Monday, January 18, 2010

It’s fun and challenging to dream up survival gear to issue to your son: the best-ever hunting knife, a surefire fishing lure. Forget it. None of these will do him any good in his biggest survival challenge - getting through school.

In his neighborhood school, that survival gear will only get him suspended. And let’s be honest here: Chances are, he may already be experiencing some kind of trouble in school. Your son has lots of friends, plays sports, makes all the girls laugh - so you don’t think he could be doing poorly at school? Even the popular jocks, it turns out, aren’t faring that well beyond the Friday night football lights.

Let’s stick by basic measurements. Put simply, college has become the new high school. Want to be a cop, or work in a high-tech machine shop? You need a degree of some sort. But guys aren’t earning those degrees. Nearly 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 62 percent of associate’s degrees go to women.

You’re thinking that the boys who fall behind are poor or minority, right? The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University released a study last year that tracked the students who graduated from Boston Public Schools in 2007. The conclusion: For every 167 women in four-year colleges there were only 100 males. Is poverty the cause? The male and female students came from identical homes and neighborhoods. Is race the issue? In fact, black females were 5 percentage points more likely than white males to pursue further study after high school.

All this must seem jarring to most people, who understandably look at the White House and Wall Street and conclude that men still rule. In politics and business, that’s true. But the female-dominated university pipeline predicts a very different future. On the surface, that’s not a problem. The percentage of high school students who go on to college continues to rise. It’s just that when it comes to earning degrees, women are putting men to shame.

These gender imbalances matter in several ways. For starters, until more women pursue the traditional male-dominated majors in the sciences and engineering - currently, only about a fifth of those majors are women - there’s a risk the national economy will lose some the technical expertise that has defined its success for generations.

Equally important is the fact that many talented men will never get their shot at their career aspirations. Like it or not, college truly has become the new high school. Finally, as more women are forced to decide whether to “marry down” to a less educated man or whether to assume the role of chief breadwinner, our social relationships are due for an awkward rearranging.

What’s happening out there? Put crudely, a giant “oops” happened. School reformers wisely deciding to prepare more students for college never realized that some young boys have a hard time absorbing the early literacy lessons pushed on them. Those boys fall behind, conclude that school is for girls and pursue other interests. Video games come to mind.

As a result, parents need to draw up realistic school survival plans for their sons:

c Do not, under any circumstances, believe elementary school teachers when they say your son’s lagging academic performance is nothing to worry about. “Boys start slow, but they always catch up,” is what you’ll hear. Twenty-five years ago, that was true. No longer. Demand a new teacher. Seek out a new school.

c Do not, under any circumstances, allow your sons to fall behind in reading and writing skills. That will hamper them in other subjects, such as math, which these days is more about word problems than straightforward calculations. Try a phonics program, try graphic novels, try giving him weird books to read. The Captain Underpants series often works.

c Forget about the good old days when dads read to their daughters and tossed the football with their sons. Nice bonding, but what good is bonding when your high school senior son ends up a slacker? Fathers need to plan outings to the library with their sons and not just the ballfield.

None of this means you have to give up on the fun survival stuff, the world of bullets, hooks, knives and building a do-or-die fire in the rainy wilderness. Buy your son a book about all that fun survival stuff so he can read about it - and then practice it.

Richard Whitmire is the author of the just-released “Why Boys Fail” (AMACOM, 2010).

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