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Education Reporter

The New Gender Gap: Reading
Girls increasingly outperform boys academically, as evidenced by reading and writing assessments in 4th, 8th and 12th grades, according to a U.S. Department of Education study released in November. Girls are less likely to repeat a grade or drop out of high school, and girls enrolling in college are more likely than boys to graduate within six years. Boys still have a small edge in math.

These academic trends have caught the eye of First Lady Laura Bush, who recently launched an initiative called Helping America's Youth to focus on boys at risk. "A lot of the problems associated with boys are because they are not successful at school," she told Education Week (2-23-05).

Female classroom culture 
Reasons given by experts for the decline in boys' academic performance include the female-oriented classroom culture of elementary schools, which fail to account for the physically active nature of young boys, and the disproportionate number who are diagnosed as learning-disabled early in life. (Detroit News, 1-9-05)

The gender gap in reading, which Education Department statistics show widened from 1992 to 2002, carries over into young adulthood. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced last summer that 59% of young women read books in 2002 while only 43% of young men did so. Both percentages represent a significant decline from 1992, but the gender gap rose from 8 to 15 points.

Few heroic stories 
Some commentators have concluded that typical reading assignments in schools are contributing to the problem. "It has long been known that there are strong differences between boys and girls in their literary preferences," write the NEA's Mark Bauerlein and Northwestern University's Sandra Stotsky. At the elementary school level, "Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters. Gone are the inspiring biographies of the most important American presidents, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs. No military valor, no high adventure. On the other hand, stories about adventurous and brave women abound."

In middle schools, "Young Adult Literature" — short novels about teenagers with depressing problems such as drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, domestic violence, divorced parents and bullying — and "culturally relevant" literature appealing to ethnic group identification have become endemic. "There is no evidence whatsoever that either of these types of reading fare has turned boys into lifelong readers or learners," Bauerlein and Stotsky observe. (Washington Post, 1-25-05)

Single-sex classes address gap 
Partly in an effort to close the gender gap in reading scores, some schools are experimenting with single-sex education, taking advantage of new flexibility allowed by the No Child Left Behind Act. (See Education Reporter, Oct. 2004.) There are now 154 U.S. public schools offering single-sex education.

They have received encouragement from Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently. "We're at the point where we've identified more than 100 differences between the male and female brain," he told the Washington Post (1-8-05).

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