Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Separate but Equal

It has been awhile since I've posted anything. Standard apology.

The summer term has ended so I get a little break. Woo! Time to process a lot of what I've learned so far. I think that my top two are (1) really and truly caring for all students (you'd be surprised at how controversial this is) and (2) lots of instructional strategies.

The third is about gender and education. The last fifteen years or so have seen a boom in the field of research known as the "boy crisis." Basically there are dozens of scholarly and mainstream titles purporting that "our boys" or "our sons" need "saving" because they are "failing" or "being failed" by the educational system. For urban children, this has the more dire implication that schools play a role in sending more African American males to prison than to college. It is true that many teachers display numerous gender biases; male students, and African American male students especially, are often labeled "behavior problems" and are overdiagnosed with ADHD and emotional disturbances.

But the boy crisis language is problematic, and I see the problem as twofold. The first is relatively straightforward: girls have problems too. And not just teen pregnancy, either: lots of challenges experienced by girls in school are actually THE SAME as those experienced by boys. For example, Pedro Noguera, author of The Trouble with Black Boys, cites a survey in which students at a magnet school in New England were asked to respond to the statement, "My Teachers Support Me and Care About My Success in Their Class.” Noguera highlights the number of black males who either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statment: 80%. But 42% of Black females disagreed, and 27% strongly disagreed, making for a total of 72% of African American females disagreeing with the statement. Compared to the literature about boys and "urban" boys especially, the literature about urban girls seems pretty slim, at least to a beginner.

When it comes to the "achivement gap," girls outperform boys on reading tests, but girls and boys are equal in mathematics. But the difference on the NAEP between boys and girls of any race or ethnicity is less than half the difference between white and Asian students and black and Latino students. So is this really the problem we want to be focused on? A lot of this goes hand-in-hand with the nice white lady factor: if all teachers are white ladies, then all students are black boys, right?

So that's problem number one. Problem number two: a lot of education research and policy has a frankly retrograde view when it comes to what sex and gender are. Hence the subtitles of many of these books: "saving our sons" is especially popular. A lot of this research, and the policy that comes as a result--schools like Urban Prep in Chicago, for example--doesn't seem to want to discuss at great length what counts as being a boy or a man.

This is not to say that these conversations don't happen at all. But there is a lot of work going on around single-sex education that I consider truly dangerous and potentially damaging. Take, for example, this Washington Post article about single-sex ed in a Washington, D.C. school. (NCLB legalized single-sex publicly funded education in 2006.) The article starts out narrating two classes of first grade students: "rambunctious," "spunky" boys and "quiet," "tidy" girls. The article goes on to tell us that the school's principal knows a lot about the "research" that says that "boys and girls learn differently." But the teachers of the two classes have never taught single-sex classes before, and so what do they know about how boys learn and how girls learn? Only stereotypes. Moreover, the research that shows that boys' and girls' brains are biologically different--especially before puberty--is at best tenuous, at worst totally bogus. It is extremely difficult for researchers to separate social factors in these studies. So are single sex schools just perpetuating gender differences, and stereotypical ones at that?

It is telling, at least to me, that the title of the article is--seeming unironically--"separate but equal." It seems that people just don't know enough yet about any of these things--how boys learn, how girls learn, how they learn to be boys and girls--to start experimenting with actual children. I thought that we already knew that separate was always unequal.

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