Politics & Policy

Fairer, Be Fair

It's time to deal with the undeniable problems boys are having at school.

“If I can’t figure out what to do with my middle-school boys, I’m retiring at the end of the year. I’ve had it! I’m just going to retire!” announced an African-American teacher.

She had come to a talk on the educational needs of boys. The high school auditorium held 800 people, and parents and teachers were standing in the aisles and seated two deep on the stairs.

#ad#Boys get most of the D’s and F’s in school and boys make up 80 percent of an average school’s discipline problems. About 80 percent of children diagnosed with learning disabilities are boys, and over 80 percent of schoolchildren on Ritalin or similar drugs are boys.

“Lost,” “confused,” “slackers,” “directionless,” — these are the labels teachers now apply to adolescent boys. They call adolescent girls “smart,” “motivated,” “mature,” “focused,” even “fireballs.”

Something is going on and something is going wrong with many boys. Parents and teachers know it. So why is there so much resistance inside the Beltway to doing something to help this generation of boys? Why isn’t there a task force on boys’ needs like the Department of Education’s task force on girls’ needs?

The September 12, 2006, debate at the National Press Club on the topic “Are Boys Really in Crisis?” reveals the source of this resistance.

The moderator, Ruth Wattenberg, editor of the American Educator, opened the discussion with a statement from a time warp, “I promise no matter how aggressive or disruptive [the two male panelists] get, I will not neglect Sara [the author of a report dismissing the problems of boys].”

Sara Mead testily replied, “I hope I’m not being called on first because you don’t think I can hold my own!”

There you have it. It’s still all about women. It’s still about men oppressing women. They just don’t get it. “Change blindness” — that’s what psychologists call this dangerous cognitive error.

With all the evidence showing that male suicide rates have rocketed, that boys are more likely to drop out of high school, that just 42 percent of college students are male, how can these women argue with a straight face that boys don’t need help?

Education Sector, a newly launched educational think tank purporting to bring truth and fresh ideas to educational debates, published a non-peer reviewed report, “The Truth About Boys and Girls,” to widespread and uncritical media attention.

First, the report argues, the rhetoric about boys’ problems is overblown. They offer as evidence a headline from Newsweek on January 30, 2006. It reads, “The Boy Crisis. At every level of education, they’re falling behind. What to do?” Education Sector has created a straw man to blow down. Headline writers, as everyone knows, use words like “crisis” to hype a story. No one is “hysterical,” as the organization claims. They are bewildered.

Second, the report argues, boys as a group are not in trouble. This claim requires fancy dancing, to wit:

“There’s no doubt that some groups of boys — particularly Hispanic and black boys and boys from low-income homes — are in real trouble,” writes Sara Mead. “But the predominant issues for them are race and class, not gender.”

So which boys are not in “real trouble”? The answer is one “advantaged” group — white boys from middle class families.

But these advantaged boys are in trouble too. At the end of high school, almost a quarter (23 percent) of the white sons of college educated parents scored “Below Basic” in reading achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in contrast to only 7 percent of their female counterparts. In writing, the gender gap among the “advantaged” was even wider.

White Twelfth-Graders of College Educated Parents Scoring “Below Basic” by Gender and Subject

Subject

Male

Female

Reading

23%

7%

Writing

25%

6%

Mathematics

19%

17%

African-American Twelfth-Graders of College Educated Parents Scoring “Below Basic” by Gender and Subject

Subject

Male

Female

Reading

43%

33%

Writing

45%

24%

Mathematics

57%

60%

Hispanic Twelfth-Graders of College Educated Parents Scoring “Below Basic” by Gender and Subject

Subject

Male

Female

Reading

34%

19%

Writing

39%

17%

Mathematics

40%

49%

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress. “College educated parents” is defined as having at least one parent with a college degree. The NAEP scores are from the most recent year available: Reading, 2002; Writing, 2002; Mathematics, 2000.

A young man who scores “below basic” in reading and writing at the end of high school is essentially illiterate. He cannot read a newspaper article and get the main point. He will be in real trouble when he hits the job market in the global, information-age economy.

Missing from this sterile policy debate is an understanding of how being a boy contributes to poor academic outcomes.

First, boys as a group mature more slowly than girls, developing fine motor skills, verbal skills, and executive control skills at later ages. One of the easiest policy fixes is to start boys later in school, when they face a level playing field.

Second, girls of all backgrounds are getting pushed far more than boys. When a girl says she wants to be a dental technician, her teacher or guidance counselor is apt to ask her why she doesn’t want to be a dentist. Boys too need to be guided and challenged.

Third, a culture is developing among many boys which defines school as a “girl thing,” an arena where girls excel, and where boys are proud to be slackers. That’s the energy behind the single-sex school movement, to create school cultures where boys can excel without being unmanly.

Fourth, many boys grow up in families where they don’t see what a good man does. The girls in the same families see hard-working single moms who keep it together and get places.

We are losing young boys to a sense of failure that comes from schools poorly adapted to their needs. We are losing adolescent males to the anger that comes from feeling neither needed nor respected. We are losing young men to life-tracks empty of college, careers, or any other productive endeavor. A large, sullen, poorly educated group of young men is bad for us all.

– Judith Kleinfeld is professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and director of the Boys’ Project, a consortium of policymakers, researchers, educators, and parents concerned with helping boys succeed.

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