Boy troubles, Part II: Solutions?

Tuesday September 18, 2012

Once, during a prep period, I visited a seventh-grade language arts class and eavesdropped on a conversation about the pros and cons of single-sex education. As it turned out, both boys and girls adamantly opposed it. The boys didn't think they could survive in school without the girls. They believed girls were naturally smarter; they needed the girls' academic assistance and nurturing to help them behave. The girls said it was their job to "look after" the boys and help them succeed. The boys needed them. This was not just one nutty conversation in an unusual class; I've heard similar comments from my middle school students over the years. As a parent of both a boy and a girl, this alarms me.

This untenable situation -- boys not succeeding in school and feeling stupid as a result -- is dreadful for boys and girls, and it begins early in their academic lives. As Peg Tyre writes in "The Trouble with Boys," "For many boys, the trouble starts as young as 5, when they bring to kindergarten a set of physical and mental abilities very different from girls." She notes that parents of preschoolers often observe that girls tend to have neater handwriting, are apt to be more language fluent than boys, and sight-read more words. Although preschool boys have a tendency toward better hand-eye coordination, they do not have accompanying fine motor skills, and they often find it physically more difficult to use a pencil. On average, it is simply who boys are at this tender age, but as "Raising Cain" coauthor Michael Thompson has said, "Girl behavior becomes the gold standard. Boys are treated like defective girls."

For many teachers, including me, this has been our fallback position despite the best of intentions. We want boys to succeed. Mimicking their studious, quiet and attentive female peers seems a proven path to achievement.

A major step toward solving our boy troubles would be for parents, caregivers and educators to acknowledge that boys are not somehow deficient and immature. I cringe when I considered how often in my career I've heard -- or have uttered, "Boys just mature later than girls -- that's why they struggle in school." We could turn this thinking on its head: "Girls' brains just mature unnaturally early -- that's why they don't use their bodies as much." It sounds absurd, right? And yet it highlights deeply ingrained thinking about our children and how they perform in school.

We also need education officials to admit there's a problem. Teachers often feel alone in battling the gender gap because -- well -- they are. The United States is not the only western nation struggling with this serious issue, but it stands alone in its unwillingness to admit there's a problem. As Richard Whitmire -- author of "Why Boys Fail" -- explains, unlike Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, "the U.S. Department of Education has yet to launch a single probe into the problem." Teachers -- who have tried to close the gender gap through their own innovation and ingenuity -- are working in the dark. There is no comprehensive plan to guide them, and American teachers don't have the government-sponsored research that other nations employ.

One thing the Aussies, Brits, Canucks and Kiwis have all concluded, according to Whitmire, is that "the world has become more verbal, and boys haven't." On average they lack the necessary literacy skills to thrive in the Information Age. We must engage boys as successful readers and writers in elementary school, but pushing them to read on the girls' schedule may not be the solution. Instead, re-thinking the classroom environment could help.

Teachers and librarians have made huge strides towards ensuring that all students see reading material that reflects their interests and sensibilities. This unconsciously signals to all children that they should feel at home in school. Parents must work with teachers to reinforce their child's reading interests at home. This partnership is critical. But beyond reading material, there are ways in which we can make our schools and classrooms incubators of success for all our students -- regardless of gender.

Breaking up the curriculum into smaller, more manageable chunks seems to help boys stay organized. Shorter, fast-paced lessons and hands-on, project-based activities play to boys' strengths and tend to include more movement and less sitting. Teachers also report improvement in boys' behavior and performance when they make their classrooms "sitting-optional"; students may choose to stand at their desks. Judicious recess breaks throughout the day also help all high-energy students to re-charge and re-focus. Thankfully, the Vermont departments of Education and Health advocate against removing a student's recess as a discipline technique.

The elephant in the room, of course, is single-sex lessons or classes. Some teachers who divide their classes by gender for some lessons or subjects see noticeable improvements in the boys' performance -- and no diminishment in the girls' achievement. Until there's guidance from the top, teachers will continue cobbling together their own New Deal, and like Roosevelt's plan to tackle the Great Depression, some initiatives will work and others will fail. But teachers and administrators need support and encouragement from their communities to try new approaches.

The other day, between bouncing off the wall and driving me up one, my son suddenly stopped to discuss the spatial layout of our house: "Mama! This upstairs hallway is actually over the dining room. Isn't that neat?!" I nearly burst into tears from my love for him. We need to be with our children in their moments of revelation, and we must make school a place where all students revel in discovery.

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


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