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Posted at 3:55 PM ET, 03/12/2010

Whitmire: New data on how far boys are falling behind

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Richard Whitmire, former president of the National Education Writers Association, who writes the Education Week blog, “Why Boys Fail.”


By Richard Whitmire
Ask anyone about President Obama’s track record and you’ll hear the same: Not much movement on global warming, the domestic economy or health care. But there is one area in which Obama has already begun to move long-dormant mountains: education reform.

He has steered billions of dollars into education, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan has doled out in a carrot-and-stick approach that has forced states to promise reforms that were long thought impossible. For example, several state legislatures were “persuaded” — okay, legally bribed — into peeling back excessive teacher-protection laws.

Ultimately, however, Obama will be measured by his bottom line goal: for the United States to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by the year 2020. Translated, that means jumping from the middle of the rankings of developed nations to the top in just 10 years.

Unfortunately, that’s extremely unlikely to happen. What’s interesting is why. Usually, our failure to meet education goals is attributed to race, poverty, poor teaching and low academic standards. This time, those are lesser players. The culprit instead is politics.

In a report to be released next week the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy took a look at who is and isn’t passing state tests, and identified the nation’s biggest problem: males.

The survey shows that girls tie with boys in math skills, which will come as a surprise to those who still cling to the stereotype that boys excel in math. The reading differences, meanwhile, are profound, with boys a full 10 percentage points behind girls. Boys are even farther behind in writing abilities. The twinned abilities to read accurately and write clearly are the currency of college success, regardless of the subject matter.

So what does this say about Obama’s 2020 goal? Already, women make up 62 percent of those earning two-year degrees in the United States. Women are doing their part; increasing those numbers would be difficult.

Clearly, the only way to force the United States back into the global education competition is to buck up the boys. Unfortunately, at a time when the world has become more verbal — some standardized math tests give as much weight to a written explanation of how the answer was attained as to the answer itself — boys are faring badly at both reading and writing. Given those deficits, it appears unlikely substantially more males will enter the college pipeline or succeed once there.

Based on my book research, the biggest culprits behind the gender gaps are education reforms that wisely ramped up verbal skills in the earliest grades but unwisely failed to adjust reading and writing instruction for boys, who have always gotten a late start on those skills. The reform-minded governors intended to boost college readiness, but with boys, their good intentions backfired.

Up until about 20 years ago, when students got a slower start on verbal skills, boys caught up by fourth or fifth grade. These days, many boys never quite catch up. They conclude that school is for girls and seek satisfaction in outlets such as video games, which in turn get blamed unfairly for causing the problem.

There is a solution here: Re-engineer how reading is taught in the very early grades so that boys don’t get left behind. I’ve seen schools radically revamp their approach to teaching reading so that boys don’t miss out, and girls emerge as strong as before.

Seems like a straightforward task for the federal Department of Education to take on by conducting research to guide local school districts. Doing that, however, would bring objections from a group of women’s advocacy groups that fear school interventions designed to help boys could shift the agenda away from their priorities. They resist pro-boy initiatives by insisting that gender gaps are really racial gaps (a curious argument, considering that in major cities there are three times as many college-educated black women as men).

A fundamental political calculus is at play here. Eight million more women than men voted for Obama, which gives these groups considerable political leverage at a time when the President’s popularity is waning. That may explain why the administration has yet to address the one factor — boys lagging in school — that could make or break his 2020 goal.

But the math is clear: If Obama doesn’t take that political risk and intervene on behalf of boys, his 2020 goal will never be met.

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 12, 2010; 3:55 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Richard Whitmire, Why Boys Fail, guest bloggers  
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Next: Obama’s contradictions on education

Comments

Interesting. So your point is that boys are dropping out because by 4th or 5th grade they have decided school is for girls, because they are behind in reading. Hmmm.

Isn't this something that should be done at the school/district level and in the teacher training programs, specifically in the reading methods classes?


Don't you think our culture has something to do with it? the glorification of sports for example? The fact that intelligent people are portrayed as "nerds" and lacking in athletic ability and physical strength? It is not cool for boys to be smart in some schools. There are also less male elementary teachers and a lot of absent dads, therefore some won't have male role models.

When Obama was elected we suddenly had kids saying it was cool to be smart. He is a great role model for boys.

It seems to me that graphic novels would be a good way to get kids to read. I think boys do play a lot of video games. My son does, we have to limit his time. He and his friends also read and share books. I think the reading thing starts at home. My son is not the most verbal kid on the block, but I have been reading to him since he could sit up.

If boys learn differently in reading then that would apply to language learning as well.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 12, 2010 7:22 PM | Report abuse

I would think that the way to get around feminist groups who resent special treatment for boys would be to research differences in the learning styles of boys and girls, which would help both. Also, as a feminist myself, I am aware that having one half of the population under served and uneducated is not good for women or for humanity. I think women have always considered children and education to be women's issues.

Have we ever had a woman as the head of the Department of Education? Seems odd that they are often men given that there are way more women teachers.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 12, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Is it wise to pursue a goal to have the highest proportion of college graduates by the year 2020? It would seem that college would become the next high school, and quite an expensive one. More people will take part in the myriad of idiotic behaviors that occur at college campuses and less will be educated in any productive sense.

Pursuing higher education is a means to separate the wheat from the chaff, not a means to pursue education equality. Stick to the first 13 years of our education to teach the basics, then let the capable rise to the next level.

As a side note for those gender warriors (yes, you celestun100), check out this speech given by Roy Baumeister at a meeting of the APA.

http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/goodaboutmen.htm

Posted by: zoonotic | March 12, 2010 7:48 PM | Report abuse

zoonotic
You may have misunderstood me.
When I said that having one half of the population under served or uneducated, it would be bad for all, I meant it is bad for women (and men) if boys don't receive a fair education.

I shouldn't have used the term "feminist" as I think maybe it implies that I think women are superior or I hate men or something. I just think that women and men should both have rights. I would be better off described as a "mom". I read the article you suggested,and I see his point, but please remember women didn't even have the vote until this century.

I am all for boys doing well in school. I wonder if the author, Richard Whitmire has considered the idea of boys' schools and girls' schools, which I think I have heard are effective in some cases (middle school, for example).

Posted by: celestun100 | March 12, 2010 8:26 PM | Report abuse

This has been disscussed for 30 years. In essence,nobody cares about boys. Especially white boys, except maybe their parents. There is nothing for boys, except a few gifted ones prepped by rich parents.
And Affirmitive Action- white guts are denied education or jobs till everybody is taken care of then get leftovers.
But were white guys, we rule, yeah, lol.

Posted by: WilliamBlake | March 12, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

not to be contrarian but suppose the male dominated culture, political culture was supplanted by females. would a female president have invaded iraq with such a clear distortion of the truth, would a female dominated congress allow the kinds of social and economic disparities we see today. would female bankers be so aggressive in gambling the future of the country for their own myopic greed. you say the male is falling behind and i say in the 21 century the social conventions of past centuries bind us to a rhetoric that is no longer needed, in fact is counter productive. why are human beings so tradition bound. i say let males fall as far behind as necessary to allow women the opportunity to lead. they can't screw it up any worse than the male has.

Posted by: trjohnson8890122 | March 12, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

fr WilliamBlake:

>...Especially white boys, except maybe their parents. There is nothing for boys, except a few gifted ones prepped by rich parents.
And Affirmitive Action- white guts are denied education or jobs till everybody is taken care of then get leftovers. ...<

Oh puhleeze.

As my wife is fond of saying to an 8 year old boy that she watches occasionally: "save the drama for your mama". In short, grow UP.

Posted by: Alex511 | March 12, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

"Ultimately, however, Obama will be measured by his bottom line goal: for the United States to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by the year 2020"

Numeric goals like this make great politics, but are not really useful. The U.S. college system is very different from the systems of many other countries, where college graduation is simply a formality for anyone who can afford the tuition at a private "university". There are major technical problems with international comparisons of learning outcomes (PISA, for example), but these are still a far better measure of the quality of education than proportion of college graduates.

Posted by: Trev1 | March 12, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

The US is a country where one out of every NINE boys will spend time in prison during their life.

One out of nine.

Given how completely a prison stay ruins your future employability, you'd think America would set a goal to fix this atrocious one-in-nine statistic above all.

It starts with school. And parents.

Posted by: 12008N1 | March 12, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

It would probably help to have more men teaching K-5.

Posted by: maus92 | March 12, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

In the last decade there have been an alarming number of "shooters" who have brought their guns into schools, churches and businesses and hurt and killed innocents. Most of them have been male. This makes me wonder how we are failing our boys. We can guess at some of the pieces -- too much emphasis on competitive sports, violent video games, lack of positive role models -- but are there others? More importantly, why aren't we working to correct these problems? Our boys need us.

Posted by: clairejam | March 12, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

I remember reading about a study a year or two ago that did the following: it took three groups of randomly chosen female students. One was a control group, and they were given a basic math test without any prep from the teachers. Another was given the same test, but only after they were told of achievements made by women. The third was, if I remember correctly, subjected to data that showed women score lower on math tests than men. The control group did better than the third group, and the group that was given the "Yay women!" pep talk did better than both.

My point is this: we always tell boys that they aren't as good at reading and writing as girls. Most likely, they're just as good, or nearly as good (taking into account the possibility of actual biological differences in the brain), but because we present them with low expectations, they feel the need to live down to those low expectations. I'd like to see the above experiment repeated with male students and, say, a reading comprehension test, to see how boys suffer from the same kind of academic gender stereotyping that girls suffer from.

Posted by: dkp01 | March 13, 2010 12:59 AM | Report abuse

The problem is and always has been government. There must be no role for government in education at any level. I'm continually amazed and disturbed by the monumental ignorance of people I know who think our public schools are great.

Posted by: Bearbank | March 13, 2010 7:08 AM | Report abuse

Well, Bearbank, that's incredibly stupid. Without government, there would be no public education as we know it. Public schools are paid for by the government.

Posted by: JoStalin | March 13, 2010 8:07 AM | Report abuse

I am male. I have a PhD from an ivy. But I also failed first grade. It is really hard to catch up folks. It takes years.

Posted by: funfun881 | March 13, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

It is absurd to suggest that the reason that the Obama administration has not specifically addressed the "gender gap" in its education policies is due to the fact that so many more women voted for Obama than men. Come on.....men have children too! And many women, including me, have children of both sexes and care equally about their academic successes. Don't let nonsense claims of presidential bias cloud the legitimate concern of boys' academic difficulties.

Posted by: JoanJohnson1 | March 13, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Also, to the commenter who complained that Affirmative Action was to blame.........Affirmative Action actually favors young men in the collge admissions process. Since young men have become the minority in college applications and college attendance, colleges have worked hard to favor them in admittance to "get their numbers up." So don't beat up Affirmative Action for this one.

Posted by: JoanJohnson1 | March 13, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Note that the author did not share the demographics of her studies. That is because her opposition is correct. White boys are NOT falling behind. It is African American and Latino boys who experience the gap. Every credible study makes this clear. The author should be ashamed of herself.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | March 13, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

A presidential decree should grant all American citizens a high school diploma. They will then be eligible to enter college. Our nation will then take the world leadership in promoting higher education. It will be the task of the colleges to educate and turn out millions of bright mathematicians and scientists. No child will be left behind except those that refuse to take advantage of this golden opportunity.

Posted by: melvin_polatnick | March 13, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Why not just have separate classes for boys and girls? Then each can learn at a pace that is optimal for their sex and age.

"They resist pro-boy initiatives by insisting that gender gaps are really racial gaps (a curious argument, considering that in major cities there are three times as many college-educated black women as men)."

I don't follow. The relative paucity of educated black males compared with females (and the much less dramatic difference among whites) SUPPORTS the notion that the gender gap is largely a racial gap.

Posted by: qaz1231 | March 13, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

As a teacher and the mother of two boys (now young men) I understand the point of the article. If any of you have ever read any of the stories in the language arts books, they are boring...and not particularly geared to boys. When my sons were young, their recreational reading focused only on what they were interested...they were more inclined to spend their time playing sports.

Until kids reach a certain age, does it matter what they read? Can boys or girls who are interested in sports or whatever, have classroom reading assignments that are interesting and relevant to them?

I have helped kids with Accelerated Reader...those stories are geared to the "generic" definition of a reader...and for taking a test.

Let them LEARN to read first and develop an interest in reading, then introduce them to the more classical or traditional reading material.

BTW...I have also noticed that more of my friends' sons never attended college and those who did either never finished or took longer than did their daughters.

Posted by: ilcn | March 13, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Not all boys are falling behind. Using "boys" as the measure without disaggregating by socioeconomic level, race, etc. is misleading. Girls should be on par with boys in math. That's not an example of boys falling behind, but of girls becoming equal.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | March 13, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

maus92 wrote:

It would probably help to have more men teaching K-5.

------------------------------------------------

Elementary teachers have the lowest SAT scores of any professional. You get what you pay for.....

Posted by: waxtraxs | March 13, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

As a mother of a son and an early childhood professional this is a topi of interest. I have watched early school years become harder and harder for boys. The older a boy is when he enters Kindergarden the better he tends to do. alot of maturation can happen in 6 months.

Many children are not physiologically ready to read util they are 6 or 7. (More boys than girls) By demanding that they read at 5 we are setting them up for failure. Once you fall behind in school it is extremely hard to catch up. Special ed classes are dominated by boys.

I also think bringing back daily recess and gym will help boys focus better in the classroom. It seems that young boys are not able to sit still for as long as the girls. Boys are frequently penalized for fidgeting behavior. Another area where girls seem to develop earlier is fine motor skills.

One of the best ways to encourage boys to read is to have lots of nonfiction available. Let them read anything as long as they are reading. (Captain Underpants made me cringe, but alot of boys found the joy of reading with those silly crude books.)

Posted by: wannabeanon | March 13, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

One of my daughters informed her kindergarten teacher that she was not going to learn to read that year because you were supposed to learn to read in first grade. Fortunately we were in a school system that did not demand reading in kindergarten and the teacher thought her opinion as funny as I did. She could read quite well within six weeks of starting first grade and is now a librarian. My four daughters all learned to read at different ages, ranging from 4 1/2 to 7. If that is the developmental difference in sisters, imagine the range in the general population.

Posted by: abbyandmollycats | March 13, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Having grown up with want adds that said "help wanted male" and "help wanted female"
and having been denied good paying jobs just because I had the wrong sex organs all I can say is
WOO HOO!! what goes around comes around baby.

Posted by: mmad2 | March 13, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

To the reader who laments the lack of male K-5 teachers: it's a result of the gender stereotyping applied to elementary school teachers. Men AND women are more comfortable with female elementary school teachers, IMO, because that age is an age for nurturing and the stereotype is women are better nurturers than men. For the moms reading this, answer this question: you go to a school to enroll your child in kindergarten and are told you can choose between two classes, one taught by a man, the other taught by a woman. You know nothing about the two teachers except their gender. Which teacher do you choose?

I'd wager my pay check a majority of mothers would choose the female teacher, regardless of whether their child was a boy or girl. I'd also be willing to put a smaller side bet on 67% or more of the mothers choosing the female teacher. Personally, I think any mother who says she feels totally at ease putting her child in a kindergarten class taught by a man she doesn't know is most likely lying (to be polite or whatever).

We've spent so much time and effort on making sure the girls get educated that we've forgotten the immutable truth: boys and girls are not the same. Now, females should be afforded equal status to males. Women should receive identical educations, receive equal pay for equal work, be treated equally, etc., etc. But let's not forget that equality is not the same thing as identical.

Try as we might to produce different results, the facts are that boys are more likely than girls to engage in certain behaviors and hobbies, and girls are more likely than boys to engage in other behaviors and hobbies. Just how many girls do you see at the gun range? And how many guys do you see in ballet class?

There's only so much of that behavior that nurture can explain. The rest is nature.

I have no doubt that girls can score the same in math as boys, and that boys can read as well as girls. It just feels to me that elementary school education these days is geared towards girls at the expense of boys.

Posted by: SeaTigr | March 13, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I seriously doubt that boys falling behind is because of well-intentioned changes to prepare students for college earlier. Rather, the incessant drumbeat over the last 30 years has been that girls are behind in math or science or self-esteem or whatever, and are discriminated against by teachers and principals and tests and whatever.

Until this feminist-"scholar"-driven propaganda campaign is stopped, no amount of little tweaks here and there will help.

Posted by: awayne | March 13, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

"There is a solution here: Re-engineer how reading is taught in the very early grades so that boys don’t get left behind. I’ve seen schools radically revamp their approach to teaching reading so that boys don’t miss out, and girls emerge as strong as before."

So what is this re-engineered solution? This is the meat of your article and you've left it out. How frustrating.

Posted by: NotRilly | March 13, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

Could it be that dumb people are having stupid kids who are incapable of learning?

Maybe humans in general, are becoming more weak-minded? The state is there to care for everyone, like a shepard herding his flock.

There's nothing to favor the more intelligent for reproduction. Look at the quality of the spelling and grammar in the posted comments throughout this website.

Either it reflects the low intelligence of mainstream America, or the Washington Post attracts a disproportionate number of stupid people.

Posted by: misterbumbles | March 13, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

celestun10 asked: Have we ever had a woman as the head of the Department of Education? Seems odd that they are often men given that there are way more women teachers.

The answer to this question is: Yes. Margaret Spellings was U.S. Secretary of Education prior to Arne Duncan.

http://www2.ed.gov/news/staff/bios/spellings.html

Posted by: junk3 | March 13, 2010 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Whitmire writes: "A fundamental political calculus is at play here. Eight million more women than men voted for Obama, which gives these groups considerable political leverage at a time when the President’s popularity is waning. That may explain why the administration has yet to address the one factor — boys lagging in school — that could make or break his 2020 goal."

Oh, bullpucky. We women have sons as well as daughters, you know, and we care about ALL our children. This rank speculation slanders Obama as well as all the women who voted for him.

Such silly gabble tells us a lot more about Whitmire than it does about the real reason Obama hasn't spent much of his first year prioritizing education: two wars ongoing, two wars pending (Iran & Korea), Bush's destruction of the economy and the financial industry, health care reform, and joblessness.

There's only so much political capital to go around. Yes, every day lost in improving education is a tragedy, but not a tragedy on the scale of the 45,000 lives lost annually due to a lack of medical care or the thousands of military lives being lost in Afghanistan and Iraq.

SHAME on Whitmire for coming up with such nasty, sexist fantasy instead of acknowledging that sometimes, other issues HAVE to come first.

Posted by: ankhorite | March 14, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

A bunch of good comments here, and inevitably, a few dopey ones. I like what ankhorite and abbeyandmollycats have to say.

Speaking for the National Coalition of Girls' Schools (and as the mother of two sons and a daughter) I'd like to suggest that when it comes to boys and girls it's NEVER a question of either/or. Both genders have areas in which attention is warranted. Minority boys from under-served neighborhoods definitely need a boost (in some cases all-boys public schools have been helpful); girls are still significantly underrepresented in future fields like technology, and in the highest paying fields -- finance, among others. Let's pay attention to the needs of all children at all ages, and acknowledge that the problems are complex and have multiple causes. If we continue playing "Who's Ahead?" and "Boys against the Girls" someone always comes out the loser.

Posted by: thatsally | March 14, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

"not to be contrarian but suppose the male dominated culture, political culture was supplanted by females. would a female president have invaded iraq with such a clear distortion of the truth, would a female dominated congress allow the kinds of social and economic disparities we see today. would female bankers be so aggressive in gambling the future of the country for their own myopic greed. you say the male is falling behind and i say in the 21 century the social conventions of past centuries bind us to a rhetoric that is no longer needed, in fact is counter productive. why are human beings so tradition bound. i say let males fall as far behind as necessary to allow women the opportunity to lead. they can't screw it up any worse than the male has."

Posted by: trjohnson8890122

---------------------
I'm glad someone is being honest about why many women aren't that concerned that boys are falling behind. I hear an undercurrent of this attitude even among some of the mothers of young boys in these posts. It's the kind of attitude that causes the AAUW to attack every time something comes out stating that boys are having a problem. Let's be clear. Feminism isn't about equality for all; it never has been. It's about females first and if that means sacrificing our sons so be it.

Posted by: jfmam5323 | March 15, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

To know whether boys are falling behind, you have to compare today's boys to boys from a few years ago. Are boys really losing ground? Maybe girls are pulling ahead and boys are staying steady?

Gender is the least interesting way to divide people into groups. There are no learning styles for girls vs. boys. Girls are highly variable and so are boys. There is no one size fits all girls, vs. one size fits all boys.

But to the question of how to help boys progress: Do the boys have good examples of their dads reading? Fathers and sons could read together and then talk about or try out what they read. Beware of the self fulfilling prophecy. When parents see a son who would rather watch TV than read, they may say, "Well of course, he's a boy" and they don't push that son to read. So make reading a family priority and don't let your sons settle for mediocrity.

Posted by: drl97 | March 16, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

"To know whether boys are falling behind, you have to compare today's boys to boys from a few years ago. Are boys really losing ground? Maybe girls are pulling ahead and boys are staying steady?"
=================
I agree that To know whether boys (and girls) are falling behind, you have to compare today's boys(and girls) to boys(and girls) from a few years ago. Assume that we accept as true, "girls are pulling ahead and boys are staying steady?" It seems to me that there has been wide agreement that our educational system has not in the past been producing the results we as a society want - hence no child left behind, etc.. The world economy now devalues manual labor and rewards those with very good educations. Shouldn't we then be concerned that the great leap forward for girls - which allows them to compete effectively in today's world - is not being shared by many boys, who will not be able to compete well at all in the future? I don't know why its so threatening to say that boys are falling behind? They're falling behind in a competitive world. They're falling behind in that they can't seem to improve their performance in a flawed educational system, wheras statistically girls have. Why shouldn't we be concerned about all groupings of students who are lagging - including boys? But mention boys lagging and the AAUW goes into high gear trying to squelch any efforts to even make studying the problem a priority...because according to them there is no problem. Mention establishing a single-sex school, even as an experiment to see if it will work better for some boys, and it evokes a frenzy of objections. There are those who will insist there is no difference in how boys and girls learn and no possible justification for trying this approach. Why, such a strong and rigid reaction? Aren't we all just trying to help our children succeed?

Posted by: jfmam5323 | March 16, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

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