Saturday, November 24, 2007


A Closer look at the Looming Literacy Debate

By Meredith Stebbins and from the Teaching Matters eNews series

In the 1990s, an alarm began to sound from authors, critics and experts — young boys in America were in trouble. Across all economic and racial backgrounds, boys were lagging behind girls in areas like reading, outnumbering girls in special education classes and more often being prescribed mood-managing drugs. Even now, more than 10 years later, none of these trends have improved. A 2004 National Center for Educational Statistics study analyzed ten years of reading achievement data. At grades 4, 8 and 12, girls consistently performed better. Girls in these grades outperformed boys in writing achievement as well. (Freeman 2004) A fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff Sommers, states, “I don’t think that anyone will deny that girls are more academically superior as a group…They make the grades, they run the student activities, they are the valedictorians.”

Classrooms - Are They Geared Towards Girls?

Famed author and educational consultant Ralph Fletcher writes in Boy Writers: Reclaiming their Voices, that today’s more restrictive, test- and curriculum- driven classrooms have negatively affected all students, especially boys. In a recent Time Magazine article, David von Drehle elaborates, “Even in the youngest grades, test-oriented teachers focus energy on conventional exercises in reading, writing and other seatwork, areas in which girls tend to excel. At the same time, schools are cutting back science labs, physical education and recess, where the experimental learning styles of boys come into play.” He goes on to say that boys need “mentors and structure, but also some time to experiment.”

Girls vs. Boys - Is There Really a Problem?

Our impulse to compare boys to girls and to measure each gender by the success of the other is, perhaps, the wrong approach. Sarah Mead, former senior policy analyst at the Education Sector (a private think tank largely funded by the Gates Foundation) argues that boys are holding their own overall and, in some cases, even improving on standardized tests; they just are just not improving as quickly as girls. Mead believes that the ‘good news story about the achievements of girls’ has been sensationalized into a ‘bad news story about struggling boys.’ It is entirely possible that girls, as a group, are only now starting to realize their full potential.

The standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress test (also known as the nation’s report card) indicates that by the senior year of high school, however, boys have fallen nearly 20 percentage points behind female peers. Is there cause for concern because boys are so far behind girls or, because many boys are leaving school functionally illiterate?

The Teaching Matters Approach

Animated students like JT (shown here) relate to young urban boys’ sense of humor, interests, and communication style.
Teaching Matters is committed to improving literacy in the New York City public schools and recognizes the need for programs that capture the interest of boys and girls. Over the years we have made the most of what researchers have learned about engaging both genders. In fact, some of the country’s foremost literacy and writing experts serve as our consulting curriculum authors.

Lynette Guastaferro, Executive Director, says, “Teaching Matters is focused on engaging boys and girls in literacy and writing by using technology to make writing relevant to students’ experiences outside of school.” We have developed Writing Matters; a technology-enhanced middle school writing curriculum and professional development program. The program uses story-based animations to help students grasp the critical thinking behind effective writing. Furthermore, it offers students a safe space for writing, collaboration and online publishing that is teacher tested and approved!”

Teachers report that even their struggling students are writing more and persevering through all stages of the writing process. Boys, in particular, have been cited as extremely responsive to the technology-rich writing environment.

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