Read Excerpt: 'Why Boys Fail' by Richard Whitmire

The difference in educating boys and girls.

ByABC News via logo
August 24, 2009, 11:20 AM

Jan. 15, 2010— -- In "Why Boys Fail," Richard Whitmire examines the gap between the education of boys versus that of girls, and why boys fall behind in school.

For more on the author, or to read his blog, click here.

Read a chapter from the book below, then click here to explore the "GMA" Library for more great reads.


B E V M C C L E N D O N C L E A R L Y remembers the day she discovered the difficulties boys were having in her elementary school. She and the other parents with children at Pearl Creek Elementary in Fairbanks, Alaska, had gathered for the spring awards ceremony. Nestled into a wooded hillside and surrounded by homes that overlook the Alaska Range to the south, Pearl Creek is a school with a dream location and a student body to match. With the University of Alaska as a neighbor, the school draws the children of professors as well as the sons and daughters of Fairbanks's doctors and lawyers. Parents here have ambitious plans for their children, which makes the spring awards day a big event. This day had a beautiful start. The birch trees had greened up the week before and temperatures rose enough to hold the picnic for the sixth graders outside. Following the picnic about 150 parents filed into the school to sit on folding chairs facing a tiny elevated stage. Sitting to the side on bleachers were the sixth graders about to be honored. As the principal called out the awards, often given in clusters, the honored students climbed the stage to receive their awards.

''It was very visual,'' said McClendon. ''You would see one, two, three, four girls climb up to the stage and then walk off. And then another three or four girls would be called up. Here were all these little girls getting the awards.'' Of the roughly twenty awards given out, it was pretty much a clean sweep of academic awards for the girls that day. Wait, two boys won a ''most improved'' and a third boy got a good sense of humor/positive attitude award. Ouch. McClendon remembers saying to herself, ''Oh, that's horrible.'' It's not as if the school didn't see this coming. In the days prior to the awards ceremony, school counselor Annie Caulfield realized she had a problem. Awards that normally went to one boy and girl, such as the American Legion prize, were instead going to two girls. The prospect of a potentially embarrassing girl weep caused Caulfield to check on past awards. ''Over the last eight years we've seen gradual changes, with more girls winning, and then 'bam.' This year was so blatant, so one-sided. I encouraged the teachers to go back and look again, but they felt this is what it needed to be.'' What keeps boys off awards stages is a combination of academics and behavior; they don't earn perfect grades and they are more prone to playground tussles. While those boy/girl differences have held for decades, something has happened in recent years to accelerate the problem.

McClendon has few regrets her son didn't get an award that day. He gets plenty of accolades. But what about the other smart boys at Pearl Creek? Other parents of boys, especially those with younger boys in the school, appeared worried that day. ''I'm a staunch feminist, but my God look at what they're doing. You can't tell me there were no boys in that school who deserved an award.''

To avoid this situation in the future, school officials faced a dilemma: either they start practicing affirmative action for boys or suspend the awards ceremony. They chose the latter. Pushing the problem from public view to avoid another embarrassing clean-sweep ceremony, however, falls short of a long-term solution. This is not a local problem confined to Pearl Creek Elementary. Boys falling behind in school are both a national and international phenomenon involving far more than playground roughhousing. In the United States, the problem is most obvious in high poverty urban schools, where boys are losing sight of the girls. In Chicago, the girls at Gen. George Patton Elementary School outpaced the boys by fifty-five points on the 2007 state reading tests. Boys are four and a half times as likely as girls to get expelled from preschool and four times as likely to suffer from attention-deficit disorders. In state after state, boys are slipping behind girls in math scores on state exams—which steps on all the conventional wisdom about boys excelling in math—while falling far behind girls in reading. And while the problem is most serious in poor neighborhoods, the awards day snapshot offered up by the upper-income Pearl Creek Elementary is mirrored in middle- and upper-middle-income schools around the country.

Most worrisome, boys' academic ambitions have skidded. As recently as 1980 more male than female high school seniors planned to graduate from college, federal surveys of high school seniors told us. By 2001, however, girls moved ahead of boys on that question by a startling eleven percentage points (updates to that survey show the gap persists). What happened to boys in those twenty-one years? Answering that question is what this book is about. Those flagging ambitions explain the dramatic gender imbalances unfolding on most college campuses, many of which hover near a 60–40 balance favoring women on graduation day. Why are the gender imbalances worse on graduation day? Because men are both less likely to enroll and more likely to drop out before earning degrees. The journey to find the answer to the question of why this is happening began more than a decade ago when, like every other education reporter at the time, I bought into the reports that schools were treating girls unfairly, shunting them aside in favor of aggressive boys thrusting their arms into the air to answer teachers' questions. As the father of twogirls, I was outraged, and I wrote those stories uncritically. By hindsight, we now know that that research was flawed. I was wrong to write those stories. As my own daughters matured past the elementary school years, I began to witness just how wrong those reports were. My nephews never seemed to fare as well as my nieces. The brothers of our daughters' friends rarely did as well as their sisters. The proof was playing out in the college enrollment and graduation numbers, where women increasingly dominated: Boys, not girls, were the ones struggling in school; men, not women, were falling behind in college graduation numbers. And these are not just poor minority boys falling behind. Plenty of them come from schools such as Pearl Creek Elementary.Anyone making the hot, high-speed drive from Santa Fe to Los Alamos passes through the tiny town of Pojoaque, which in Tewa means ''water drinking place,'' an odd name given that Pojoaque is surrounded by dry riverbeds most of the year. Pojoaque (rhymes with Milwaukee) is an allaround unremarkable place. Even the Native American–run casino looks drab and deserted. As a result, drivers probably don't notice the middle school buildings on the right just after leaving the highway to head for the distant mountains that frame Los Alamos. And they would never guess that inside one of those fifth grade classrooms, Paul Ortiz is running an education experiment that for New Mexico is pretty exciting stuff: all boy classes in math and reading.

Ortiz's single-sex experiment was born of a quirk. One night as he was grading papers he realized he needed some background noise to concentrate and tuned in PBS. ''I figured it would be some British movie, which for me is not very interesting.'' Instead, Ortiz started listening to a documentary by Raising Cain8 author Michael Thompson, who was talking about the problems boys were having in school. ''Needless to say I was hooked.''

Ortiz knew all about boys having trouble in school. The year before, he had had twelve boys in his class, half of them labeled as special education. ''When I looked at these boys they didn't seem like special education students.'' But when Ortiz checked with the front office he learned that was roughly average for the boys in the intermediate school—and about five times the rate for girls.

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.