will have passed by then so that well-intentioned teacher or librarian can look past his gender presentation to his individual characteristics and offer him something truly appropriate and effective for him.


Deciding the cause of the alleged problem of boys not reading is that teachers/librarians are mostly female, or that boys brains/hormones/whatever don’t integrate as well as girls’ do


that the solution to this nonexistent problem is to either enforce gender roles yet more emphatically, or to dream up uber-fun programs or accessible literature and limit it to boys is severely misguided.




Filed under gender

12 responses to “Enough already with the “boys left behind” shtick

  1. Pingback: Mathematics Education Blog » Blog Archive » Enough already with the “boys left behind” shtick

  2. Pingback: Fundraising » Enough already with the “boys left behind” shtick

  3. martha

    This was a fabulous post, Greyson. As a children’s librarian and mom of a boy, I thank you.

  4. The argument that “boys are doing better than ever before,” first proffered by Sara Mead of the Education Sector, is of course flawed. For instance, let’s take the same argument and apply it to say…wages by gender. Noone is going to be allayed by the notion that women earning 76% of what a man earns are going just fine, because they are doing better than they ever have before. The argument is silly. When women were behind, Title IX was passed. What are you willing to do now that it isn’t women? Probably nothing.

  5. greyson

    Did you read the above article? Have you read the pay equity posts on this blog?

    In test scores/academic achievement, the gender gap is closing, and as part of that girls are improving faster in some areas than boys are. Both boys and girls tend to follow similar trends over time, but the disparity between the gender categories is decreasing. Yes, this is – in the US – likely due in part to Title IX. And I would argue that policy should also address the remaining glaring disparities – such as those between socioeconomic classes and ethnic/racial groups.

    I’m not sure I completely follow your wages analogy. Women have historically been paid less, they still are paid less, but the gap appears to be closing some (depending on what you count as “work”). I suppose the natural parallel to draw between wages and educational achievement in this context would be to expect that, were women ever to catch up with men’s wages, we would see similar moral panic over men’s falling worth in our society – because in order for women to catch up in hourly wage, men’s salaries would naturally have to increase at a slower rate over the coming years.

  6. Tiki

    As soon as I heard you taught gender studies, I thought, “it figures.” Of course men can only be oppressors, never the oppressed, even if they’re just five years old. And I shit my pants laughing over your “hilarious” misspellings. Whoever said feminists were humorless?

  7. greyson

    I’m glad you find the post amusing, Tiki, but sorry to hear you misunderstood the part about my child being among those ill-served by essentialist gender roles and many attempts to cater to “male” learning styles. Although he tries as hard as any first grader to be oppressive (usually by talking incessantly!), he’s just a kid; it’s up to us to treat him and his peers like capable, intelligent individuals.

  8. Big Johnson

    I sure hope you dont work at my local library……Marxist psychopathic feminists please stay away from my children.

  9. Pingback: My favouritest comment yet! « Social Justice Librarian

  10. mike

    I’m afraid you are overlooking a few things. You are discounting grade inflation and the fact that many schools now just teach to the test. So an average boy a generation ago who would get a C is now getting B’s and A’s. Giving a “C” would hurt a child’s fragile self-esteem (sarcasm).

    Everyone is going to college these days. Too much in fact that a college degree these days is practically worthless. A high school diploma for someone who got it in the 40’s or 50’s could get them almost all jobs. These days even with a college degree you can’t even find a job. Also, government guaranteed student loans allow any kid to go to ANY college he is accepted into. My point is college is the new high school. And if only 70% of students are getting past high school (which is a complete joke) then less are going through college, and even less of those are boys. Girls are inherently advantaged by the sit-in-your-seat-all-day system offered by schools today.

  11. andrew

    Your information is outdated and skewed. College acceptance rates across all non pure sciences are down amongst boys immensely, grades in language arts courses are all significantly lower than girls and the drop rate for boys in high school is as high as 2:1 in some states. The fact that you are a gender studies teacher makes it more shocking that you have not done your research as an educator. If these statistics were for girls rather than boys you would be singing a different tune I am sure. We made accommodations for girls in the sciences why is it not fair play to do the same for boys. The corner stone of modern pedagogy is to teach to your students learning style…and yes boys and girls learn differently.

  12. foxshadow

    I just stumbled upon this article… and it bothered me so I had to write.
    I find your writing to be anything but objective. It sounds very much like you have a chip on your shoulder, and I don’t care for the tone you take against your would-be opponents in your argument. It’s rather patronizing and belittling.

    Personally, my own experience suggests that boys and girls do respond differently to our educational system, and growing up I always felt like girls responded better. I mean, I had good grades, to be sure, but the calm, quiet, polite, inactive, concentration-intensive classroom setting always seemed to go over much more smoothly with the girls than with the guys. Guys were often rambunctious and less willing to settle down… and perhaps for some of them, they needed an educator with a bit more of an appreciation for their own needs. Sometimes too, you would need to earn the students’ respect before they would truly listen, and for male students that involved a different set of requirements than it did for female students. Some teachers (quite often female teachers, as most of our teachers were female) would simply reprimand the male students instead of trying to understand them. And this was the case with “neutral” teachers… just think about all the ones that had a personal vendetta to help the girls succeed because when they grew up, women were more repressed. The fallout from those teachers would be far worse. And trust me, they do exist.
    Can you guarantee that the current “one size fits all genders” school system will accommodate both sexes evenly? If your answer is yes, I am not sure that I can trust your credibility. Behavioural differences are hardwired into the different sexes via their DNA, after millions of years’ worth of evolutionary honing, not just for humans, but for a great many animal species. The school system, where I am anyways, is definitely not hindering any girls… they are doing very well, let me tell you. Is it so crazy that it might put males at a disadvantage?
    Your assumptions are staggering too…. just because test scores are different doesn’t mean that education is going well. Perhaps males can cram at the crunch to pass the test, but develop a phobia of education that will hinder them in the future, or prevent them from wanting to pursue higher education. You make “boy specific” programs out to be a ridiculous nightmare – as if they are going to purposefully instil males with additional gender stereotypes or dumb down the content. That would be poor all-around education. Also, if the males excel in the kinetic and exciting type of education, there’s no reason they can’t ALSO give the girls that exciting education too (assuming that it improves their grades too). And you forget that some males feel awkward around females, or feel the need to act out or seem cool in front of them, which would be greatly helped if they were put into all-male programs.

    I just can’t swallow this pill that you’re trying to shove down my throat… perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when I transitioned from high school to university, the gender ratio went from nearly 1 male: 1 female to 1 male: 7 females (no exaggeration – it was a popular campus statistic that was blatantly visually obvious). Of all the friends I had at university, 2 were male. As well, my last two workplaces were dominated by women, who essentially filled all the management roles above me. My immediate department has 9 employees, and only 2 of them are male… our entire division has an even lower ratio of males. The workplace I worked in previously had only about 7 permanent staff, and only 1 was male (he wasn’t the CEO either, as you might assume)… including temporary staff, the number jumps to about 15 staff and 2 or 3 males.
    I think that you have an outdated feminist viewpoint and that you need to get with the times. My life experience points to the explosion of woman professionals, and a great number of males that are not making it through the system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s