The latest battle in the so-called war on boys is the public-school gifted program — at least in New York, now "overstocked with girls." But the real problem with gender inequality in schools may be how we talk about it.
Last week the Times reported that this year's class of gifted kindergartners in New York City is 56% girls. Which prompted New York's Hanna Rosin to ask, "What's happening to the boy genius?" She continues,
Outside of fantasy fiction, he seems to be a shrinking breed. New York's gifted-and-talented schools are overstocked with girls, a recent Times study found. In some gifted classrooms, three-fifths of the students are female. Yes, we know girls are smart and dutiful and hardworking, but this phenomenon confounds what's long been considered the natural order. Could it really be that boys are now the struggling class, in need of help or affirmative action?
Rosin may be aiming for parody here (and she does take a shot at Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men), but her language is pretty telling. Fewer boys in gifted programs means a reversal of the natural order, in order in which the "boy genius" outperforms the "dutiful and hardworking" girl. The conventional wisdom that Rosin's echoing (though not, probably, endorsing) is that the natural gifts of boys are being eclipsed by girls' less laudable skills: good behavior and hard work. It's an argument that's also been used to deride the achievements of immigrant students, and it keeps cropping up even among well-intentioned analysts.
The Times's Sharon Otterman offers a largely unbiased take on gender imbalance in gifted programs, but her piece still illustrates some problems in the way we think about this imbalance. She mentions "the idea that young girls are favored by the standardized tests the city uses to determine admission to gifted programs, because they tend to be more verbal and socially mature at ages 4 and 5 when they sit for the hourlong exam." She also cites another, similar explanation (this one advanced by boys' education expert Terry Neu): "the tendency for modern classrooms, in their growing emphasis on testing and literacy, to play to girls' strengths and interests, not the propensity of young boys to think spatially and mathematically, through active play and hands-on activities."
Both these explanations may have some merit, in the aggregate, but they frequently trickle down to the mainstream thus: "dutiful" girls test well, thus unfairly getting ahead of creative, exuberant boys. This oversimplification happens in part because we as a society can't seem to stop attaching quasi-moral value to certain types of academic performance. Since being smart is good and being dumb is bad, we have to separate those who are actually smart from those who are just trying hard, and reward them accordingly. Of course, there are real moral and practical problems with gender imbalance at school: kids deserve an educational system that gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed, and that respects different learning styles, and such a system might have a shot at actually training people of both genders for jobs, college, and life in a way that the current one too frequently fails to do. But we're not going to get to such a system by clinging to stereotypes about what makes a "truly" smart kid.
Both genders would benefit from classes that take advantage of their strengths while shoring up their weaknesses, without ranking them on the basis of either. And, I'd argue, nobody benefits from taking a standardized test at the age of 4. Until we change our emphasis from tracking students to actually evaluating their needs — and allocating the resources necessary to serve them — we'll stay mired n pointless conflict while kids' learning suffers. Arguing over who's smarter just makes everyone dumb.
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