Boy troubles

Tuesday September 11, 2012

Over the past four years I've become accustomed to the taste of crow. Parenting does that to a gal. A long-ago undergrad course -- the Psychology of Women and Girls -- comes back to haunt me like Marley's Ghost. The professor asserted that boys were, in fact, biologically, developmentally, and psychologically different from girls. The class -- mostly childless 20-somethings -- vehemently disagreed. Admitting there were significant differences between the sexes felt akin to accepting sexism as unalterable. We'd read Carol Gilligan's groundbreaking "In a Different Voice" and passionately believed that gender differences were primarily the result of socialization and environmental factors. We were certain education and intentional socialization could erase the differences and the resulting gender bias. Now I have a 4 1 2-year-old son, and each day I experience just what that professor contended all those years ago: Boys and girls are different and they sometimes need different things in order to be successful. Why is this so controversial?

By just about every measure, boys are falling significantly behind girls in educational success. Both Michael Gurian's "The Minds of Boys" and Richard Whitmire's "Why Boys Fail" recount the grim news. Boys are much more likely to be tagged as learning disabled, diagnosed with ADHD and placed in special education. They are disciplined at staggering rates. Nationwide, regardless of demographic factors, they significantly lag behind girls in the grades they earn, the awards they receive, their scores on achievement tests, and their high school and college graduation rates. This all translates into what Whitmire calls their "flagging ambitions": Women greatly outnumber men in college and graduate programs. A long-time educator confided in me recently, "The whole educational system feels rigged against boys right now. They don't have a chance." This is a remarkable shift since the mid-1990s when David and Myra Sadker's "Failing at Fairness" warned that girls were misunderstood and neglected in schools. Societal sexism certainly persists, and yet many more girls than boys successfully navigate our education system. It is time to candidly admit we have boy troubles.

There's a dizzying collection of explanations for why boys are lagging behind. Some advocates claim video games and more "screen" time are to blame. Others point to male hip hop culture and its purported denigration of education. Predictably, feminists are blamed -- again -- for their vociferous advocacy of parity of opportunity for girls and boys. The sheer number of women elementary school teachers has also been identified as detrimental to boys in need of male role models. Although this problem surely has multiple sources, some explanations are more convincing than others.

Schools have changed over the last decade. In my column I've written about the dramatic makeover of kindergarten. Under pressure from both No Child Left Behind and parents who want easily measured achievement, classrooms have shifted away from doing, playing, and moving. Students sit a lot more; this is coupled with dramatic reductions in elementary school recess. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average American elementary student enjoys just 26 minutes of daily recess -- including lunchtime. A friend with three young daughters once remarked after a few hours with my son, "Wow! He is in constant motion. My girls have adventures, but they're all from the neck up." We often insist that boys stay still and quiet when their brain chemistry does not allow them to do that. As Peg Tyre -- author of "The Trouble with Boys" -- explains, "Sometime in the first trimester, a boy fetus begins producing male sex hormones that bathe his brain in testosterone for the rest of his gestation." That exposure to testosterone wires the male brain differently and affects its development. New studies show that male brain chemistry causes boys to play and learn differently than girls. Although it's true that sitting and attending for long stretches of time is not great for girls either, many more are able to do it and even thrive in this learning environment.

In addition to fewer opportunities for students to move their bodies, No Child Left Behind has changed the educational climate in schools. The push for more standardized testing in literacy and math in the name of "accountability" has resulted in many boys being pushed to learn to read before their brains are developmentally ready. Language-dense math programs -- and the shift away from rich but time-consuming hands-on activities -- also put boys at a clear disadvantage. According to Tyre, "These new pressures are undermining the strengths and underscoring the limitations of what psychologists call the ‘boy brain' -- the kinetic, disorganized, maddening and sometimes brilliant behaviors that scientists now believe are not learned but hard-wired."

When I examine my own teaching, I wish I'd done some things differently for my male and high-energy female students. Although former colleagues can attest to the raucousness in my classroom and my quest to employ Howard Gardner's ideas about multiple intelligences, I didn't see a crucial underlying subtext in our society, and by extension, in our schools. Boys are often treated as a force to be controlled -- not a welcome dynamism to be celebrated. Let's face it: It is incredibly difficult to effectively shepherd and educate a room full of turbo-charged children. (I can barely manage my own two Huns.) And it can feel impossible to balance the different needs of young boys and girls when there are so many other demands placed on teachers. But we've got to figure it out. A generation of young men needs us to.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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