Thanks to a reporting fellowship at the University of Maryland, I began a query into this issue that would persist for many years and include the launching of a website/blog, whyboysfail.com. I quickly discovered that the boy troubles are international and that several countries, including Australia, are far ahead of the United States in probing the roots of the mystery. The journey to answer the question of why boys suddenly lose interest in school eventually led me to Australia, where the government sponsors research that schools use to buck up the boys, who, like the boys in the United States, lag well behind the girls. In just one year, using techniques such as switching to a reading program that relies more on phonics, breaking the curriculum into manageable ''chunks'' to help the organizationally challenged boys, introducing some single-sex classrooms, and arranging parent-teacher conferences well before exams rather than after the tests to give parents a heads up if their children were in trouble, Blue Mountains Grammar evened out the gender imbalances among its best students.
At Blue Mountains Grammar, these were not trial-and-error experiments. Rather, they were based on results of a federal investigation into the boy problems that were released in 2003. The cause of the boy troubles Australian investigators settled on is relatively uncomplicated and mirrors the cause already identified by Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and other countries that have researched the issue: The world has become more verbal, and boys haven't. Boys lack the literacy skills to compete in the Information Age, a theme that will be explored in greater depth in later chapters. College has become the new high school, and the currencies of any education after high school are verbal skills and the ability to read critically and write clearly. That explains both the recent nature of the problem and its occurrence in so many countries around the world. The lack of literacy skills, especially the ability to write well, also helps explain why fewer men go to college and, once there, are less likely than women to earn degrees.
The boy problems in Australia aren't any worse than the boy problems in the United States. They appear quite similar, as do the boy problems in other Western countries. What makes the United States unique is its relative indifference to the issue. Here, the U.S. Department of Education has yet to launch a single probe into the problem. No doubt, the department is influenced by critics who say the gender gaps are just another manifestation of the long-standing problems of race and poverty. As a separate issue, the ''boy troubles'' are mostly a myth, they argue. It's true that the gender gaps are starkest in the large urban school districts. In July 2009 the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University released a study that tracked the students who graduated from Boston Public Schools in 2007. The conclusion: For every 167 women in four year colleges there were only 100 males. Is poverty the cause? The male and female students came from identical homes and neighborhoods. Is race the issue? That's not what the study uncovered. In fact, black females were five percentage points more likely to pursue any further study after high school—community colleges, four-year colleges, or technical/vocational schools—than white males.