Read Excerpt: 'Why Boys Fail' by Richard Whitmire

Ortiz was convinced the boys in his school were more reluctant learners than true special education students, and the PBS documentary gave him the idea he could do something for the boys of Pojoaque. ''I came into the school and spoke to some people about it and the librarian told me that Newsweek had just published something about that.'' In the Newsweek cover story about the problems boys were having, Ortiz read about a Colorado school experimenting with single-sex education. Michael Thompson had cited single-sex classes as beneficial to boys in his PBS special. ''I looked into it further and found it was legal to offer single-sex education in public schools. I took two months to do as much research as possible and then wrote up a proposal and gave it to my principal, who was interested.''

Eventually, Ortiz was able to launch his single-sex experiment. But what's striking about this story is that Ortiz had to figure out everything himself. It was up to Ortiz to point out that boys were having unique problems in schools and then craft a solution—even though boys everywhere in New Mexico are falling behind, not just in Pojoaque. On national tests, between 10 and 18 percent more boys than girls in New Mexico K–12 schools score ''below basic'' in reading and writing. Sixty percent of the girls graduate from high school, compared to 53.5 percent of the boys. Sixty-six percent of the students in special education are boys. Sixty percent of the students held back each year are boys. As has happened in the rest of the country, the K–12 problems in New Mexico are spilling over into college. Over just the past ten years the percentage of males receiving bachelor's degrees at public universities in that state fell from 45 percent to 41 percent.

Given the magnitude of the problem, it's troubling that Ortiz was forced to rely on tidbits gleaned from a TV show and a Newsweek cover story. Especially worrisome is that his school district, the state education department, and the U.S. Department of Education had no advice to offer him in setting up an intervention for the boys. All this leaves Ortiz as isolated as Pojoaque itself. ''Yeah, I'm pretty much on my own,'' concedes the soft-spoken Ortiz. ''It's kind of scary at times.'' What he came up with—single-sex classrooms, boy-friendly reading materials, and a freedom to move around a bit—seemed to be working during my visit in 2007; it was too soon for anyone to know, including Ortiz. In the spring of 2009, when I checked on Ortiz's efforts, I heard good news, with the all-boys classes (and all-girls classes) outpacing the school average.

Ortiz appears to have chosen an educational path that is paying off. But Ortiz and other educators determined to level the gender gaps shouldn't have to conduct trial-and-error experiments on their own. We owe them an Australian-style federal investigation into the cause of the problem. The Aussies are a long way from solving the gender gaps. As I learned from the visit there, schools such as Blue Mountains Grammar are the exception. Most aren't taking the government up on its offer to work on the problem. But at least the Australians, starting six years ago, got schools willing to tackle the problem on an intelligent path. In this country, we remain years away from even reaching the starting line to begin working on the problem.

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