The Trouble With Boys (thoughts)
I’m always interested in books about America’s education system (I’m not sure why…they just fascinate me), so when I was asked if I wanted a review copy of Peg Tyre’s The Trouble With Boys, I jumped at it. The subtitle summarises the book quite nicely: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do.
Tyre was a journalist at Newsweek, and this book grew out of a report she did for the magazine. There’s definitely enough material here to fill a book, though-it doesn’t seem padded. The book is set up to first explore the problems boys are having in school-this takes up more than half of the total book. I liked the mix of personal stories (Tyre herself has two boys, and she talked to many other parents with school-age sons) and statistics/research-based analysis. That being said, when the book turned to possible solutions, I thought it became weaker, and I sometimes I found myself thinking “Well, maybe the boys just need to suck it up and sit still through high school like the rest of us. Isn’t that what they’ll have to do in their jobs?” I’m aware this might not be the nicest, or most charitable, thought (especially since I’m a girl, and I’ve never had problems sitting still for long periods of time), but Tyre really didn’t address if implementing boy-friendly changes in the education system would affect their work-ability later on. (It might not at all, but since I consistently found myself wondering about it, I wish it had been brought up.) Nevertheless, if you’re curious about America’s education, or if you have young sons, this book is worth your time! :)
So, many parts of the book intrigued me, and I thought I’d briefly discuss them here. First off, Tyre addresses the battles women had to face in order to achieve equality in education. What ended up changing things was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibited gender discrimination in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” It was ‘slipped into’ the legislation, but it ended up having a huge effect. Most universities and colleges immediately started accepting more women, and both national and state legislation followed to create new programs in support of girls. As Tyre says,
Today it’s hard to comprehend how fast the education prospects for girls changed. …Suddenly, there was a willingness to engage girls more thoroughly in school, and there were well-funded, well-organized programs and materials with which to do it. Teachers ensured that the new societal order, one that viewed girls as worthy equals of boys, was reinforced at every opportunity. In elementary schools, they discarded reading primers that pictured girls as stewardesses and boys as pilots and replaced them with books that encouraged both John and Jane to be pilots. Before Title IX, it was common practice for high school guidance counselors to hand out vocational worksheets color-coded by gender. On the pink version, the choices for girls included model and actress but not veterinarian and psychiatrist. After Title IX, teachers raised a fuss, and soon, girls and boys were getting the same sheet.
I think it’s very important for girls (women?) of my generation to remember everything feminists had to fight for!
Tyre also looks at the shift in how we treat our preschool-aged children.
Before the early 1970s, 60 percent of all mothers with school age children stayed at home. Despite the physical presence of a parent back then, children and adults inhabited separate spheres. The first five years of a child’s life were devoted to free play-pretend games, toys, and board games on rainy days, and endless ball games, building tree forts, bike riding, and maybe swimming on sunny ones. Siblings, cousins, and neighborhood kids formed a de facto peer group. Kindergarten was a child’s inauguration into formal learning, and plenty of kids had their very first classroom experiences in first grade.
But then for awhile it seemed that very young children might be the best at learning, and perhaps in order to be successful later in life, toddlers and preschoolers should begin more formal education instead of just playing. Some preschools now introduce math and reading worksheets to prepare the children for kindergarten.
The strategy may backfire for rich and poor kids alike. Researchers have found that children who attend preschools that emphasize direct instruction experience more stress at school. At ages five and six, children from academic-type preschools knew more letters and numbers than their peers who attended nonacademic preschools, but by first grade those advantages have disappeared. Researchers have also found that children from academically oriented preschools are less creative and less enthusiastic about learning than their peers who attended nonacademic preschools.
The next passage comes from a chapter that I think is near and dear to many of our hearts-“Boys and Literacy.” I think it speaks for itself:
Three years ago, Principal Theresa Bollinger decided that the boys of Ridge Central Elementary, a public school outside Chicago, needed some positive macho role models for reading. Now, every day, one male officer from the local police department enters the school in full uniform complete with holster, peaked cap, and shiny badge. He walks into the classroom, settles himself on a small chair, and pulls a children’s book out from under his arm. For forty minutes, that officer reads to the children. The police rotate the duty every day. The kids love it. And boys-who, for the most part, live in a world of simple sexual stereotypes-get to see a man with a gun in his holster and a book in his hand.
Tyre also addresses the dangers of pseudo-scientific sexual stereotyping. While the whole chapter is spot on, I loved reading about this experiment:
In 2005, two psychologists from the University of British Colombia gave four groups of women a peculiarly designed test. It consisted of two sets of math questions separated by one of four essay questions. Three of the essay topics contained information-some bogus-about women and math. The topics: (1) that there is no difference in math ability between boys and girls, (2) that gender stereotyping and different experiences affect how girls score in math, (3) that there are genetic reasons why girls aren’t good in math, and a fourth about women and art. All the women scored about the same in the first math section. Differences in performance were evident in the second math section. After reading and responding to the essay question, women who had read in the essay question that boys and girls scored the same in math did well. Those who had read that gender stereotypes accounted for females’ poor performance in math did slightly less well. Women who had read females were genetically predisposed not to do well in math did worse than the other two.
Ok, so I just realised that none of these passages were about boys’ particular problems. But I promise Tyre talks about them a lot! However, her analyses can’t really be boiled down into a passage or two, which is probably a good thing. It definitely challenges the prevailing view that girls are the ones who need more support in school, which I believe was Tyre’s main goal. And it does so in an intelligent, thoughtful manner.
Have you read any books lately that challenged conventional wisdom? Did they change your mind about anything?