Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Beyond the "Boy Problem": Raising Questions, Growing Concerns and Literacy Reconsidered

Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Beyond the "Boy Problem": Raising Questions, Growing Concerns and Literacy Reconsidered

Article excerpt

In this article, we express concern about the way in which the "boys' literacy crisis" continues to be defined and taken up by education policy stakeholders, the media and ultimately public dialogue. Rather than a footnote to boys' literacy debates in which national reports such as Exploring the 'Boy Crisis" in Education (Cappon, 2011) acknowledge "there is more variance within groups of boys and within groups of girls than there are differences between boys and girls" (2011, p. 48), we argue that such insight needs to drive a more nuanced national and international response, one that does not collapse and flatten «//boys as the "newly disadvantaged" (see Epstein, Elwood, Hey, & Maw, 1998; Lingard & Douglas, 1999; Martino, 2008; Martino & Rezai-Rashti, 2012; Rowan, Knobel, Bigum Sc Lankshear, 2002; Titus, 2004). By focusing on qualitative case-study research in the Ontario context, we (1) raise critical questions about discourses that frame literacy underachievement as a boy problem (see Martino & Kehler, 2006; Rowan et al., 2002); (2) highlight some context-specific and school-related factors that contribute to literacy underachievement of some boys, and (3) draw attention to the limitations of reforms which call for a more boy-friendly learning environment (see Hodgetts, 2010; Kehler, 2010; Lingard & Douglas, 1999; Martino, 2008; Martino Sc Kehler, 2007; Martino, Lingard, ScMills, 2004; Mills, 2003, Watson, Kehler, Se Martino, 2010 for a critique of such approaches).

We begin by discussing the context in which this sense of "moral panic" concerning boys' literacy underachievement arises. We argue that this political and social context has played an instrumental role in the manufacturing of boys as disadvantaged literacy learners. Next, we provide an overview of the discourses that shape dominant understandings of boys as literacy subjects and point to some of the limitations of the assumptions underpinning such discourses. We then discuss alternate explanatory factors to account for the literacy underachievement of boys and girls such as socioeconomic status and out-of-school literacy practices. Next, we provide an overview of the response to literacy achievement gaps in the Ontario context. In particular, we identify three key documents that officially frame literacy achievement as a boy problem. To challenge simplistic quick-fix solutions designed to cater to boys' natural strengths and interests, we introduce and unpack the narratives of three participants involved in a qualitative case study (see Watson, 2007). The context-specific and school-related details of this case problematize notions of unitary masculinity and draw attention to the limitations associated with boyfriendly and gender specific literacy reforms. Finally, we suggest that it is time to move beyond the politics and discourses that inform our understanding of literacy underachievement and offer a summary of the implications for gender based literacy reforms.

Examining the Panic Concerning Boys and Their Books

Concerns about boys' literacy achievement have garnered significant attention since the 1990s (Epstein et al., 1998). It has been well established that girls outperform boys on high-stakes literacy tests such as the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT), National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). While boys' underachievement is not a new phenomenon (Cohen, 1998; Coulter Sc Greig, 2008), the current culture of "performativity" (Lingard, 2003) driven by neoliberal "standardized" testing has been used to generate new concerns about boys' lack of achievement in school, in particular as literacy learners (see Keddie, 2007).

Despite the call for a "more nuanced analysis built on a disaggregation of performance data so that specific groups of boys and girls who are not performing well at school can be identified" (Martino, 2003, p. 12; also see Collins, Kenway, StMcLeod, 2000; Alloway, Freebody, Gilbert, ScMuspratt, 2002; Lingard, Martino, Mills & Bahr, 2002; White, 2007), literacy success and failure is often determined by a single measure and reported in terms of gender, without acknowledging other contributing factors such as class, race, ethnicity and geographical location. …

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