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While programs to remedy girls' underachievement in math, science, and computers have proliferated in recent years, funded by the government and by private groups such as the National Science Foundation, there are no programs targeting boys' deficits in reading and writing. (Such programs seem to be working well in England.) Literacy is a popular issue for politicians of both parties, and this year the U.S. Department of Education has given nearly $200 million in grants to state initiatives aimed at improving reading skills in elementary school as part of the Reading Excellence Program. But when I asked project coordinators in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and the District of Columbia if any of these programs would address the gender gap in literacy, it was obvious that the question took them by surprise.
Efforts to help boys can be regarded as suspect even if they target black boys, who have an acknowledged place in the pantheon of the oppressed. In 1996, acting on a complaint from a female student's mother, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights ruled that the Black Male Achievement Initiative, a mentoring network in the predominantly black schools of Prince George's County, Maryland, that matched boys with successful professional men, had to be opened to girls. Zack Berry, a staffer in the school district's Office of Youth Development, has no doubt that boys suffered as a result: "Once the program went coed, we found we were doing very well by the young ladies but we were losing our boys left and right, especially in high school." In a few schools, he says, male participation dwindled to less than one-fifth of the total.
This bias against male-only services may be waning. Even the story of Black Male Achievement Initiative has something of a happy ending. In 1999, after the school district collected data showing that boys did not fare as well as girls and presented them to the Office of Civil Rights, the OCR reversed itself and gave a green light to single-sex mentoring programs and activities. Another all-male program that has chapters in several mostly black public schools in Maryland, BROTHERS (Brothers Reaching Out To Help Each Reach Success), has met with no objections so far. "Faculty and adults have rallied around BROTHERS because it has helped a group of kids who just weren't buying into school," says Mike Durso, the principal of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. The group, which arranges for teens to mentor and tutor younger boys, has been credited with improving discipline, graduation rates, and college enrollment.
Single-sex education, whose popularity for girls surged after the girl crisis hysteria of the early 1990s-leading to the somewhat controversial opening of an all-girl public charter school in New York in 1996 and a sister school in Chicago last fall-deserves more consideration for boys as well. True, there are few reliable data on how children fare in single-sex vs. coed classrooms; if single-sex schools often do better, it may be because they are the product of a conscious effort to create a more academically oriented, more orderly, more individually focused learning environment.
Nonetheless, single-sex schooling may be the best option for
some boys and girls, not necessarily because the sexes are so
radically different but because some teenagers learn best without
the distracting presence of the other sex. Susan Harter and other
researchers have found that the fear of looking stupid in front of
opposite-sex classmates is a major deterrent to speaking in class
for boys and girls alike. Boys in particular
may try to impress girls by acting "cool" or goofy. Counterintuitively, many education experts believe that all-boy classrooms may also allow boys to show their gentle side-pursue interests in art or poetry, discuss the emotions of literary characters-without the fear of appearing "girly."
As for coeducational schools, it goes without saying that they should not be places where children are insulted because of their sex or turned into lab rats for social engineers bent on reinventing gender. Fortunately, unlike the parents of college students, people with children in primary or secondary schools usually have some idea of what's happening in classrooms, and they can help keep the gender warriors in check. Several years ago, a particularly noxious sexual harassment prevention curriculum introduced in Minnesota, which would have had 7-year-olds reciting a solemn pledge to combat harassment, was shelved because of parental opposition and adverse publicity.
Many of the "unmanly" educational fads conservatives deplore are bad for reasons that have little to do with gender. "Cooperative" teaching can turn off bright girls as well as competitive boys. Nor is touchy-feely pedagogy, such as writing assignments requiring students to explore intimate issues, necessarily "female-friendly." Girls who like sharing confidences with each other may balk at "sharing" with teachers. A 1994 Los Angeles Times story described reactions to a controversial statewide exam with essay questions about conflicts with parents and regrets about the past. Most of the students who were quoted as complaining about invasive questions were girls.
On the other hand, it's doubtful that many people will worry that their sons will be emasculated by making quilts at school, or by adopting the persona of a famous woman in a class presentation. It would be interesting, though, to see a feminist teacher's reaction if a boy chose Margaret Thatcher as his heroine instead of Anita Hill.
Answering the 'Boy Question'
If there's an answer to the "boy question," it lies in getting away from a one-size-fits-all model, whether feminist or traditionalist, and making sure that parents and children have as many choices as possible. Right now, parents with sexually egalitarian values can generally rely on free government schools to transmit these values to their children, while those who want their children's education to instill traditional beliefs about sex roles have to pay tuition at a private school (as well as taxes to help finance the public schools). Parents who want single-sex schooling for their children are also left with fewer and more expensive options than those satisfied with coeducation. This is one problem that school vouchers could address.
The more diversity there is in education, the more it can be tailored to each child's individuality. Even those who agree that boys have specific needs based on sex-linked traits may define these needs quite differently. Sommers stresses strict discipline in a teacher-led, structured classroom; Kleinfeld suggests that active and nonconformist children, who are disproportionately male, would do well in "open classrooms where children move around a lot," with "teachers who enjoy wiseacres." Each prescription is undoubtedly right for some boys. And there are still other boys who, defying averages, do not thrive on competition and do better in cooperative settings.
We are still far away from a truly diverse educational system. But we have come a long way toward a diverse society that respects both the maleness and the individuality of boys and young men. This diversity will always have room for conservative subcultures that uphold traditional ideals of manhood, as well as for feminist-pacifist communes in which a little boy who uses a stick as a toy sword immediately has the weapon confiscated. But I'd like to think that the future belongs to the feminist who can respect her son the career soldier and to the career soldier who can respect his son the hairdresser.