Monday, May 9, 2011

Gender shouldn't be an excuse to promote unequal opportunity in schools

The front page of the Seattle Times’ Sunday edition featured a story written by a reporter named Linda Shaw which was typical of the way the Times (and the media in general) approaches gender issues. Take for instance a story a few years ago that dealt with alleged education disparities between girls and boys in Pakistan. Pakistani girls living in the U.S. are receiving educational opportunities that most would not be receiving in their native country. Only 18 percent of girls in Pakistan have some high school education. This is a prime example of gender discrimination. Pakistani boys residing in this country are presumably receiving superior education as well, but to mention that leads us off point. Boys in Pakistan do, on the other hand, have much greater access to a high school education—or so we are supposed to believe.

Here is a multiple choice question: What percent of Pakistani boys would you guess have some high school education, information buried somewhere in the rump area of the story:

A. 93 percent
B. 77 percent
C. 54 percent
D. 23 percent

If you guessed A, you are obviously strongly influenced by the propaganda. If you guessed D, you would be right, and it shows that you have an awareness of how class often trumps gender in many less than completely “developed” countries. Just because men may dominate political and economic life in certain countries, the people that do are usually members of the elite class that maintains itself by keeping the majority of people—males as well as females—in an illiterate or under-educated state. In many parts of the world, boys are given guns instead of an education, to be used as cannon fodder by warlords.

The Shaw story, on the surface, purported to be about what some inner city school was doing to help failing students. Fine—except that the focus was on what teachers (apparently white) were doing to help female students. Now, I don’t know if this was only an impression constructed by the fact that the reporter was uncomfortable with male students—or maybe it wasn’t merely an impression: Maybe the teachers were, in fact, focused solely on helping female students. We have heard time and again that girls are “disadvantaged” in school, but if this was ever true, it hasn’t been true for many decades, especially since the numerous “Titles” instituted in the early 1970s mandated “equality.” The “girl friendly” rules that tried to emasculate boys have had the effect of portraying their strengths as “weaknesses.” One of the complaints was that boys were too “eager” to answer questions, which was seen as “bullying” and “suppressing” the girls. The effect of suppressing the boys' instincts is like saying to them “We don’t care about your education. Fend for yourself.” It goes without saying that black and Latino males are most likely to be negatively-effected by such attitudes.

I remember watching a CNN report regarding a National Women’s Law Center “study” on the “alarming numbers” of Latinas who fail to graduate from high school after four years, for the usual cultural reasons. Typical of these narrowly-focused and politicized studies, numbers are cited without context or concern about the other side of the equation. The “other side,” of course, is that all over the country states are reporting that black and Latino males have by far the highest drop-out rates of any measurable demographic. Why the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund chose to be a party to this partisan political report focusing solely on girls and ignoring the problems of Latino boys flies in the face of the fact that the very year this “study” was released, New York and Massachusetts were reporting that not only do black and Latino males have the highest non-high graduation rates in their respective states, but they are most likely to be dumped—and forgotten—in special education classes.

A report just released by the Seattle School District examining the graduation and dropout rate in Seattle high schools for the classes of 2008, 2009 and 2010 provide the same depressing picture. The numbers for each year vary widely, and a surface examination shouldn’t be taken as suggesting a “trend.” 2010 had a lower dropout rate but also a lower graduation rate, because of a greater number of students “still enrolled.” In two of the three years, American Indians had more dropouts than graduates, and blacks and Latinos had dropout rates in thirty percents. Males had around a 30 percent greater likelihood of dropping out than females. Yet here we are presented in the Times a story that once more seems to indicate that teachers are only interested in helping the girls, while the boys are either dumped in those special-ed classes or simply ignored, probably because they are seen as “scarier” and less “cooperative” than girls (that’s a matter of opinion, of course). If girls are treated more deferentially and know it, of course they will respond—and go on to college, where some reports indicate that they out-number male students by a 60-40 margin (I would like to think that this isn’t due to a bias against male applicants in college admissions offices). This has yet to be seen as a “crisis,” because, as the Times once opined, we can’t do anything to help boys if it means “hurting” girls.

I also recall a report from something called the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey that took note of this bias against minority males. “For Latino males, it has not yet received the type of national attention you would think,” according to Victor Sáenz, an assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-author of the report. “Sometimes it’s difficult for folks to want to have this discussion about gender inequity because it has traditionally been framed in a very different way, in terms of women not being granted full access to educational opportunity.” According to the report, Latino males represent less than 40 percent of Latinos enrolled in college; one reason for this is suggested by the fact that Latino males 16-24 (that is, beyond four years) are nearly twice as likely not to graduate from high school than the Latinas, who we recall were viewed as “victims” by the National Women’s Law Center without the benefit of context.

This bias toward girls in schools is so politicized by activists that the problems we really ought to be focused on are mostly hidden from view. In a New York Times story, Ronald Ferguson of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative said that “There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten. They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have,” including “conversations about early childhood parenting practices. The activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy.”

Do parents—and in particular, the single, high school dropout parent—give their toddlers and young children “toys” that promote brain development? Do they read to them? Do they talk to them in standard English? I don’t know—you tell me. All I know that it would help. And how are black boys to learn responsibility and self-respect in a fatherless home? Why do so many young males prefer to spend their time on the streets, or in gangs rather than spend their time at home doing their homework, where they have a parent who (we would think) knows more than they do to help them? Maybe it is because for the disinterested parent who still thinks like a juvenile, education isn’t important, and this rubs off on the child. Naturally, gender activists don’t want to have this conversation because they know where that road begins in too many cases.

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