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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.

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By Jay Mathews  | 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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Whitmire’s point about literacy as a core issue behind the decline of male student performance is right on.

Think about it from the perspective of a female-dominated teaching workforce. Young girls pick up on the rules of grammar, spelling and pronunciation more quickly and easily. The teacher’s see themselves in their female protégés. Girls are thus praised in the elementary system. While boys are (I will put this as kindly as possible) neglected and, as a result, dejected from the system.

When boys try to assert themselves in a female-biased classroom, there are a number of possible results, but two are particularly problematic. One, boys who challenge female teachers intellectually can suffer the wrath of an angered matriarch. Or two, there are some boys who are successful in earning the attention of female teachers. They can be placed in the league of female students in terms of performance and teacher’s praise. However these boys often have their sexuality questioned by their young male counterparts, who see their successful boy classmates as socially different.

Posted by: professor70 | April 30, 2010 7:33 AM | Report abuse

I just had to make a grammar mistake (second sent.) and write "teacher's". "Modifying a noun to make it possessive for no reason, are we?!?" I can smell my 4th grade teacher's perfume in the room. I'm getting dizzy.

Who needs coffee when you can start your day with a panic attack?

Posted by: professor70 | April 30, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

I just started tutoring in a high-poverty elementary school. It has a mix of low-income African-American children and recently arrived immigrant children, many from South East Asia. Just by walking in the halls as a new-comer it has been striking how the behavior problems are overwhelmingly with the older African-American boys. What is sad is how angry they act, seemingly at the world. I think their problems go far beyond a female-dominated school environment, and cannot be addressed in school alone.

Posted by: calliet | April 30, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

High School english is (generally) not gender-neutral right now... it is girl-centric. I know of english classes that assign Twilight, and on a more personal level, making my 14 year old self read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre came pretty close to ruining reading for me.

Posted by: someguy100 | April 30, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

As for boys falling behind over the last 3 decades, let's take a look at a few things. Well, can't overlook the fact that the abundance of televised sports has turned brains into mush. Why, really, must we have entire sections of newspapers devoted to sports, or 10+ minutes of local news? Note the diminishing sight of boys playing outside, creating their own games, building dams with rocks using crude tools and a water bucket, or climbing trees, etc. No, seems the outside activity must involve a coach and a uniform.

Don't forget toys over the decades. How many boys (or girls) get the science kits for gifts these days? Oh, and those science kits....a little on the overly safe side and with rather predictable outcomes.... Boys ask for computer games and cool phones, but how many ask for an erector set? Give the kids a field microscope this year or a penny whistle.

Now school....again, even when there are great science activities and a kid may really be picking up some interest, time to move on to the next subject. Doesn't seem to end in college either. I remember my son telling me a story during his first semester of college about an ongoing experiment in his bio lab. Seems they had some sort of specimen they were to tend to for several weeks, take note of changes and stuff like that. Well, after the "allotted time" for the project, the specimens were to be thrown away. My son asked to keep his little project going for a while longer to see what further changes developed. He was told that he couldn't - lab rules. Frustrating...even moreso when he asked about the outcome of the project at a later stage; the teacher didn't know the answer.

To calliet: I wonder how many of the frustrated and angry students would be less so if they had projects in which they they could engage their interests and feel a sense of accomplishment. Wood working, even small projects like a simple shelf, window/small plot gardening, working on a Habitat home, cooking from scratch (prep for bachelor living class?), whatever. Hey, how about a year long rotational style class as an elective.

And books, boys like books with lots of meaningful action. My boys all loved "Carry on Mr. Bowditch" and many dozens like that style book when they were young. My daughter too, actually. They all enjoyed many of the Landmark Series books, US and those of the international nature. Exciting stuff.

Not a fan of the KIPP competition style. Not a way to instill long-lasting intrinsic motivation. Cheap. Okay, sleazy.

Posted by: shadwell1 | April 30, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

I keep seeing all this hand-wringing about "female-dominated classrooms". But if we look back at the era in which boys were really excelling, doing better than girls on most measures, we have to look back at the period before the 70's. What did classrooms look like back then? They were typically taught by a woman (female-dominated), and were far more traditional than today's classrooms. You would have seen desks lined up, and silence enforced pretty strictly. That is the era in which my husband went to Catholic school, in fact.So perhaps boys ACTUALLY need a more traditional, stricter classroom? Maybe they need to move around LESS, not more? It seems to me that the more active and non-traditional that we make our classrooms, the worse boys do.

Posted by: bkmny | April 30, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I also think that we can't ignore the way in which video gaming is destroying boys. Go to any place where kids are waiting - a doctor's office, for example. You will see the girls lined up reading books and magazines, and the boys lined up tapping away on portable game machines. I teach at a university, and see the effects on the boys. Most of the young male students seem to have no other interests, and are much poorer readers than the female students.

Posted by: bkmny | April 30, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

You know, looking at standardized test scores that actually measure reading (NAEP tends to conflate reading and writing) shows that boys reading skills are roughly at par with girls (I'm talking about states that test their entire population).

While the feminization of school is a bit of a problem, the larger problem is teacher grading, which rewards girls for behavior and pretty pictures and punishes boys who don't care about pictures or neatness. So this impacts their ability to get into the stronger high school classes and thus their college admissions.

But there's really not much evidence besides NAEP that boys are doing poorly at reading, and I really don't trust the so-called "gold standard".

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 30, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

I agree that girls cause problems for boys academically.

I recall one instance where a girl invited me over for a study session for some test or another. While I'd be forced to admit that I found this study session to be satisfying, if this is what girls mean by "studying", I can't figure out why their grades are so much better than ours.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | April 30, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

I just went to my daughter's high school National Honor Society induction ceremony. Very anecdotally, I counted a large sample of the honored students. The girls outnumbered the boys two to one.

Oh well. Someone has to run the world. Boys fouled it up last time, might as well give girls a chance this time.

Posted by: jjj33 | April 30, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

someguy100 said "making my 14 year old self read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre came pretty close to ruining reading for me."
So girls don't have to read "Moby Dick", "A Red Badge of Courage" or "All Quiet on the Western Front"? They don't have to read Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Steinbeck?
I bet the ratio of male to female authors was more like 80/20 rather than 50/50? So girl-centric means reading anything written by a women?
written by a women?written y wome

Posted by: alterego3 | April 30, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

One of the great challenges to my feminist identity was having a boy. Sure I could give him dolls, but they were still eaten by the dinosaurs. Even with books- Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle- my daughter loved what the animals said and my son focused on the spider web and the fly getting eaten. Very little is the same in how they learn. When we realized that my son just was not going to sit in his pre-school class and watch the teacher to learn the letter they had to incorporate another stratgy. They now take him and several other boys and do a game where they draw the letter and the child has to run down the hall get the beanbag with that letter on it and bring it back and say the letter. He learned twice as much in one week as he was learning over several months. For some kids, mostly boys, the movement and physical learning are essential. I was grateful that his school decided to act on it, but many educators just are annoyed by these very active children.

Posted by: Brooklander | April 30, 2010 8:45 PM | Report abuse

Does school matter? Girls have mastered the art of school, but being good at school is not necessarily the key to achievement. Team sports dominated by boys teach competition essential for success in the business world. Yes, girls are going into college in greater numbers than boys but have a long way to go before things are "even."

What I have observed is that some female teachers are intimidated by the physicality of boys and thus subject them to more discipline or use grades to hammer them. Some of the comments in this blog support that fact. You'd be angry and discontented to if your teacher didn't treat you right because you were a boy.

Posted by: hotrod3 | April 30, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

I don't buy feminization as a major cause of boys’ underperformance in public schools. The majority of public school teachers have always been female. Instead, what has happened is that good order and discipline has declined in public schools. And this decline adversely affects boys much more than girls.

Meanwhile, Catholic schools have remained roughly unchanged in their approach to teaching to include demanding and getting a high level of good order and discipline. But rather than me prattle on about the virtues of Catholic schools, check out the NYT's book review today:

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | May 2, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

@fairfaxvaguy who wrote: I don't buy feminization as a major cause of boys’ underperformance in public schools. The majority of public school teachers have always been female.

On that note I will agree with you, but that is where I have to end it. While teachers have always been female, the male child has not been hammered by females both in home and in school like we have it today. In many instances male students get it from all angles, the teacher is female, the counselor is female, the Principal is female and then they go home to a female dominated home. Where is his identity and who can he lean on who will understand him. Suppose he doens't play sports, then who is there for him. I think back to my boys life when we moved here. Neither played a sport, and there was no after school activity headed by a male for academic enrichment solely.

Posted by: lacairaine | May 2, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

The reason the boys have fallen so far behind is because the amount of resources devoted to "empowering" girls is staggering. Check out Warren Farrell's brief (9 min.) take on the subject on YouTube, paying special attention to the first 60 secs.

Also, the elephant in the room is that the quality of female teachers has changed. Today's teacher, likely exposed to Women Studies in college, may just be prone to seeing her male charges as patriarchs-in-training and act accordingly. Observe.

Posted by: Richard_III | May 2, 2010 11:22 PM | Report abuse

The comment section doesn't take html.

Warren Farrell's talk is

The experience of many boys in school is

Posted by: Richard_III | May 2, 2010 11:26 PM | Report abuse

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.

This is why we need Male Studies.

Boys and girls learn differently, yet Feminist Gender Studies in college teach teachers that gender differences are a social construct. Therefore, boys with methods that are girl centric leading to poor boy performance.

Posted by: moebius22 | May 3, 2010 1:17 AM | Report abuse

This subject always makes me wonder. For hundreds of years schools were run by men for boys - girls were considered too inferior to be worth educating. Now for the last 150 - 200 years as girls have gradually gotten an equal chance at education and in many cases are exceeding the males' performance, it's a big crisis. The excuse is that it's because the classroom is too "feminine". Kind of funny.

Posted by: c5flteng | May 4, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Female performance improved, becuase the classroom became girl centric-thus causing a decline in boy performance.

I think all of this proves that the much ballyhooed co-ed education is not in the interest of girls or boys.

Posted by: moebius22 | May 6, 2010 11:24 PM | Report abuse

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