Read Excerpt: 'Why Boys Fail' by Richard Whitmire

''Public policy concern over these gender gaps has been quite minimal to date,'' said Andrew Sum, director of the Center. ''The issue needs immediate attention given the dramatic consequences these gender gaps have for men's earnings, their marital possibilities, the share of children being raised in single-parent families, and the fiscal outlook for the nation.''

And yet parents and schools yet no help from the federal education department, leaving local educators on their own as they struggle with faltering boys. Worse, parents and educators are forced to sort through the swarm of what's-wrong-with-boys books, magazine articles, seminars, and TV shows. There's no shortage of solutions offered up by experts. Problem is, my reporting suggests that most of the solutions are inadequate. Parents lose regardless of which ''solution'' they choose.

Step into any teachers' lounge and you'll hear the usual explanations for the gender gap: Boys mature slower. Girls' brains are hardwired to be better book learners. And then there are toxic-culture explanations: The lure of rap music and Grand Theft Auto traps boys but not girls, they explain. Others point fingers at the larger society, saying that boys' unquestioning embrace of male-macho values stifles the introspection needed to develop verbal skills. One theory that wins a lot of chin nodding both inside and outside teachers' lounges is the anti-academic message of hiphop culture. Some researchers can even chart the overlap of the rise in hiphop and the decline in classroom performance of black males. That's only a down payment on the list of the suggested triggers behind the boy troubles. Check any topic listing of popular magazines or books about the boy troubles and you'll see even more: It's the disappearance of male teachers; it's a need for single-sex classrooms. Many of the explanations come complete with charts, graphs, and dramatic snapshots of the male brain in action: Boys are falling behind as a result of schools failing to embrace ''brain-based'' learning theories about how boys and girls absorb information in entirely different ways, we are told, a prescription that comes complete with recommended classroom temperatures. Boys, we're advised, prefer cold, dark classrooms. (That actually makes sense, given that it pretty much describes the cold, cluttered home-office study where I'm writing this.) Other explanations require a background in Freud to truly comprehend: Boys are falling behind because mothers cut the apron strings too early, we're told, leaving needy sons bereft of the nurturing love they so badly need, which dooms some to spin out of control.

Most theories about boys falling behind have some truth to them, but until American educators agree on the primary cause of the boy troubles, they risk wasting their time. Let me offer a typical example of how local educators explain the growing gender imbalances. In January 2009, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ran a story about more women than men going to college in that state:

In 2007, some 78 percent of Pennsylvania's female high school graduates chose to attend two- and four-year colleges as opposed to the slightly less than 68 percent of boys who did so, according to the state Department of Education.

Until the 1980s, more men than women attended and graduated from college. But by the 1990s, women had caught up, and soon they overtook men.

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