It was published a few days ago in a number of newspapers around the country, but syndicated columnist David Brooks's column "Biological differences key to addressing boys' underachievement" is a fun read - and important. He writes:
It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture.
Yeah, well, duh.
Ask any practicing librarian if boys and girls like different kinds of books. Even back in the dark ages of education when I was in college, University of Iowa professor G. Robert Carlson (Books and the Teenage Reader) flatly stated "Girls will read boy books (and books with male protagonists), but boys won't read girl books." Check out the work of Jon Scieszka at Guys Read.
Identifying, acquiring and promoting library materials of particular interest to our Y-chromosome crowd has been a serious challenge for school and young adult librarians over the past few years. Once again, librarians are ahead of the curve!
Personally, I have always been bothered by the discrimination against reading quality, literate non-fiction in schools. Seems like most reading assigned is either a deathly dull textbook passage or "sensitive" fiction. You want guys to read? You need to provide (and not stigmatize) adventure, action, plot and facts!
During the 1970s, it was believed that gender is a social construct and that gender differences could be eliminated via consciousness-raising. But it turns out gender is not a social construct. Consciousness-raising doesn't turn boys into sensitively poetic pacifists. It just turns many of them into high school and college dropouts who hate reading.
30% of today's freshman will drop out of school before graduation. Is it because we make them read "girls'" books?
Let's say that instead of literacy as a goal, 5th grade teacher Ms Smith's mandate is to make sure all her students weigh 100 pounds at the end of the year - the 5th grade "weight" level. She weighs them carefully as soon as school starts and notes which ones are in the 85-99 pound range. If she wants to look successful, she will need to have as many students in her class weigh 100 pounds or more by spring, To maximize her chances of this happening, she will feed those just under the minimum weight the most. Those already weighing over 100 pounds don't need more food. The chances of the severely underweight gaining 15 or 25 pounds in a year are so small that giving food to them would be a waste. In practical Ms Smith's class both the heaviest and lightest kids will go hungry, but Ms Smith's odds of meeting the expectation of the state and federal government are better than they would be had she fed everyone.
According to Jennifer Booher-Jennings's "Rationing Education In an Era of Accountability" in the June 2006 Phi Delta Kappan this strategy is being promoted and applied not to weight gain, of course, but to learning in schools using data-driven decision making tools. The author lists two dilemmas schools using data face:
Dilemma 1. Data can be used to improve student achievement, but they can also be used to target some students at the expense of others.
Dilemma 2. It is unfair to hold schools accountable for the new students or for subgroups that are too small to yield statistically reliable estimates of a school's effectiveness; however the consequences of excluding some students may be to deny them access to scarce educational resources.
A number of pundits have suggested that a better slogan than No Child Left Behind would be Every Child Moves Ahead. Think how much different Ms Smith's classroom resources would be allocated if instead of every child needing to weigh 100 pounds to be considered "successful," each child needed to gain 5 pounds or 10% of his beginning weight during the year. The kid who already weights 150 pounds and the 65 pounder would still be given resources since their increases would be considered as important as the "bubble" students.
Measuring individual student growth, often called "value added" assessment, is the only ethical approach to data-based decision-making. It's the only way every student will "count." Do any of our legislators get this?
A second, equally scary/heart-breaking story in the June Kappan is "Handcuff Me, Too!" in which Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld describes what happens when a bright, enthusiastic 5-year-old enters an assessment-driven classroom where the first grade curriculum has been "pushed down."
Please schools, don't turn the young fisherman shown in the picture at the left into a school-hater. Save the worksheets and tests for a year or two. The world will still go around.