Viewpoint: Where are the boys? Part IIShortly before he left the position of superintendent, my predecessor, Tom Nelson, wrote an article titled, “Where Are the Boys?”
By: Mark Porter, South Washington County Bulletin
Shortly before he left the position of superintendent, my predecessor, Tom Nelson, wrote an article titled, “Where Are the Boys?” In it he pointed out the notable absence of males among our strongest academic students. At the time the valedictorians from both high schools were female, as were 10 of the top 11 students at one of our high schools. This article might be considered a sequel to the story that Mr. Nelson started.
As an educator for 31 years I have always been aware of how important it is that students develop strong reading skills. My awareness, and concern, was significantly increased this past spring when I reviewed the MCA-II test results for our district students and noted a significant gap in reading proficiency between our male students and our female students. Generally, the number of female students identified as proficient in reading was approximately 10 percent higher than the number of male students identified as proficient in reading. This pattern is consistent across all grade levels with only one exception, and while improvement was noted at several grade levels there was a widening of the gap at another. Unfortunately this problem is not new. There has been an achievement gap between male students and female students in reading proficiency for several years. By the way, there is no statistically significant difference in proficiency between male and female students in the area of mathematics, though some of us may recall that several years ago this was a noted trend and concern.
One of my commitments as the superintendent of schools is to “own our data” and to work effectively to reduce, and eliminate, identified achievement gaps. The intent of this article is to raise awareness among families across our district, including those without school age children, and encourage you to participate in addressing this serious concern.
As the parents of three boys, my wife Jane and I worked hard to encourage our sons to develop strong reading skills. While we were not as successful as we might have hoped, though all are very proficient readers, we never gave up on this important task. Let me share some lessons learned and some subsequently acquired knowledge in this area of critical concern.
During the time we were raising our sons one of the best pieces of advice we received was from an elementary teacher in the school district who told us “never stop reading to your child.” There are many positive aspects of reading to our children. First, and perhaps most important, we spend additional time with our children. In our “way too busy” world, quiet time with our children is truly priceless. In addition, it demonstrates our interest in reading and helps expand their reading skills as typically we try to read materials that are beyond their current level of competency. Reading to your children, at any age, is a great way to improve their reading skills.
Reducing “screen time,” the time children, especially boys, spend in front of a television, computer screen or some type of portable screen has been identified by psychologists as being significant in healthy growth and development in many ways. Don’t fool yourself into believing that children are gaining any type of educational advantage from such activities. The amount of time many young boys spend playing video games is truly astounding and clearly has a negative impact on their social and academic development, particularly in reading. Do whatever you can to reduce screen time and increase time spent on other activities … like reading.
Visiting your local library is a great way to encourage children to read. We are very fortunate in our communities to have several branches of the Washington County Library system. Check out their current hours and find a time when you can take your children to the library. This is a great way to find some new reading materials without spending a lot of money, just a little bit of time.
Finally, let me return to the issue of boys and reading. It has become a passion of mine to spread the word to all men — fathers, grandfathers and others, of the importance of boys developing strong reading habits. Why? Because young boys are very observant and we can tell them over and over again how important it is that they develop strong reading skills, but if they don’t see us (men) doing the same, they’ll get the message, “it isn’t really that important.” I firmly believe that all men need to model the behavior of reading to those young boys over whom they have influence. I really don’t think I can overstate the importance of this. Men, if any of you are reading this, when was the last time your child or grandchild saw you reading a book?
Let me close by offering some suggested reading for various age groups. For the adult men I can personally recommend “Axioms” by Bill Hybels, “Lincoln on Leadership” by Donald Phillips, and “John Adams” by David McCullough, as good non-fiction reads, and “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett, “Beach Music” by Pat Conroy, and “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving, as some of my favorite fiction books. For other recommendations I have turned to some of our literacy specialists in the school district and I was directed to a couple of good Web sites that focus specifically on reading materials for boys: www.booksforboys.com and www.guysread.com. Obviously I have not had the opportunity to preview all of the books referenced on these sites and I would encourage parents to preview any book your child will be reading.
I am extremely proud of this school district and the fact that we hold all students to high expectations. When we fail to meet those expectations, as noted in this article with regard to the reading proficiency of our male students, I want you to know that we will do everything we can to eliminate this and other achievement gaps. In the case of reading, you too can help address this issue. We appreciate your support and collaboration. South Washington County Schools is truly one of the best school districts in Minnesota; we just want to keep getting better.
Mark Porter is superintendent of School District 833.