From the Library: Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System that’s Leaving Them Behind, by Richard Whitmire

From the Library: Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System that’s Leaving Them Behind, by Richard Whitmire October 21, 2013

So this is an older book, published in 2010, which I happened upon in the main nonfiction section rather than the new books section.  I’ll just give a brief summary here:

Boys are falling behind.  Anecdotally, there are valedictorian and top-honors groups in high school which are all-female, or nearly so.  Statistically, boys at every level, from poor to middle-class, of all races and ages, are falling behind girls in test scores, grades, and intention to attend college.  The conventional wisdom that girls do better than boys at verbal skills but boys are better when it’s math related doesn’t hold true any longer — girls are now better in both.

The fundamental reason?  Not video games, or favoritism towards girls, or a “hip-hop” culture, or ADHD boys being required to sit still.  This is an international problem, at least in other English-speaking countries such as Britain and Australia (although there, there’s more attention to it), where the impact of these supposed culprits is not the same, but boy troubles are, and the gaps have only relatively recently emerged where these supposed causes are long-standing.

It’s that literacy skills have become emphasized and far more important in schooling than ever before.  “Reading readiness” is a preschool skill, and actual reading instruction begins in kindergarten, too soon for many boys, leaving them behind and struggling to catch up.  What’s more, by the time they may be able to catch up, in the middle school years, the emphasis turns to literature; and, throughout, the classroom expectation is not to read for information but to discuss feelings and the personal relationships in the assigned text.  On top of that, expectations for writing skills have increased, another boy weakness. 

This is part of why girls dominate even the boy strengths of math and science — the author says that the SAT and other math testing has changed significantly in recent years, with every problem a story problem, leaving boys who would have been able to do the math challenged just to set up the problem. 

And, while he doesn’t blame boys’ problems on feminism in the classroom, he does say that their difficulties have been ignored because it doesn’t fit the narrative that girls are in trouble, and that many of those in the education world take the facts and say that black and Hispanic boys are in trouble, so it’s a matter of racial/ethnic inequality, but white boys are doing just fine, when that’s not what the statistics show.  At the same time, statistics broken apart by sex aren’t even very easy to come by because researchers aren’t interested.

As a mom to three boys, this does worry me a great deal, especially since one of the three has exactly these typical “boy” literacy difficulties — he’s not yet in high school, but I already know he’ll be doomed if he wants to apply to the sort of college that requires a self-reflective personal essay.  

But it’s not as simple as saying, “take away these expectations,” since even career fields which would have, in the past, required little more than the ability to work with ones hands, now do require a higher degree of literacy, for example, to work through a repair manual.  Boys need help to succeed in gaining these now-important literacy skills, and he provides examples of programs both in the US and internationally, none of which are earth-shattering — the main point is that they pay attention to boys and how they’re doing.

SIDE NOTE:  I picked up another book at the same time: Still Failing at Fairness:  How Gender Bias Cheats Girls and Boys in School and What We Can Do About It, by David & Myra Sadker & Karen R. Zittleman (originally published in 1994; revised 2009).  Apparently, they live in a completely different world.  Here’s a typical paragraph:  “Male students frequently control classroom conversation .  They ask and answer more questions.   They receive more praise for the intellectual quality of their ideas.”  (p. 66)  later:  “Girls receive less instructional time, less help, and fewer challenges.”  (p. 66).  They cite worksheets in which children are asked to pair tools with a picture of a man and cleaning items with a picture of a woman (no reference or date given).  They cite a 1975 (!) study on the prevalence of male vs. female characters in readers.  As to the “boys’ crisis,” they claim this is mostly a political backlash, with the only true crisis being among minority boys, or among boys harmed by “sex stereotypes”, such as boys who are emotionally harmed by the expectation that they should be stoic, and because they’re prevented from expressing their feelings, or because “society continues to define masculinity in terms that sound anti-intellectual, antifeminine, and antischool” (p. 208).  Essentially, in their world, time has stood still.

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