- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2001

PASADENA, Md. (AP) — Teachers are having more trouble than ever keeping boys' minds on their books.
Until recently, even the brightest boys at Bodkin Elementary in Pasadena failed to meet standards on statewide tests, while girls surpassed them.
Nationwide, elementary school girls have nearly caught up with boys in science and math, and they are leaving boys in the dust in reading and writing. On the 2000 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test, girls outpaced boys in reading by up to 15 percentage points.
Bodkin Elementary Principal Rocco Ferretti has spent three years working to close the gap and was rewarded this year when Bodkin was named a National Blue Ribbon School.
"We were teaching well, but only half of our students were getting the message," Mr. Ferretti said. "I think boys need a different approach."
Anyone who has read Mark Twain's classic, "Tom Sawyer" knows young boys tend to squirm, wriggle and kick their feet against the desk ahead of them. Girls, as a rule, don't.
Channeling that restless energy into a quiet pastime like reading is no small feat, and teachers are having more trouble than ever keeping boys' minds on their books.
Nationwide, fourth-grade boys posted an average reading score of 212 on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress — 10 points lower than girls. Boys' writing score was 142 — 16 points lower than girls.
Some psychologists blame that disparity on the pursuit of higher test scores, saying boys can't absorb that much information at a young age.
Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist and family physician in Poolesville, said early childhood curriculums have become "developmentally inappropriate."
"The girls, because they are more mature, can deal with it," Dr. Sax said. "The boys just can't, and then they're sent to my office and I'm supposed to prescribe Ritalin."
Boys also have trouble relating to the fiction used in many reading lessons. While girls can envision themselves in make-believe worlds, boys generally relate better to books describing real things.
Seven-year-old Bradley Cook, one of seven boys in Dallas' book club, said he doesn't like "really long books that don't make any sense to me," preferring "ones that are usually in real life."
William Pollack, a Harvard Medical School clinical psychologist and the author of "Real Boys," said boys also like books about quests, duty and honor.
Unfortunately, he said, those often are too violent for schools.
"When we removed the violent books, we removed the books that kept boys interested," he said.
A boy's academic struggles may go unnoticed for years, as parents often dismiss warning signs as typical boy behavior.
Complicating matters, boys are less likely to tell teachers and parents when they are in trouble because they can't find the words or don't want to show signs of weakness.
"When they're not doing well, they don't tell us because of the sense of shame and because they won't be a 'real boy,'," Mr. Pollack said.
Some psychologists recommend that boys begin kindergarten a year later than girls to give them time to mature. Others encourage single-sex classrooms, saying boys and girls learn differently regardless of when they start school.
"If you can't do that, you have to at least find a teacher who's familiar with the findings of the last few years, who understands that boys need something different than girls," Dr. Sax said.
At Bodkin Elementary, Mr. Ferretti asked teachers to monitor boys' writing assignments carefully, and to allow them to pick more of their own books. Mr. Ferretti himself reads 600 papers a week one from each student to keep tabs on progress.
The principal also told teachers to stop writing off poor behavior and academic troubles as "boys will be boys."
"We weren't holding them accountable," Mr. Ferretti said.
Bodkin's third-grade boys outscored girls on the most recent MSPAP reading test. Girls still led boys in every other category, but "at least now we're talking about the difference between satisfactory and excellent, instead of satisfactory and unsatisfactory," Mr. Ferretti said.
Encouraged by changes at school, parents found their own ways to contribute.
Vicki Lines, whose son is entering second grade, and several friends started the book club to give their sons a chance to read about dinosaurs, detectives, sports and topics "a lot of the girls wouldn't be interested in."
Past selections included "Horrible Harry and the Ant Invasion," "Dinosaurs Before Dark" and books from the "Cam Jansen" and "Jigsaw Jones" mystery series.
"We really saw a deficit in our kids, and wanted them to have a better comprehension of what they're reading," Mrs. Lines said. "I think my son is very fortunate. I think that he has a very creative mind, and I work with him a lot at trying to fit in to what the school requires."


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