- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2010



By Richard Whitmire AMACOM, $24.95, 215 pages

Reviewed by Martin Morse Wooster

Most of us have read articles about how American students aren’t doing as well in school as students in other countries. But in his modest but persuasive “Why Boys Fail,” Richard Whitmire suggests that the question should be refined. There’s a great deal of evidence, he contends, that boys aren’t doing as well in school as they used to do.

Mr. Whitmire, a former editorial writer at USA Today, summarizes a great deal of statistical evidence, much of it compiled by University of Alaska psychologist Judith Kleinfeld, one of America’s leading experts on this subject. These statistics include:

Most of the best students in public schools today are girls. The National Honor Society reports that twice as many girls as boys joined this association of high achievers in 2007. Fifty-four percent of high school girls are in a college-preparatory curriculum, compared to 48 percent of high school boys. Boys’ longtime advantage in math and science also has shrunk; in many states, girls do slightly better than boys on math tests.

Women are more likely than men to enter and finish college. Among whites, women earn 57 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 54 percent of the doctorates. Among blacks, women earn 66 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 64 percent of the doctorates.

Boys are twice as likely as girls to repeat a grade, and 32 percent of boys drop out of school, compared to 25 percent of girls. Boys are twice as likely as girls to be expelled from an elementary or secondary school and three times as likely to be suspended.

The cause of boys’ failure in school, Mr. Whitmire shows, is simple: Boys increasingly don’t like to read whatever they’re given in school. Faced with required reading that’s tailored to girls (such as Katherine Paterson’s classic “Bridge to Terabithia”) boys understandably think books are boring and choose not to learn to read.

Also, lots of teachers frown on boys writing stories filled with action and gore, for fear that such fantasies by 10-year-olds will inexorably lead to boys turning into Columbine-style mass murderers. When told they are limited to topics that girls find interesting, boys decide to learn not to write.

The result: Boys fall further and further behind in school and are less likely to go to college and get good jobs.

Mr. Whitmire constantly tries to show that he is a moderate, reasonable person. He tells us far too many times that he is the father of two daughters. He critiques both gender feminists such as former National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy, and critics of gender feminists such as American Enterprise Institute fellow Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the somewhat similar book “The War Against Boys.” (In Mr. Whitmire’s view, Mrs. Sommers spends too much time bashing gender feminists and not enough time explaining how boys can do better in school.)

He also tells us again and again, in a book full of his personal opinions, that he is just a reporter who is just seeking the facts and doesn’t have any opinions.

His solutions show that he has spent too long in this town. His first solution is that the federal government should launch a national commission to publicize the problem. He should know that most reports by national commissions are unread. Another dubious idea, being tested in Maryland, is to give fifth-grade boys comic books and graphic novels to analyze. A better solution would be for Maryland schools to offer a good selection of fiction with the action and adventure boys crave.

Two better solutions Mr. Whitmire offers are that more people should volunteer to tutor boys who struggle to read. Boys who see adults reading realize that reading is important and might work harder to learn to enjoy books. He also suggests that phonics instruction ought to be re-emphasized.

Far too many schools dumped phonics in favor of “whole language” programs that wrongly assumed that if you made books available, students would read them, even if they didn’t have the skills to decipher sentences or pronounce words. Mr. Whitmire shows that there is abundant research that “whole language” is a bad idea that ought to be buried and that phonics instruction remains the best way to get children to read.

However, his best solution is to remind teachers to work harder to make sure that all children succeed in the classroom. He visits the KEY Academy, a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school in Southeast Washington, and finds that the school has no test-score gender gap because KIPP believes that long school days and hardworking students and teachers result in boys doing as well as girls on standardized tests.

“Why Boys Fail” addresses an important - and neglected - problem in our schools. Teachers - and administrators - should pay close attention to what Mr. Whitmire has to say.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds” (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

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