Sorting out boys' school problems
Like most of us, I don't like my biases challenged, particularly by people I admire. So I put off reading what turned out to be a brilliant new book, "Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons From an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind," by former USA Today editorial writer Richard Whitmire.
Whitmire is an exceptionally thoughtful and energetic journalist. As far as I can tell, we agree on nearly all the big issues. But he has produced what appeared to be a book-length assault on my view that the boy problem in schools was overblown, that boys were only losing ground to girls because girls, thankfully, were finally catching up. I was not eager to discover I was wrong about that.
Now I have read the book, and feel everyone should read it. I don't know of a clearer or more balanced examination of this issue. Whitmire is passionate about the need to help boys, but he respectfully presents other points of view, including those of pro-girl optimists like me. In fact, one of the book's most impressive features is its exposure of the harm done by pro-girl vs. pro-boy politics. The reluctance of either side to let the other experiment with new ways of teaching has been one of the greatest obstacles to moving all students up to their potential.
Whitmire's recommendations at the end of the book are sensible, creative and overdue. He wants more and better data on boys' progress, more innovative early reading instruction for boys, more hands-on subjects in high school, better managed and studied single-sex schools and classes and some affirmative action in college admissions. I don't think he celebrates the rise of achievement among impoverished girls, a worldwide phenomenon of immense importance, as much as he should, but that's a quibble. We have to do more for boys and stop blocking promising ideas out of fear that treating the two sexes differently would be politically incorrect.
I was a little ashamed of myself as I read Whitmire's exhaustive review of the research that shows that boys as a group have made little academic improvement over the last three decades. Girls have done better. Sure, the female advantage in college enrollment is inflated by the large number of older women returning to complete degrees. It is also probably a distortion for Whitmire to put such emphasis on the fact that real incomes of men with only high school diplomas have dropped 26 percent since 1973, since such declines are affected by immigration and by where the business cycle was at the start and end of the period studied.
But he is right to note the importance of the fact that only 65 percent of boys graduate from high school, a rate that is even lower for African American males (48 percent) and Hispanic males (49 percent). High school graduation rates for females are significantly higher. It is not a good thing that inner city magnet schools that cater to academically ambitious students find it so much easier to find qualified girls. The Banneker Academic High School in D.C., for instance, has been largely female for many years.
The research and anecdotal information we do have suggest that many boys prefer to move around, do something active, when they are learning. They like reading comic books and some of the grosser versions of juvenile fiction. But educators who have tried to give boys something different in response to their tastes have been frustrated again and again by policymakers worried about discrimination.
Among many examples cited by Whitmire are the actions of the Williamsburg, S.C., school board that killed a single-sex education experiment in August 2009. Whitmire quotes board vice-chair Norma Bartelle saying she didn't like what she saw in single-sex classes. "The boys would answer questions when they were thrown a football," she said, "while the girls would answer by sitting face to face." Whitmire said that "Bartelle complained that such methods enforced the idea that boys like sports and girls enjoy conversing and gossiping."
Unlike other boy advocates, Whitmire does not argue that such male-conscious methods are essential to raising boys' achievement level. When he discusses two schools in low-income neighborhoods, Frankford Elementary in Frankford, Del., and the KIPP DC: KEY Academy in District, he emphasizes the fact that they have great success with boys even though they don't treat them differently from girls.
The KIPP charter school network, the subject of my most recent book, is one of those issues on which Whitmire and I agree. I didn't think much about the KEY Academy's lack of a boy orientation until I read "Why Boys Fail." Whitmire argues that Frankford and KEY work for boys because they pay such close attention to every child's academic weaknesses, and look for every possible way to turn them around. Whitmire follows a KEY student who benefits greatly from a teacher's effort to teach him phonics, first at a regular public school and then at KEY, when both he and she transfer there.
There are aspects of KIPP schools, however, that I think fit with Whitmire's thesis that certain ways of teaching connect well with boys. Competition and teamwork are regular themes in KIPP teaching. Whitmire watched one seventh-grade teacher at KEY tell her class they could earn a science field trip in a boat if they outdid other homerooms in the good-student points KIPP uses to motivate.
Despite what seemed to Whitmire to be KIPP's lack of emphasis on gender differences, I noticed that one of the newer KIPP schools in Houston is just for boys. When I heard about that, I wondered if it was legal. Whitmire helpfully reminded me in his book that in 2006 the U.S. Education Department announced that public schools could experiment with single-sex education without risking civil rights suits. Within two years, he said, 514 schools around the country were offering that option to parents. (KIPP Houston has also opened a middle school just for girls.)
This is one of many things I learned reading "Why Boys Fail." Whitmire and I still disagree on some of the nuances, but it is clear he knows much more than I do. Anyone, even me, will benefit from reading such a comprehensive and fair-minded author.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| April 30, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Why Boys Fail,, author persuades Mathews that boys need more help, ideologues getting in the way of progress for boys, schools that help boys even without boy-oriented methods
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