Boys continue to struggle with reading and writing
 
By Jen Horsey

TORONTO (CP) - While girls may have overcome the gender gap in science and math at school, recent research from around the world shows boys continue to struggle with reading and writing, raising new concerns they could find themselves lagging behind for the rest of their lives.
"In a matter of less than a decade and a half, males have gone from being a disproportionate number in universities and specialty programs to a number that's perhaps 30-plus per cent," said Paul Cappon, director general of the Council of Ministers of Education.

"And it's falling."

As recently as the 1980s, debate over the gender gap in schools focused almost exclusively on girls' poor performance in science and math, virtually ignoring indications even then that boys were struggling with reading and writing.

"We were very concerned about classroom interaction patterns and the success of girls, mainly in the areas of math and science," said Cecilia Reynolds, an associate dean at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

A national study by the Council of Ministers of Education released this week found Canadian girls are out-performing boys in literacy skills by a wide margin. The council's School Achievement Indicators Program test for writing evaluated thousands of 13- and 16-year-olds last year. Among 13-year-olds, about 10 per cent more girls than boys met expected skill levels. Among 16-year-olds, about 17 per cent more girls than boys wrote at an age-appropriate level.

"We always knew that girls were doing quite fine in the areas of literacy and languages and writing. But we also always knew the boys were not," said Reynolds, who is now working on a book on the subject. "But there was not a great deal of concern because in the greater economy of things, boys were always getting the better jobs, getting the better salaries."
Boys used to have an advantage over girls in math and science, something some educators believed made up for their other deficits. But recent science and math testing has shown any performance gap that once existed between boys and girls in those subjects has all but disappeared in Canada.
Some even speculate that next year, when the council next tests Canadian students in science, the girls may move ahead of the boys. That puts the girls squarely in the lead when it comes to university entrance or achievement in the labour market, said Cappon.

Only 42 per cent of university graduates are male in Canada, and that number is dropping each year, he said. "There's such an obvious, linear, direct relationship between level of education and income," said Cappon. "We've got to be concerned about that."

He worries the social fabric of Canada is undergoing a rapid and dramatic shift where women will be expected to carry an excessive child care and income-generation burden.

"Asking women to provide most of the human capital in society; that's a lot," he said.

But while experts agree that now is the time to turn their attention to the long-standing literacy gender divide, their explanations for it, and their solutions, widely vary.

In a culture that favours equal opportunity and advocates political correctness, some have found it's difficult to discuss this troubling gender gap without entering into the touchy domain of sexism. Reynolds, an educator with a women's studies academic background who is quick to label herself a feminist, cautioned it is important to address differences between boys and girls without assigning blame.

"Some of the literature is suggesting some educators are blaming women teachers and saying that in the '70s and '80s, when we did all these things for girls, we somehow forgot about the boys," Reynolds said. "I don't really buy that one."

"I don't think we forgot about the boys. I think perhaps we didn't pay sufficient attention to the learning needs of boys." She has worked for a decade to educate teachers about the different learning needs of both sexes.
Some say boys continue to lag behind in writing and reading because of what Cappon calls the "feminization" of education. Increasingly, teaching is becoming dominated by women as more young women enter the profession and more older men retire, he said. That leaves boys with few male role models in the classroom.

"It's women doing the teaching. Boys in the socialization process will tend to discount the importance of that particular subject area when it's only women teaching it," he said. Factors that start even before boys enter the education system, such as girls' proclivity to be more verbal and boys' desire to be more active, may also contribute to the problem, he said.

He also said the kinds of reading materials available in schools may better suit girls than boys. "It turns out boys and girls don't necessarily like the same things," he said.

The current wisdom is that boys' reading preferences include concrete facts and instructional material that will help them better understand a particular area of interest, whereas girls are more attracted to stories that explore inter-personal relationships. Think about the boy who devours columns of hockey statistics while his sister and her friends are reading books like The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.

In Canada, there are a variety of approaches to level out skill levels at school. Educators nationwide are closely watching a pilot project in New Brunswick designed to prompt boys to read. One part of the project has male role models from nearby St. Thomas University, including some hockey players, going into classes at a Fredericton, N.B., elementary school to read to students.

Students at the test school are also being encouraged to read material of their choice together in small mixed-gender groups, followed by a discussion project that allows participants choices including illustrator, group leader or summarizer.

Heather Richmond, an associate education professor at St. Thomas and one of the project leaders, said part of her goal is to add books expected to appeal to boys to the school's collection. She, along with Cheryl Miles, a teacher seconded to work on the project, plan to present their preliminary results next month in Ottawa.

But some argue the only way to ensure equitable treatment of boys and girls in the education system is to segregate them. Some schools recently used this tactic to improve girls' performance in science and math, but with the latest emphasis on literacy and boys, some now say full separation is the only solution.

The founder of a United States organization promoting single-sex education points to the success of the inner-city James Lyng High School in Montreal as one shining example. The school introduced single-sex classrooms five years ago and since then, absenteeism has dropped, pass rates are high and the rate of students going on to college has nearly doubled, said Leonard Sax. "So many people in the education community seemed to be paralyzed by a feeling that it's politically incorrect to talk about innate differences in the ways girls and boys learn," said Sax, who started the National Association for Single Sex Public Education last year.

Sax, a family doctor and psychologist, argues hard-wired differences between boys and girls mean it's impossible for both to learn successfully in the classroom together.

"Almost every substantial choice you have to make will benefit one gender and disadvantage another," said Sax from his office in Poolesville, Maryland.
He said girls hear better than boys and that part of boys' reasons for falling behind is simply that they can't hear the teacher. There are also key differences in the way boys and girls respond to confrontation, Sax said. Girls, he said, shrink away from a confrontational teaching style under which many boys would thrive.

For her part, educator Reynolds argues the study of brain function is a relatively new science which is barely understood and shouldn't form the basis for education policy. She also emphasized that these gender differences are statistical, with individuals everywhere bucking the trend. "I don't think we have to freak out and get overly concerned," she said. "I think we do have to pay attention to what we're doing in our homes with our boys and in our classrooms with our boys and that there may be things we could do differently, and better, and these scores could actually change."

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