First lady Laura Bush and a growing number of physicians, educators and psychologists say Americans need to wake up and see that boys lag far behind girls in school, and then demand that something be done.
Mrs. Bush, mother of two grown daughters, speaks at conferences and in interviews about the declining status of boys in today’s learning environment. She has charged that boys are being overlooked.
“I think we need to pay more attention to boys. I think we’ve paid a lot of attention to girls for the last 30 years … but we have actually neglected boys,” Mrs. Bush told Parade magazine early last year.
William Pollack, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, agrees.
“Boys are suffering. They are sitting in classrooms where they can’t perform at the same level as girls and so cannot compete with girls,” he says. “As a result, they have lower self-esteem. The bottom line is that they are suffering both academically and emotionally.”
Mr. Pollack, who also serves as director of the Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., points out that both upper-class Caucasian boys and minority boys are failing.
“All in all, most schools across the country today are boy-uncentered,” he says.
Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, co-authors of “The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life,” back up claims that there is a “crisis in male education” with data from the Department of Education, the State Department and other sources. They point out that boys:
Receive the majority of D and F grades given to students in most schools, as high as 70 percent.
Create 80 percent of classroom discipline problems.
Account for 80 percent of high school dropouts.
Represent 70 percent of children diagnosed with learning disabilities and 80 percent of those diagnosed with behavioral disorders.
Are an average of a year to a year-and-a-half behind girls in reading and writing skills. (Girls are behind boys in math and science, but to a lesser degree.)
Represent 80 percent of schoolchildren on Ritalin or other medications used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Make up less than 44 percent of America’s college population.
Reversing the trend
To combat the trend of boys falling behind girls in school, the University of Washington in Seattle turned to a college-preparatory program called the Project Gear-Up .
The federally funded program is offered to disadvantaged high school boys in the summer and on some weekends during the school year. It is designed to show the students that a college education is vital for a successful future.
Project Gear-Up has a “rigorous focus” on mathematics and language arts, says Thomas Calhoun, executive director. The boys get two hours of instruction daily at the university.
Project Gear-Up offers boys weekend workshops in astronomy and other fields. Mr. Calhoun says after-school tutorial sessions will be added as the program grows.
“We think we’re doing a good thing,” he says. “Academic rigor has been shown to be the most important predictor of college success.”
Asked why boys are falling behind girls in classrooms, Mr. Calhoun says: “That is the $24 million question.”
He cites “some differences in neurological and developmental patterns” between the sexes as a possible explanation.
“The message does not come across that being smart is … being cool,” Mr. Calhoun says.
For male students, this often translates into poor behavior, poor attendance and poor achievement.
Further aggravating the situation, he says, “public schools tend to send the most ill-equipped teachers to try to reach the most needy students.”
In addition, “many schools are not providing a boy-friendly environment, and they don’t recognize that they are not boy-friendly,” says Mrs. Stevens, director of training at the Gurian Institute in Colorado, which aims to educate teachers, administrators and parents about how learning differs between males and females.
Mrs. Stevens says efforts to enhance learning for boys are moving slowly because some fear that “we’ll stop paying attention to girls if we focus more on boys.”
Data from the Department of Education show that in 2002, boys scored higher than girls on College Board Advanced Placement examinations in five of six subject areas. Boys outscored girls in social studies, English, calculus, science and computer science, but fell behind in foreign language.
Jacquelynne Eccles, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, says the scores probably reflect “differences in test-taking strategies between girls and boys” more than differences in competency.
“Girls report higher anxiety than boys when they take standardized tests, and they tend to be more cautious in test-taking,” Ms. Eccles says.
Scores tell a story
Federal data do show that fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade girls outscored boys in reading in 1992, and again in 2002 and 2003. Likewise, girls in those grades outscored boys in writing in 1998 and 2002.
And a 2004 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the Department of Education, said the “common perception that males consistently outperform females in mathematics” has not been borne out by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that measures fourth- and eighth-graders in four subject areas.
“In mathematics, the gap between average scale scores has been quite small and fluctuated only slightly between 1990 and 2003,” the report said.
What’s more, the data showed that in 2000, female public high school graduates were more likely than males to take high-level mathematics and science courses. The proportion of males was higher only in two courses — calculus and physics.
Ms. Eccles says no one should be surprised that girls fare better in school today than boys.
“Girls have always gotten better grades than males. That’s always been true. On average, girls work harder than boys,” she says.
Ms. Eccles says educators and parents raised concerns about this gender differential as far back as the 1950s and ‘60s. At that time, she says, many argued that schools were “feminizing” male students by requiring that they “sit still” and be quiet all day.
“Back then, boys in the United States used to go to college more than girls, since girls weren’t really encouraged to do that. But the opportunities for females have changed dramatically in the past 30 years,” Ms. Eccles says.
The science of teaching
Some prominent scholars, such as Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, disagree that schools favor girls.
“Girls get higher scores in reading, and boys get higher scores in math. It’s always been that way. No favoritism is being shown,” says Ms. Ravitch, who served as an assistant secretary of education during the administration of the first President Bush.
But Mr. Gurian and Mrs. Stevens contend that a key reason boys are not performing as well as girls is that there are neurobiological differences that are not recognized by most teachers.
“We have an industrial schooling system to educate the greatest number of people, and this system — with its emphasis on reading, writing and talking — is set up for the female brain, not the male,” Mr. Gurian says. “And this verbally motivated environment will leave out large groups of males, who are not very verbal.”
He says boys cannot benefit optimally in an environment where they are under tight control.
“When boys sit down, their brain shuts down,” Mr. Gurian says.
Some boys need to be more active in the classroom, and because of this, they are more likely to become discipline problems, he says. Although Mr. Gurian acknowledges that not all boys will be lost in the current system, about five boys in a class of 30 will be left behind.
Mr. Pollack, author of “Real Boys,” says it long was thought that boys could take care of their own problems and didn’t require special attention.
“Boys can’t be sad, so they get angry and act up or act out,” upsetting classroom calm, he says.
“I’ve worked with some schools in California where boys are given chairs on wheels so they can move around more. Some of these schools have a ‘brain bank’ in the center of the classroom, where boys can work with computers and calculators,” he says.
Mr. Pollack, who thinks such reforms are beneficial, says one trend that hurts boys is the emphasis on teaching children to read and write earlier — in kindergarten rather than in first or second grade.
“Boys, on average, learn to read and write 12 months later than girls to begin with,” so forcing these skills on them a year or two earlier makes it harder for them to achieve, Mr. Pollack says.
Separating the sexes
Dr. Leonard Sax, a family physician in Poolesville, says he thinks the solution to helping boys achieve in school is separating them from girls in the classroom.
Dr. Sax, a research psychologist and author of “Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences,” says there are “profound” differences between boys and girls in areas such as brain development and circuitry.
Dr. Sax cites these differences:
In girls, the language areas of the brain develop before the areas used for spatial relations and geometry. In boys, it’s the opposite.
The brains of boys and girls are wired differently. In girls, emotion is processed in the same area of the brain that processes language. But in boys, the regions of the brain involved in talking are separate from those involved in feeling. So it’s easier for most girls to talk about their emotions than boys.
Girls hear better. The typical teenage girl has a sense of hearing seven times more acute than a teenage boy.
Stress enhances learning in boys, but impairs learning in girls. (As Ms. Eccles notes, this could be a reason why boys do better than girls on College Board Advanced Placement exams.)
Dr. Sax says about 200 public schools nationwide offer separate-sex classrooms.
He cites promising results at Woodward Avenue Elementary School in DeLand, Fla., where fourth-graders last year were randomly assigned to a coeducational class or to an all-boys or all-girls class.
“In the coed class, at the end of the year, 59 percent of girls and 37 percent of boys were proficient in writing,” he says. “In the all-girls class, 75 percent of the students were proficient in writing, and, in the all-boys class, 86 percent were proficient in writing.”
JoAnne Rodkey, the school’s principal, says both girls and boys in single-sex classes also significantly outscored students in coed classes in reading.
“Boys need more activity than girls, so more activity is built into the lessons for boys. Teachers learn what needs to be changed to meet the needs of boys,” Mrs. Rodkey says. “As long as interest in and success with [single-sex classes] are there, we’ll likely expand these programs.”
Heidi Glidden, a researcher for the American Federation of Teachers, says her organization does not endorse the “single-sex classroom*” because research on its outcome is “mixed.”
“We’re in favor of gender equity, but we support other proven methods” for reaching at-risk students “such as smaller class size,” Ms. Glidden says.
Regardless of whether boys and girls are separated in the classroom, Mr. Calhoun says, “All young people need a push. But not enough resources have been directed at boys and men.”
Researchers Amy Basker-ville and John Sopko contributed to this article.