When I was in elementary school, the state became very concerned with literacy. They were right to. Over half of the US public cannot read at an 8th grade level. Literacy is very important and has many practical applications beyond school.
For example, 19% of American adults can’t read well enough to browse the newspaper or complete a job application. The children of parents with low levels of literacy are five times more likely to drop out of school and are at increased chances of poverty.
In general, minorities and boys are left behind when it comes to literacy. In 8th grade, girls score about 10 points higher on literacy exams than boys, and it’s been that way since at least 1942. Only 10% of black boys have proficient literacy in 8th grade compared to 46% of white students. These aren’t just numbers, but result in fewer prospects and opportunities for these groups.
The Narrow-Sightedness of Literacy Initiatives
My elementary school might have gotten serious about literacy, but that was 25 years ago. Why haven’t we seen any results? Precisely because the literacy crisis affects boys and minorities, yet the education industry hasn’t done anything to address these demographics’ needs and disadvantages. In fact, it’s all but ignored them.
Specifically, curriculum makers have decided to tackle the literacy crisis by just throwing bookshelves of fiction at students. Just look at this Common Core reading list for 6th-9th graders. Almost all the required reading is fiction, and many are specifically chosen to appeal to girls.
As an avid fiction reader, this was fine for me in elementary school. I loved most of the books we read, and I loved that such a large part of school was devoted to something that entertained me. However, as someone who’s worked for years in elementary education, I know that I was unique. Not everyone is so interested in works of fiction.
Fiction vs Nonfiction
In fact, studies have found that boys don’t enjoy reading for entertainment nearly as much as girls. Rather, they prefer reading for information. This is a long way of saying boys prefer nonfiction.
This preference persists across borders and cultures, suggesting the male preference for non-fiction may be inherent and universal.
Perhaps even more important than fiction or nonfiction is the subject matter. Most teachers assign literary classics that focus on drama and interpersonal relationships and conflicts. While these appeal to girls, boys prefer books with physical or natural conflicts and genres like science fiction.
Girls like dialogue, boys like action. However, half the time, teachers specifically forbid the books that appeal to boys for encouraging violence or not being intellectual enough—by their narrow definition.
Similarly, teachers and administrators rarely choose books that appeal to minorities. If you look back at that reading list, you’ll see that their idea of reading material for minorities is Frederick Douglas biographies and long-winded critiques of slavery.
I don’t know about you, but these aren’t very exciting, positive or uplifting. They don’t have relatable characters for minorities because minorities don’t want to be oppressed, they want to be empowered. They want books where they can have their own stories, not just little victories against a system that wasn’t even theirs in the first place.
Finally, we have to consider the format. The modern education industry refuses to think outside the book even though, thanks to technology, we have more options than ever.
Books are great, but they aren’t the only part of literacy. As they transition into adulthoods, children will need literacy for a lot more than paperbacks. Indeed, so much of our information-based economy is textual, but it’s online in formats that can’t be measured in pages.
Boys don’t enjoy reading standard books as much as girls. A boy may benefit more and gain more encouragement from reading a dozen short-form online articles and forum posts about a topic he’s interested in like his favorite athlete or video game than trudging through Little Women and hating every moment of it.
In fact, entire genres of online games have sprouted up using the written word, but you’ll never find them in public school curriculum.
Why Do Schools Miss the Mark?
If you’ve spent any extended amount of time with children, the fact that boys, on average, don’t like reading fiction books nearly as much as girls may seem pretty obvious. So why have teachers, administrators, and state and national curriculum designers been ignoring this issue for the last half century?
The answer is simpler than one might think. During the 2017-18 school year, 79% of public school teachers were white. Even more starkly, 89% of elementary school teachers were female, a number that has actually been increasing. In other words, the education industry is dominated by white women. I
t’s not that they’re ignoring the literacy needs of white and black boys on purpose. They just have no way to relate. They truly have no idea what these boys need to be successful.
The larger problem is not that the white-woman-dominated education industry doesn’t know. It’s that it doesn’t want to learn. Starting with a university faculty dominated by white women, female empowerment takes precedence over anything for boys, even when it’s boys who are hurting.
How much time and money is spent on International Women’s Day parties and Girls in STEM fairs? Certainly more than is spent on developing a curriculum that includes required reading in the genres and formats that appeal to boys and minorities.