Certain educators, social scientists, and researchers will say -- largely among themselves -- that the boy crisis" -- the decline over the past decade or so in academic achievement and college attendance among U.S. males -- is one of the most serious issues facing U.S. society today. Yet it is one that is too politically-incorrect to acknowledge, let alone discuss openly. Others say there is no crisis -- just highly-motivated girls finally able to take full advantage of all the educational opportunities to which boys always have had easy access. Any efforts to alter classroom instruction so it is more boy-friendly" only would erase some of the hard-won gains made by girls, boy-crisis critics argue.
But former Newsweek education/social trends reporter Peg Tyre makes a convincing case for the legitimacy of the boy crisis in her book, The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do. Tyre lays out in meticulously-researched detail how extensive the problems are for boys in school, the changes in society and approaches to learning that contributed to boys falling behind academically, and suggests ways to help boys succeed -- without hindering the achievement of girls.
Tyre began researching the underachievement of boys in 2006 for a Newsweek cover story called The Boy Crisis" . The issue of the magazine was a top seller and many, many parents wrote to me, asking me to write more about the issue," she told Education World. Tyre spent 18 months traveling the U.S. talking to educators, parents, teachers, and policy makers to write her book.
Other studies dispute the existence of a boy crisis. The Truth About Boys and Girls, a study by the Education Sector, presents evidence that both boys and girls are doing better in school than ever before; girls have just improved at a faster pace in certain areas than boys. The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse; it's good news about girls doing better," the Education Sector report said.
But according to Tyre and the people she interviewed for her book, the time for debating whether boys are in trouble has ended: the boy crisis is real and urgent. If people dont get over their squeamishness about discussing the issue, the long-term economic and social consequences for the nation could be devastating, she maintains.
Tyre talked with Education World about her findings and her eagerness to see more debate on the topic.
Education World: Why is the issue of boys struggling in school so hard for educators and policy makers to accept and discuss?
Peg Tyre: For a long time, parents and educators have been told -- through so-called expert reports and popular psychology books like Reviving Ophelia -- that it was girls, not boys, who are struggling. These days, as it becomes increasingly obvious that boys are falling behind, parents, educators, and policy-makers aren't sure how to have a conversation about boys. No one wants to be perceived as "anti-female" or make changes that will take away from the gains of our terrific girls. In what I would say is a misguided attempt to be sensitive to the concerns of the feminist movement, for the most part, educators are saying very little and doing less about boys.
EW: How do you think boy behavior" became associated with bad behavior?
Tyre: In the last seven years, we've asked our teachers in first grade, kindergarten, and even pre-kindergarten to become increasingly focused on academic learning. In some schools, that's handled in a developmentally-appropriate way, but in many schools, quiet seat work -- even for our youngest learners -- has become the norm. I don't think worksheets, for example, are good for girls or boys, but little boys tend to be the ones who can't do them. They resist, space out, or have "ants in the pants." They then become the target of a lot of negative attention from the teachers. And, not surprisingly, they get the idea that school is not for them.
This is reinforced again in middle school. In those years, students have to manage a massive flow of paper and information. Organization is often prized over actual learning. Boys tend not to be as organized. They are penalized for being disorganized and for being less neat.
EW: The basic classroom learning environment/structure has been the same for decades, serving both boys and girls. We've all heard the stories about 60 kids and one teacher in a classroom and no problems. Why has it only been in the past ten years or so that many schools have been found not to be "boy-friendly"?
Tyre: Because the world has changed a lot. Let's take a step back. In the earlier part of the last century, you could have 60 kids in a classroom and no problems because we weren't all that concerned about kids moving from secondary education to college. Back then, for instance, no one cared much about education for girls -- they were steered into low-paying jobs, marriage, and motherhood. If a young man dropped out, no worries. A high-school dropout could get a job in the manufacturing and agricultural sector and earn a salary that would enable him to support a wife and a child. Those days are gone. A college degree is a pre-requisite to the middle class. Girls finally have equal access to education and they've heard that message -- about the benefits of education -- loud and clear. They are attending college in greater numbers than ever before. Boys aren't keeping pace in the same way.
EW: The American Association of University Women (AAUW) released a study in May 2008 called Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education, which called the boy crisis in education overblown. The study said that statistics indicate that girls and boys from the fourth grade through the end of college are making steady educational gains. How do you respond to that study?
Tyre: I have a lot of respect for the work the AAUW has done and continues to do getting girls equal access to education -- something I consider one of the magnificent accomplishments of the last 50 years. But I am increasingly uneasy about its position on boys and school.
Yes, more young people than ever go to college. But the irrefutable fact is this: 57.3 percent of college undergraduates are female. Currently, there are 2.5 million more girls in college than boys -- a gap that increases by 100,000 every year. The growing gap between the educational attainment for boys and girls spells a massive shift in the way our children will work, marry, raise the next generation, and retire. What the AAUW doesn't acknowledge is that this is not so terrific for girls -- who, thanks in large part to the feminist movement, want to form partnerships with men of equal educational standing and earning power. The effects of the education gap already are impacting working and middle class black women and white working class women. And it is quickly moving into the white middle class. I think as a society we better start talking about what the ever-widening education gap will mean for the next generation.
EW: How can teachers -- particularly elementary teachers -- make their lessons and classrooms more boy-friendly"?
Tyre: That is a good question and in a way, the most important one. Probably the first thing to do is rasise awareness of the natural development of boys. And then to instill in teachers some general tolerance for what little boys are like. We know from good studies that little boys tend to be more active and so classrooms need to be adapted for that -- more room to move and teachers need to break up quiet work with boisterous play. All kids need recess. Classroom management is always going to be paramount, but teachers who are working in schools and districts focused on the "boy problems" say it helps to develop a little more tolerance for noise in the classroom.
Since elementary school is very focused on reading and writing, I'll address things I've seen work well:
The elementary school years are important ones -- and help shape the reading and writing abilities of each student. When it comes to writing, boys often focus on fantasy, action, and yes, sometimes conflict and violence in their early narratives -- story-telling and early writing. Teachers need to make sure they allow for that.
When it come to reading, smart librarians point out that boys often like different kinds of stories -- many are fond of personal narratives but others are not. Bringing more non-fiction into the classroom is a good idea; also, graphic novels, and yes, comic books. As well as horror, suspense, action stories, and amazing facts-type" books.
Teachers point out that most of these recommendations turn out to be good for all kids -- girls as well as boys.
EW: The number of male teachers in U.S. schools is at an all-time low. How do you think the lack of male teachers has affected boys learning?
Tyre: It does seem to have an affect -- good studies show that teachers, as much as they try, are hardly gender neutral in the way they grade their students. That said, I don't think there is anything about being male that makes a teacher particularly good for boys. I'd take a sensitive, experienced female teacher who makes an effort to understand boys over a mediocre male teacher any day.
EW: How if at all do you think teacher education programs should be changed to make teachers more aware of boys learning differences?
Tyre: In the last 50 years, teachers changed the world for girls -- they widened their horizons and they made sure our young females understood that anything is possible. I think teachers hold the key to solving the troubles with boys as well. Teacher education programs need to pinpoint the ways in which the pipeline that carries boys from pre-K to college is leaking: teachers need that data.
Secondly, education programs should help teachers come up with creative ways to spot and resolve boy troubles in their own classroom. For instance, when all the kids who have behavior issues in a particular class are little boys, a teacher may need help to design a more boy-friendly classroom. When teachers are confronted by the gap between boys and girls in reading and writing ability, teachers must know that the old idea that boys do better in math and science and girls in reading and writing, is no longer true. Boys will be boys" is not a good answer. Boys are not "catching up" in other grades. They are dropping out of high school and never attending or dropping out of college in much greater numbers than girls. We need to find ways to re-engage boys in education. Teachers will be the ones to do it.
This e-interview with Peg Tyre is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2009 Education World