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.
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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.
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.
''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.
The article gets interesting when the reporter attempts to answer the ''why'' question. Two reasons, local education experts say: Girls mature faster and women need college degrees more than men. This is their logic? As the article pointed out, the entire phenomenon of boys falling behind is only about twenty years old. In that brief time frame boys suddenly became less mature? The economic explanation, that women need college more than men, makes more sense and until recent years was true. Women did get a greater salary boost from a degree. The changing economyof today, however, has altered that, and it holds true now only on the anecdotal level. According to the data experts at both the federal Education Department and College Board, men and women today get exactly the same benefits from a college degree.
The point is not to pick on Pennsylvania educators but rather to illustrate the lack of insight in this country about the boy troubles. In Australia, when insightful educators decide to do something about boys lagging behind, they can draw on reams of government research about why it is happening and what can help. They can also apply for a government grant to launch remedies. Now contrast that with what happens in the United States when local teachers or principals decide to do something about the boy troubles. I'll answer that by relating the story of a trip I made to a tiny town in New Mexico, where I learned of a teacher who decided to dosomething about the boys struggling in his classroom.
THE POJOAQUE STORY
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.
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.
The absence of federal attempts to deal with boys' lagging academic ambitionscreates an opening for a journalist to step in and evaluate what is being offered up to parents and educators about the boy troubles. I will sort through the theories, weigh the evidence, and offer an opinion. Always, I will try to stick with what reporters do best, which is investigate. And I will abide by my Missouri roots: Show me. When I find schools where boys and girls both succeed at academics, I will draw lessons about what happens in those schools that is not happening in the many schools where boys lag far behind. In the end, readers can decide for themselves what their neighborhood schools are doing, or not doing, on behalf of their sons. To get started, let's look at what we know about boys falling behind in school.
"Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind" by Richard Whitmire, AMACOM Books, January 2010.