I was excited to learn yesterday that Richard Whitmire, an editorial writer at USA Today (and my former colleague), had just landed a six-figure book contract to expand on his recent New Republic article called “Boys and Books.” In that essay, Whitmire called attention to the declining academic performance of boys. He lists reasons for their sliding college enrollment rates. (Unfortunately, the New Republic website is subscription only)
Schools, Whitmire says, not only don’t shortchange girls, they favor them. That’s not intentional – it’s just that the standard college curriculum and today’s workplaces require a lot of verbal and reading skills. Boys, for whatever reason, on average, are slower to learn these skills as children. Then there’s the social aspect. While middle- and upper-class fathers read at night after work, in many blue-collar type families, reading is a “sissy” thing (as Whitmire puts it). Fathers do a lot less of it. Then the boys go to school and all day long do something they think isn’t very important – and so they disengage.
I have mixed feelings about this thesis. Whitmire has some interesting excuses for boys’ failures in school. Take this one: “Basing grades on turning in homework on time guarantees lower grades for boys. Studies consistently show boys have more trouble than girls turning in homework on time. Some educators and parents explain this by saying that many boys simply forget or decline to turn in completed homework. Here's the boy-thinking: If I answered the homework question to my satisfaction, the task is done. Why turn it in?” Yet even in very male worlds like banking and consulting, you get no credit for solving a problem until you share the answers. Those are systems set up by men who are probably a lot more egocentric than the average boy. I’d buy the forgetfulness thesis first. Maybe boys will be boys when it comes to having their growing brains leap around frenetically.
On the other hand, I would agree that many classrooms are more girl-friendly than boy-friendly. I came across this fascinating list of classroom practices that hurt boys. Culprits range from distracting, frilly decorations to journaling to the lack of male teachers in many schools. Sitting still through boring classes is hard for girls and boys, but boys can be more rambunctious about it (and are labeled as ADD more often). Competition drills get frowned upon, and class discussions reign.
Of course, you don’t have to be male to dislike class discussions on people’s feelings. I always hated them because, well, the teacher knows things the other children in the class don’t. There’s limited info to be gained from listening to your classmates blather before they’ve had time to study the material. A recent Simpsons episode made fun of these stereotypes by having Springfield Elementary split into girls and boys schools. The girls talked about their feelings about math but, much to Lisa’s chagrin, never did any of it. So she dressed up as a boy to study their math, only to learn the boys found it fun to beat each other up constantly. They bounced off the walls.
As the show suggests, I don’t think splitting up boys and girls is the answer. Then people become too inclined to give credence to gender stereotypes. As Whitmire points out, the answer is to look at schools that overcome the gender gap. These schools tend to have high expectations for everyone and work with kids to find what works for each of them. That’s not a terribly snazzy solution to this latest educational crisis but, on the other hand, you do get results.