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Do We Have A “Boy Crisis” In Our Schools?

June 14, 2010

Books played an important role in my life growing up. They were stacked on book shelves in my bedroom where I spent hours fully engaged in the next story. My library card was well used on weekly journeys to the local public library to discover new worlds. I stayed up late at night reading, rarely left the house without a book in my backpack, and did quite well in school. On the other hand, my younger brother did not share the same passion or the same grades. An avid sports fan and athlete, he was constantly on the move. Even without weeknight TV and video-game privileges, his recreational reading, if any, was confined to the Sports Section of the Los Angeles Times. Circumstances changed dramatically with age and time. After high school, with the help of an inspirational junior college professor and a clerk job at the local independent book store, my brother slowly transformed into a reading dynamo. His grades and confidence in school improved. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a major in English, went to law school where he wrote for the law review, and today is our family’s go-to person for book recommendations. His reading list exceeds mine by volumes.

This sibling difference in pre-college interests and achievements sheds some light on a growing dialogue in the education community.

There has been a lot in the media recently about the “boy crisis” in education – the fact that female students are beginning to outperform their male counterparts at a somewhat alarming rate. As an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, I wrote my honors thesis on the history of female education in the United States. The story involves centuries of struggle, backlash, and extreme disparity in academic access and academic achievement between men and women. And even with equal access, there has been a running debate about the benefits of same-sex education for women. So it is interesting to see where the pendulum is swinging in 2010 as women routinely outperform their male counterparts on the same school stage. While we often speak about the “achievement gap” between students of different socio-economic, ethnic or racial backgrounds, statistics seem to suggest that this conversation needs to expand to the difference in gender achievement as well.

The Center for Education Policy (CEP) recently released a report comparing academic achievement between male and female students. Based on available state data, the study found that male students in every grade lag behind females in reading. In some states, the gap was 10 percentage points or higher. When it came to math, an area where males traditionally outperform females, female students have reached “rough parity” in achievement with male students. Jack Jennings, President and CEO of CEP, wrote:

“Instead of the crisis for girls that was the rallying call for years and produced much-needed attention to the academic plight of females, we now have a ‘boy crisis.’ The data from our study makes it clear that something happening in schools is holding boys back in reading.”

It is not just in reading where we see red flags about how well we are reaching our male students in school. While nationally 72% of females finish high school, only 65% of males graduate, a rate lower for African American (48%) and Hispanic (49%) males. Males comprise 71% of school suspensions and 90% of learning disability diagnoses. Also, according to the National Center for Education and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, only 40% of bachelor’s degrees are earned by males. There is even some concern now that college admission offices may be discriminating in favor of male applicants in an effort to balance the enrollment numbers.

With these numbers, it is clear that the needs of many male students are not being met in school. The reasons appear to be diverse and complex. Many teachers, especially those teaching elementary or middle school students, can attest to the difference in energy, interest, and attention levels between boys and girls. In addition, medical experts point out that boys tend to be “later verbal bloomers,” and require more hands-on play and kinesthetic activity at an early age to stay focused and engaged.

However, in the era of standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, there is little flexibility to create curriculum and assessments that take the obvious differences among various learners into account. Rather, we are seemingly stuck with a single high stakes multiple-choice exam to measure ability. As Richard Whitmire, the author of the book Why Boys Fail: Saving our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving them Behind and the blog Why Boys Fail states:

“It doesn’t take a degree in child psychology to see what’s happening here. A test heavy on verbal skills aimed at the very early grades is going to turn up more girls than boys. I’m surprised the gifted gender gaps aren’t larger.”

Whitmire lays out a few suggestions:

1. More and better data are needed on how boys are progressing in school
2. More innovative early reading strategies are needed, specifically geared towards boys
3. High school curriculum needs to be more hands-on and allow for active, real life application of content and skills
4. Single sex schools should exist that are better managed and better studied

I do not presume to know the answer to the alleged “boy crisis.” However, as a sister to a brother, and a teacher of as many high school boys as girls, I know that something is going on. I look forward to being part of an important dialogue about this issue as the education community continues to focus on how to reach, engage, and assess all learners in fair and meaningful ways.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez permalink
    June 15, 2010 12:35 am

    Kelly, thanks for opening up this discussion. With all the pressure of THE test, many educators been forced into a style that expects students to sit still, take notes, and listen. I read about girls and boys brains at rest, say during a lecture, and it showed how girls’ brains are designed in a way that enables them to pay attention for longer periods of time. Boys brains don’t work this way. I’m sure we all teach alarming numbers of males students who are taking Addrall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, or something else, for their ADD/ADHD. There is just no reason this many boys should need medication to function at school.

    I found some scary facts in Michael Gurian’s book, Boys and Girls Learn Differently.

    *Boys receive approximately 70% of D’s and F’s in school.
    *Boys make up two-thirds of the learning disabled and 90% of the behaviorally disabled.
    *Boys are 90% of the discipline problems in school as well as 80% of the dropouts.
    *Boys ages 5 to 12 are 60% more likely to have repeated at least one grade. *The average eleventh grade boy writes at the same level of ability as the average eight-grade girl, and boys read worse than girls at all grade levels.
    *More than 93% of inmates in our prisons and jails are men.
    *The number of boys who said they didn’t like school rose 71% between 1980 and 2001.

    Peg Tyre’s article, “The Trouble With Boys,” which appeared in Newsweek January 2006, offers some insight. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10965522/site/newsweek/page/4/print/1/displaymode/1098/

    I’m glad you pointed out that minority males (African American and Hispanic) are struggling far more than the average male. This is certainly evident when I look at my own district. African American males make up approximately 8.6 % of the nation’s k-12 public school enrollment, but make up about 60% of all incarcerated youth. I heard this statistic from a professor in a master’s course, and it has stuck with me. I wish I had a solution. I think building long-term relationships and providing role models is one of the most important things we can do for these students.

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