The United States has a serious gap in learning, that begins to become evident in elementary students in the area of reading. Although we can see test results sorted for boys and girls, schools and districts have no mandate through No Child Left Behind to address this issue. Instead, we require "Adequate Yearly Progress" (referred to as AYP) in narrowing the gap among racial/ethnics groups and for lower income groups. We just ignore the biggest gap which is between boys and girls. It is not unusual to see girls demonstrating adequate reading skills at a much higher rate than boys. For example, in New York, 35% of girls are proficient in reading in grades 3-8, while only 27% of boys are proficient. I attempted to find data in my home state of New Jersey, but their school report cards are no longer including data sorted by gender. It boggles the mind that our federal mandates do not require states and schools to address the gender gap. Our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has continually revealed this gap, with as much as 19 percentage points separating boys and girls. This problem is not unique to the United States. Although causes may differ, we can see girls outperforming boys at astonishing rates all over the world, particularly in developing countries.
Here in the United States, educational deficiencies lead to other problems. Boys are more likely to be suspended from school, be involved with gangs and violence, and much more likely to be arrested. In order to help our boys, we have to change our schools.
How can we improve outcomes for boys, while not diminishing achievement for girls?
There seems to be agreement on a few possible explanations, with associated solutions to this problem. Here are three things we can do to improve educational outcomes for boys.
1. Attract more men to elementary education. As a society, we have been reluctant to accept men as teachers of young children. Walk into almost any preschool or elementary school in the United States, and you are likely to see all or nearly all teachers are women. I have personally worked in several schools where there were no, or maybe just one or two, men in the classrooms. Much more work needs to be done in this area so that boys will have good role models in their early academic lives, and schools will reflect practices and cultures that are more conducive to learning for boys.
A faculty that includes women AND men will be good for boys AND girls.
2. Include more movement into the daily school routine and schedule. Every day in most schools, we are asking children to do things they are not naturally inclined to do. Kids just don't want to sit still. This is even more true for boys than it is for girls. Can you imagine sitting on a hard, wooden chair at a little desk for hours on end? This is what is expected of elementary school children. We need to closely examine classroom routines and daily schedules in schools to ensure there is plenty of movement throughout the day to foster learning.
A day full of movement is good for boys AND girls.
3. Ensure that reading selections are interesting to boys. Students are not always offered a wide selection of reading materials. Sometimes boys just don't find books that are interesting to them. As a result, boys tend to read independently much less than girls, which prevents them from improving their skills. Since almost all elementary teachers and librarians are women, they don't always gravitate to books that may be more appealing to boys. It is also interesting to note that girls are often more excited about books that are more appealing to girls such as superheroes or gross things.
A wider variety of reading materials is good for boys AND girls.
Working toward these three things will allow boys and girls to improve reading skills, and allow boys to find the success that has eluded them in our schools.
Our federal government is now attempting to have us believe that the problem in our high poverty communities is our teachers. The US Department of Education is directing school districts to ensure equity in teacher assignment by adding a requirement for "state educator equity plans" to Title I grant applications. Each state that accepts the funding will be required to submit a plan that shows how it will ensure "poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.” The theory of action that guides this mandate goes something like this. If we could just get better teachers to work in these places, the kids would learn more. Wow. I have worked in lots of different places, including some high poverty communities and I can tell you from experience, there are really GREAT teachers in these places. These teachers overcome what others see as insurmountable odds to reach their kids. In addition to tirelessly teaching every day and working to improve their own skills, they provide food, clothing and sometimes even shelter to kids in need. They work long hours in sometimes terrible conditions and have their hearts broken on a daily basis. The reason we have less experienced teachers in our tough schools is because this work is really hard. Most teachers know if they don't want to leave the profession, they will have to switch to schools where they won't get burnt out as quickly. So, after just a few years, that is what typically happens. If a teacher still wants to teach (many don't and leave the profession), she will move to a place where she can feel more supported and more readily see the results of her work. Stating that our problems in high poverty districts stem from less effective teachers is about the most insulting thing you could say about the teaching profession.
Secondly, simply looking at experience and credentials (the current proposal) does not tell the whole story. There are incredibly effective beginning teachers who only have bachelor's degrees. There are some amazing teachers who come into the field through alternative routes and others who do incredible work "out of field." Conversely, there are some teachers with more experience and traditional credentials who may not be as good. Since we still lack an accurate way to measure teacher effectiveness, we really don't know how to sort teachers in a way that tells us which teacher is more effective. This is the very heart of the current debate over standardized testing and teacher evaluation.
The third flaw in this thinking is that you can somehow improve how local districts and schools select their teachers by making the process more complicated. This process is already cumbersome, filled with regulations, certifications, background checks, politics, school district policies and union rules. Adding yet another layer of complexity will just slow down the process and prevent high poverty districts from getting the teachers they need, when they need them. The result will be larger class sizes and more substitutes when schools are unable to move through the process and hire enough teachers.
If we want our kids in high poverty communities to do better academically, it is time we truly supported the teachers who work with them instead of insulting and blaming them for all of society's ills.
Beginning this week, I will be devoting every Tuesday to providing new content to support the teaching of reading. I hope you will join me in spreading the word of new, helpful tools designed to improve reading instruction, and make teachers' work easier.
Janine Walker Caffrey writes about reading, education and a few other topics related to happiness and life in general.