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Education

Five questions with Richard Whitmire on why boys are falling behind in school

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2010 - In state after state, says author Richard Whitmire, one gender is slipping behind the other in math scores on standardized tests, and it is falling far behind in reading.

From 1990 to 2005, the high-school grade gap between the sexes widened, from both genders averaging grades of C to one having a B and the other having a C-plus.

In 2007, inductions into the National Honor Society in high schools saw a ratio of 2-1 in terms of gender.

And while in 1980, more members of one sex planned to earn four-year college degrees, by 2001, that trend was reversed, with a 10-point gap opening up between boys and girls.

If you haven’t guessed by now whether boys or girls are improving while the other sex is falling behind, the title of Whitmire’s new book will make it clear: “Why Boys Fail.”

A graduate of Kirkwood High School and longtime education reporter who now lives in Arlington, Va., Whitmire noticed the trend several years ago, and his research shows that while other countries, notably Australia, have done a lot to try to help boys over rough spots in their education, the United States has largely ignored the problem.

Two passages from the book capture the dilemma nicely.

First, he quotes Thomas Newkirk, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire: “A lot of boys live by the end run. They think they can screw around in school but if they’re aggressive and social the world will take care of them. And for many years, the world did take care of them, but that world is gone. There are a lot of boys out there living in a world with expectations that are unrealistic.”

And how did that world change? Whitmire sums up the transformation this way: “The world has gotten more verbal; boys haven’t.”

Whitmire also discusses the issue on his blog at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/whyboysfail/. The Beacon asked him about the difficulty boys face in school and possible solutions.

Why hasn’t there been research on this problem in the U.S.?

Whitmire: I can’t prove this answer, but after years of looking at it, I think that 10 years ago, conservatives, notably Christina Hoff Summers, were the ones who pointed out accurately that boys were having trouble, and she blamed women, in her book “The War Against Boys.”

What women’s groups did was dig in and deny that boys were having trouble. Had they said instead that boys were having trouble and women were not responsible, it would have been totally accurate. Instead, it has become a he-said-she-said kind of thing, controversial and politically untouchable.

Major foundations investing in education, whose primary interest is getting more students enrolled and attending college, won’t touch it either. Everybody is looking at barometers of race and income, but it’s pretty clear the problem won’t be solved unless you look into the gender part of it.

Why are girls doing better in a more verbal world?

Whitmire: I’m a reporter, not a scientist, but girls seem to be hard-wired to be more verbally adaptive at early ages. I watched my own daughter’s first-grade class, and where the girls were doing these beautiful letters, the boys were holding their pencils in a death grip. In theory, the boys should catch up by fourth grade, but that’s not happening.

In math, courses have moved away from straight calculations to more word problems. I’m not saying they were wrong to do that, but because of the increase in verbal problems, boys are becoming more limited in math as well.

In terms of the books that boys want to read, there’s nothing wrong with ones like the Captain Underpants series. If boys want to read about flatulence jokes, it’s not the worst thing in the world.

Just because girls want to read about higher-toned things doesn’t mean that Captain Underpants should be taken away from the boys. The whole point is to get them reading. What role do social class and income play?

Whitmire: In the average suburb, because so many students go to college anyway, it is hard to see. It is very subtle in the upper middle class, very hard to see at that level.

In Wilmette, Ill., (home of New Trier High School, regularly ranked among the nation’s best), those boys will all go to college. The question is, how did they get in, how long will they be there, will they graduate? Because their families have money, they will get to college. But what is the quality of the education they will get?

Would it help to have more male teachers?

Whitmire: The lack of male teachers is part of the conventional wisdom about why boys are doing poorly, and it is very tempting to raise that. From a reporter’s perspective, in schools that I found to do such a good job, I remain very skeptical.

Male teachers play an important role, particularly in the inner city, where boys may not have a father at home, so they can have a role model there. But as far as preparing those boys to handle the curriculum at college, I don’t see that that makes much of a difference. I talked to the people at Teach for America about it, where they have far more females than males, and they don’t see much of a difference.

So what is the answer?

Whitmire: We need to do what Australia does. Schools aren’t going to pay any attention until someone at the top says, “Folks, we have a problem. Here’s what we are going to do about it.” Schools are already swamped with making sure students make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind; they don’t have any time to pay attention to gender.

Someone has to throw cold water on the schools and say you are not going to close these gaps until you pay attention to gender. Parents also have to pay attention. If their sons are falling behind, they have to be extremely skeptical when they are told, your son is falling behind but he will catch up. That used to be true, but it's not so much true now.

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