Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bitch PhD and Crooked Timber on The Boy Achievement Gap

I liked this post by Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber on the subject:

It isn’t nuts to think that the gender achievement gap is grounded in a natural inequality.

When the gap was the other way, we had reason to think it was socially constructed because there were so many social pressures against girls achieving as well as boys, like boys getting more and better schooling, having their worldly ambitions fostered more than girls, etc. As Mill pointed out, even if women were intellectually inferior we had no way of knowing that, given what we knew about social practices. But there is no similar obvious pressure in the case of boys. John Tierney, in his contorted effort to oppose affirmative action for boys in college admissions simply assumes that boys are getting less attention than girls, but there’s no evidence for that. There is a bit of nonsense around about boys not liking books as much as girls, but I doubt that even now many boys are told when thinking about taking a demanding English class: “Oh no, you’re a boy and boys are no good at reading, you know, they can’t appreciate literature”, which is what my sister was told about maths when considering taking Maths A-level in the 1980’s (she took it at another, less well-regarded and comprehensive, school now in special measures, got an A, and then a First in Maths and Philosophy, and is now a professional philosopher of physics, you silly, silly man. Hasn’t Larry Summers ever heard of time-lags?). We know that when men and women receive roughly the same educational, health, and nutritional resources over the course of their lives, women outlive men by 3-4 years. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that when, as at last, boys and girls receive roughly equal educational resources during their childhoods, girls outperform boys by a similar percentage. This really might be a case of natural superiority of one sex over the other.

I thought the conversion to social constructivist explanations of inequality was good news; because I think that society makes choices about what kind of reward structure to adopt, I hold society responsible for the inequalities that prevail, even when there is some natural basis for the inequality. (This doesn’t mean I think that inequality is never justified, just that inequalities need to be justified). It is nice to have some conservatives on board.

What a disappointment, then, to find that the gender gap in education is all a storm in a teacup (or a tempest in a teapot for our American readers). This depressingly sensible and well informed analysis by Sara Mead shows that the gap has emerged during a period of improving achievement for boys and girls, and that boys still outperform girls (slightly) in some areas like mathematics and science.

And I very much liked this post by Bitch Ph.D.:

But the important part of the study is this:

"There are groups of boys for whom “crisis” is not too strong a term. When racial and economic gaps combine with gender achievement gaps in reading, the result is disturbingly low achievement for poor, black, and Hispanic boys. But the gaps between students of different races and classes are much larger than those for students of different genders—anywhere from two to five times as big, depending on the grade. .....In addition to disadvantaged and minority boys, there are also reasons to be concerned about the substantial percentage of boys who have been diagnosed with disabilities. Boys make up two-thirds of students in special education. . . "

Aside from a token nod, I really haven't seen anyone addressing this statement at much length. The interesting thing here is that we've come farther with feminist educational goals for white, middle class girls than we have with anti-racist educational goals for boys of color. (A fact that's surely reflected by the anti-affirmative action movement, which is largely about race rather than gender) I suspect that a lot of this goes back to the reaction of middle-class white parents to school integration in the 70s: between property tax revolts and white flight, the white middle class pulled out of supporting public schools after they were integrated.

The popular meme that public schools nowadays are academically unrigorous, even dangerous, reflects the prejudices behind and effects of that history. I'd love to see the conservatives who have been fussing about the boy crisis continue to fuss, now that it's revealed that what we really have is a boys-of-color crisis; and I'd love to seethe liberals who have been defending girls' achievement start defending the right of boys of color to the same gains (not to mention girls of color, who are doing significantly worse than whites of both genders, though better than boys of their own race).

It does, however, reconfirm my intent to keep PK in public schools when we move to Los Angeles. Even though at the same time it makes me sad and angry to think that for me, unlike most of the people in L.A., this is a question of intent and 'choice,' rather than necessity. It makes me glad, though, that the current mayor of that city--whose policies and politics I don't yet know that much about--seems to have public schooling at the top of his agenda.

It's probably not a coincidence that he's Latino.


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