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Posted at 1:55 PM ET, 02/ 3/2010

'Why Boys Fail’ in school

By Valerie Strauss

A new book called “Why Boys Fail” makes the argument that boys are falling behind girls in American schools (and in other countries too) because kids are now forced to use literacy skills at ever younger grades and boys take longer to develop them.

The author, Richard Whitmire, says the solution will take a “politically incorrect” decision by Education Secretary Arne Duncan that will require the federal government to admit the problem for the first time.

I asked Whitmire about his argument, noting that it has long been known that boys develop literacy skills later than girls.

Whitmire, a longtime education reporter who also writes a blog called “Why Boys Fail,” said kindergarteners today are being asked to do what second graders used to do, thanks to the standards and accountability movement, and the "No Child Left Behind" law. And now, schools no longer give boys a chance to catch up.

Two or three decades ago, boys usually caught up in literacy skills by fourth or fifth grade, he said. Today, in most schools, they don’t.

Furthermore, he argues, literacy has become important in almost all subjects; once, math class used to focus on calculations, but now it includes a lot of word problems.

When it comes to writing skills, the gender gap is bigger than the racial gap," he said.

Here are some statistics that he says are not isolated but rather show a widespread phenomenon:

--Among recent college graduates, women accounted for 62 percent of the two-year associates degrees and 57 percent of the bachelors degrees.
--Recent scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress--a test often calld the "nation’s report card" because it is the only standardized test given to students in districts across the country--show a gender gap. Among high school seniors, nearly 23 percent of the white sons of college-educated parents scored “below basic” in reading skills, compared to 7 percent of their daughters.
--According to a 2006 survey of 11,500 high school students in 26 states, 55 percent of girls reported earning grades of A or B, compared to 41 percent of boys.

Whitmire notes that some people have placed the blame on the wrong culprits: video games, pop culture, even feminists.


He said that when the issue of boys' lack of academic progress was first raised, it was conservatives who did it, and they blamed feminists. It wasn’t true, he said, but “feminists then denied the boys were in trouble.

They argued that girls were finally doing better than they had in the past, and that improvement among females did not necessarily mean boys were failing.

Whitmire said he traveled to Australia, where educators discovered years ago that boys were in academic trouble and convened a national commission to address the problem.

The Australian government--concerned that boys were lagging behind girls from early primary to secondary school and were represented two-to-one in the lowest 25 percent of educational outcomes--financed new initiatives to help boys.

That’s what he wants Duncan to do: face the issue for the first time, however “politically incorrect,” and come up with solutions.

What solutions? I asked.

Whitmire profiles a few schools that do not let boys fail by focusing on literacy in the early grades and not giving up until the skills are absorbed. If one program doesn’t work with a particular child, another one is tried.

To read Whitmire’s blog and more about his book, click here.

What do you think of Whitmire's argument?


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 3, 2010; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, High School, Learning, National Standards, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  boys in school, gender gap  
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Whitmire's dead on - roughly 2/3 of the students identified with learning disabilities are boys....add to that the lock-step "accountability" approach in education, the lack of enough good male role models and the creepy male cultural messages being sent out via many movies and tv shows......well, it's obvious boys are up against a lot.

Arne needs to show some politcal muscle on this one.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 3, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Whitmire has a mountain of support for his views from child development experts and experienced teachers. Right now we're in a period of miseducation where we are ignoring what we know about how children learn. Why are we doing this?

The present curriculum for kindergarten, first and second grades is totally inappropriate for young children (especially boys, but girls too) and will backfire badly.

My own son is a perfect example. His primary school bragged about being "very academic" with hardly a block or puppet in sight. He showed very little interest in school and didn't really learn to read fluently until third grade when a teacher took a special interest in him. Teachers suggested he might be "dyslexic" but I knew better. However, his father and I did what many professional people do at home: we responded to his interests and talents by providing him with computers, construction toys, books and private science classes.

Sadly no one (except us) recognized my son's extraordinary talents until he got to college and then "everyone" seemed to know. Today he is the "principal scientist" for a large company and has a Ph.D. from Stanford.

Parents, you are in the best position to stop the craziness that is going on right now. If your five-year-old complains that "the work" is too hard, speak up. Your child has a right to developmentally appropriate instruction.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 3, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Teachers have been saying this over and over again since the beginning of the NCLB testing insanity. The result?? Accusations of laziness and incompetence in a drive to discredit us that amounts to a witch hunt.

Posted by: aed3 | February 3, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse


Great story and accomplishment for your son.

Boys are very challenging when it comes to academics. I can only speak for my own and they were both visual/hands on learners. We've communicated to all their teachers what we do at home to keep them "interested."

They got (and still get) bored very easily so we put a great deal of time and resources to keep them focused. They understand the importance of education (those seeds were planted VERY early) and what they put in is what they will get out.

I think the motivation for boys has to be thier WANTING to do well and meeting the challenges of doing what needs to be done to achieve high scores/grades each quarter. All we've ever asked is that they do their best and support them along the way.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 3, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

"Whitmire profiles a few schools that do not let boys fail by focusing on literacy in the early grades and not giving up until the skills are absorbed. If one program doesn’t work with a particular child, another one is tried."

EXACTLY! The status quo of allowing children, especially boys, to move forward without meeting proficiency levels MUST come to an end.

Who cares about being "politically correct" when children/boys are academically behind.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | February 3, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

@ Linda/RetiredTeacher,

It depends on the individual child. Some of these boys/children are entering kindergarten ALREADY reading at first or second grade levels.

The levels of children a couple of decades ago upon kindergarten entrance are way different now. My own was reading at 1.5 grade level upon entrance of kindergarten.

Allow these kids to learn at levels they should and capable of accomplishing.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | February 3, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse


Thank you. I am very proud of my son. Last year I asked him why he never liked school before college and his response was "It was mainly rote and that's not my strength." However, he always loved the summer science classes at the museum, which were very hands-on. If I could do motherhood over again, I would shop around for a more appropriate school for him, but at the time I didn't trust my judgment.

PGCResident: Yes, you are right. My other son (now a lawyer and running for public office) was the verbal type who read fluently by the age of six. Ideally a school should be able to offer each child what he needs. In my grandchildren's school there is a "developmental kindergarten" and an academic one. As you might guess, this school is in an affluent community where the parents make demands.

If there is a lesson here it is: Parents, respond to what your child is trying to do. No one knows them better than you do.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 3, 2010 8:42 PM | Report abuse

I think the bigger lesson is allow children, especially boys, to meet and prepared for the challenges that are awaiting them.

Children/boys do not chose, nor will ever have the ability to have a choice, in selection of their parents but should be allowed a REAL chance.

It doesn't matter (or shouldn't) what environments (affluent or not) meeting REAL proficiency standards, especially during early stages via primary education.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | February 3, 2010 9:56 PM | Report abuse

Right now, I think the bigger problem is that the teachers really believe that "boys can't read", so they don't expect them to. It is very similar to the situation that used to exist with girls and math. For generations, teachers believed (and there was tons of research that supposedly "proved") that girls couldn't do math. Girls succumbed to the low expectations. But now there has been a real change - girls now score at about the same levels in math. What happened? Everyone started questioning their assumptions about girls and math. I believe we are now seeing the same problem with boys and reading - a culture of low expectations. Teachers will stand in front of their students and make comments about how boys don't read well. It is astounding to me. I have two boys in K12 right now, boys who are very good readers and have been since even before kindergarten. Yet, year after year, we have to deal with teachers who just assume they are poor readers because they are boys. When my oldest boy was in kindergarten, the top 3 readers in the class were boys - and the teacher didn't realize it until DECEMBER of that year when she finally did reading assessments. Those poor boys (and I knew the other 2 well) all suffered for half a year because their teacher was blinded by stereotypes about boys.

Posted by: bkmny | February 4, 2010 8:11 AM | Report abuse

As a teacher and mother of two sons, I couldn't agree with Dr. Whitmire and other posters more.

The elementary language arts material has very little relevancy to their lives or their interests, especially turn, boy's become "turned-off" to reading. I suggested to my Superintendent 3 years ago that the reading assignments for boys should focus on their interests. (Let them read the directions for making a cool paper airplane and make it.)

My own boys had very specific reading interests: sports, scarry stories, joke books, game magazines, even the newspaper. Shouldn't we be focused on LEARNING to read more than WHAT they read? There are plenty of opportunities to read other material (science, math problems, social studies, etc.).

Another example: As an elementary art teacher, I recently started a project where newspaper is being used for weaving. As the fifth graders worked on their projects and looked through the newspapers, they were reading and discussing the news...and this is a "low" class. At their tables, they were discussing politics, sports, movies, and other current events and asking me what I thought. This was a totally unexpected result of this project, but I was tickled pink. This is what education should be about.

There are plenty of good, common sense ideas out there to reform public schools. Policy makers need to listen and encourage the implementation of those ideas and not zero in on a narrowly defined set of objectives and mandates that only provide cosmetic improvements.

Posted by: ilcn | February 4, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I am curious about what passes for proficiency among "accelerated" students. My son developed language skills early and has consistently read above grade level (P.G. Wodehouse in 5th grade, for example). He is now in high school and taking AP classes, and while I realize that not all students possess his skills, I have been quite shocked at the papers turned in by his peers, girls included. No punctuation, poor vocabulary, atrocious grammar--it is as if these students never learned the rudiments of English. I definitely think what children are encouraged to read matters, as it will affect their ability to analyze complex ideas and synthesize information. From what I have seen, the girls are no better able to do this than the boys, nor will they be, if what passes for literature is "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants!"

Posted by: lutzena | February 4, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

On the other hand, there is this:
"Study Casts Doubt On the 'Boy Crisis'
Improving Test Scores Cut Into Girls' Lead"

A study to be released today looking at long-term trends in test scores and academic success argues that widespread reports of U.S. boys being in crisis are greatly overstated and that young males in school are in many ways doing better than ever.

Using data compiled from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally funded accounting of student achievement since 1971, the Washington-based think tank Education Sector found that, over the past three decades, boys' test scores are mostly up, more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor's degrees.

Although low-income boys, like low-income girls, are lagging behind middle-class students, boys are scoring significant gains in elementary and middle school and are much better prepared for college, the report says. It concludes that much of the pessimism about young males seems to derive from inadequate research, sloppy analysis and discomfort with the fact that although the average boy is doing better, the average girl has gotten ahead of him.

Posted by: edlharris | February 10, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I thought this was a great article. As a mother of three boys I agree that if we don't address this problem we will have more than just lower success rates in college.

Having two boys and a third entering the school system soon I have had enough experience to say that not only is too much pressure put on boys to be reading by the time they are five but the school system in general is not designed for them to succeed. There is very little time for active play which I believe is critical for boys and girls to be able to focus.

As I sit here during the second blizzard of the week I think about a comment that my neighbor made about the way her two daughters have dealt with the cabin fever they are feeling. She said she ran to Borders to buy them a book so that they could finish reading something they had started in school. While I encourage reading in my household, it is just not reality to think that for all boys this is a "go to" activity. Most boys I know want to run around and be free. When they are cooped up for a even a few hours they start to feel like caged animals. This is not to say they are suffering from any disease that they need to be medicated for. It is just a fact that girls and boys are not all the same and in general I think that boys require more physical and interactive play both at home and in school.

The problem is not only that they are forced to try to learn a skill at an earlier age every year but that as already noted in many cases they are not ready for it. It does not mean they will never be ready to read. Their brains work differently and if math is the first subject they gravitate to then why punish them and make them feel less of a student because they may not be moving at the speed somebody from behind a desk has decided.

My sons have both learned to read. It may not be at the speed the system suggested but both are very strong students and if I had let a teacher label them because of their lack of reading skills in the beginning they might have been held back which I truly believe would have been more of a detriment to their academic career than the fact they weren't reading at the level they should be in grade one.

We now live in Northern Virginia but are actually Canadian citizens. I have heard that they also feel very strongly about this issue and are doing different test pilot projects to see how they can provide a better environment for boys.

We need to address this problem and ensure that school is an environment that is condusive for both boys and girls to learn within before we alienate our boys totally.

Posted by: StayathomeMom1 | February 10, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

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