Monday, January 23, 2006

The Trouble With Boys

The latest edition of Newsweek is telling us what many public school teachers have known for years. For the most part, boys aren't doing nearly as well in school as they should be:
By almost every benchmark, boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind. In elementary school, boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and twice as likely to be placed in special-education classes. High-school boys are losing ground to girls on standardized writing tests. The number of boys who said they didn't like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001, according to a University of Michigan study. Nowhere is the shift more evident than on college campuses. Thirty years ago men represented 58 percent of the undergraduate student body. Now they're a minority at 44 percent. This widening achievement gap, says Margaret Spellings, U.S. secretary of Education, "has profound implications for the economy, society, families and democracy."

With millions of parents wringing their hands, educators are searching for new tools to help tackle the problem of boys. Books including Michael Thompson's best seller "Raising Cain" (recently made into a PBS documentary) and Harvard psychologist William Pollack's definitive work "Real Boys" have become must-reads in the teachers' lounge. The Gurian Institute, founded in 1997 by family therapist Michael Gurian to help the people on the front lines help boys, has enrolled 15,000 teachers in its seminars. Even the Gates Foundation, which in the last five years has given away nearly a billion dollars to innovative high schools, is making boys a big priority. "Helping underperforming boys," says Jim Shelton, the foundation's education director, "has become part of our core mission."

The problem won't be solved overnight. In the last two decades, the education system has become obsessed with a quantifiable and narrowly defined kind of academic success, these experts say, and that myopic view is harming boys. Boys are biologically, developmentally and psychologically different from girls—and teachers need to learn how to bring out the best in every one. "Very well-meaning people," says Dr. Bruce Perry, a Houston neurologist who advocates for troubled kids, "have created a biologically disrespectful model of education."

Thirty years ago it was girls, not boys, who were lagging. The 1972 federal law Title IX forced schools to provide equal opportunities for girls in the classroom and on the playing field. Over the next two decades, billions of dollars were funneled into finding new ways to help girls achieve. In 1992, the American Association of University Women issued a report claiming that the work of Title IX was not done—girls still fell behind in math and science; by the mid-1990s, girls had reduced the gap in math and more girls than boys were taking high-school-level biology and chemistry.

Some scholars, notably Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, charge that misguided feminism is what's been hurting boys. In the 1990s, she says, girls were making strong, steady progress toward parity in schools, but feminist educators portrayed them as disadvantaged and lavished them with support and attention. Boys, meanwhile, whose rates of achievement had begun to falter, were ignored and their problems allowed to fester.

Boys have always been boys, but the expectations for how they're supposed to act and learn in school have changed. In the last 10 years, thanks in part to activist parents concerned about their children's success, school performance has been measured in two simple ways: how many students are enrolled in accelerated courses and whether test scores stay high. Standardized assessments have become commonplace for kids as young as 6.

Curricula have become more rigid. Instead of allowing teachers to instruct kids in the manner and pace that suit each class, some states now tell teachers what, when and how to teach. At the same time, student-teacher ratios have risen, physical education and sports programs have been cut and recess is a distant memory. 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.
There is much more to read in the whole piece.

Many teachers have always considered boys to be more challenging to teach than girls. But at least in the past, educators could at least select reading material that had a certain "boy appeal," in order to motivate their male students.

I remember when I was a KidWonk, boy students enjoyed reading adventure stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, and Ernest Hemingway's short stories. In addition, tales of real-life American heroes such as those recorded in Richard Tregaskis' Guadalcanal Diary were very popular with all of us. Many literature text and other classroom reading materials featured these kinds of works.

At our junior high here in California's "Imperial" Valley, students no longer read any kind of novel. Short stories and passages from novels are used instead, and these are selected with an eye toward political sensitivity rather than as exemplars of classic writing or high student interest.

Students are no longer reading works (such as those listed above) that have much "boy appeal." What's in vogue are those stories that demonstrate how problems and conflict should be addressed through consensus-building, accommodation, and acceptance of the inevitable.

The classic hero (which appeals to so many boys) has, for the most part, disappeared from public school reading lists. The heroic struggle has gone out of fashion.

One of the results of this unfortunate change is that many boys have lost all interest in what is being read in class. Most teachers would agree that this makes the teaching of our male students even more challenging. And that's not good for anyone, students or teachers.
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