Back in 2006, Glenn "Max" McGee, the head of the Wilmette, Ill., elementary and middle schools, walked through the clean, well-lit hallways of his school buildings and suspected he had a problem. A casual observer wouldn't know that anything was amiss. Attendance was strong. The teachers were dedicated. Parent involvement was high, and community support for the local public schools, which include the top-performing New Trier High School, was unwavering. Yet, in the classrooms, McGee saw troubling signs that boys were not as engaged in learning or doing as well as the girls.
McGee wasn't surprised. He had come to Wilmette's District 39 after serving for three years as Illinois state superintendent. As the school czar, he had become intimately familiar with the data that showed that, in many ways, boys were trailing girls. The problem was entrenched among poor boys and boys of color, who for years had underperformed compared to their female counterparts. But lately, he'd seen the "male malaise" spreading into many middle-class communities as well. Now, it looked to McGee like it had taken hold in Wilmette, one of the state's wealthiest school districts. McGee was intrigued. "School administrators and teachers are all searching for ways to move the needle on school achievement. Looking at the underachievement of boys seemed like a great way to do this," he says. But first he needed more information. With the blessing of his school board, he formed a committee of experienced teachers and high-powered parents to examine the problem.
The committee pored over studies on literacy rates and books about the psychology of boys. They interviewed teachers, students, and parents. They tabulated scores on standardized tests and classroom grades going back four years. They sliced and diced the numbers in different ways, separating out the special-education students and those who had been identified as learning disabled.
The trend lines the committee drew up were startling. While there was no difference between boys and girls on intelligence tests, boys trailed girls by almost every other measure. Boys were responsible for the majority of discipline problems and accounted for more than 70 percent of the students assigned to special education. While their classroom performance was about the same in the early years, by fifth grade girls had higher marks across all four core subjects — reading, writing, science, and math — a lead they maintained. In all grades, boys were more likely to receive C grades or lower. Girls were 30 percent to 35 percent more likely to get an A. "What we found is that the performance gap," says Diane Fisher, a psychologist who served on the Wilmette committee, "was large and getting larger."
It turns out that the underachievement of Wilmette boys is not that unusual. Over the past 18 months, I've crisscrossed the country to research my new book, The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do. What I've found is that across the nation, boys are lagging behind girls by many — and sometimes all — key measures. To be sure, not every boy is struggling. In nearly every community, I found a thin margin of top-performing boys. But everywhere I looked — from Florida to Illinois to California — the kids who are struggling, who are disengaged, who are identified as having learning or behavioral problems and the ones who are at the bottom of the class, are disproportionately male.
When it comes to succeeding in school, the stakes have never been higher. A few decades ago, boys who didn't do well in school tended to drop out early or bounced along at the bottom of the class until graduation. At that point, they'd be able to find a job that enabled them to support a family without requiring a college degree. These days, as the manufacturing sector of our economy continues to erode, jobs that pay a living wage and don't require college have all but disappeared. In most parts of the country, a college degree has become a prerequisite for the middle class. Young women have heard the message — that higher education matters — and are staying on track for college. Right now, nearly 57 percent of traditional-age college students are female. On many college campuses, especially at liberal arts universities, men are becoming scarce: The gender ratio at many colleges is already 60:40, female to male.
College admissions officers place the gender gap squarely on the shoulders of K–12 teachers and school administrators, who, they charge, ignore the leaky pipeline that carries young boys from pre-kindergarten to college-application time. But what are school administrators and teachers supposed to do? There is no shortage of easy solutions: Some schools are dividing children by gender in core subjects. Others are bringing in speakers on something called "brain-based learning techniques." Both moves sound reasonable. But here's the bad news: There is no solid research to suggest that either approach improves test scores among young males or makes them happier, more engaged learners.
It's a complex problem — one with roots in family, schools, community, and culture — and making a lasting change is going to require more than a workshop on teacher-development day. And not every boy who is struggling is struggling in exactly the same way or needs the same kind of help to get him back on track. Boys who live in poor neighborhoods in inner city Chicago and attend a crumbling public school need a different kind of help, and a different level of intervention than, for instance, boys from Wilmette. But increasingly, administrators and teachers across the country say they need to do something. Here's how some schools have begun to bring about meaningful change for boys' educational prospects.
Begin the Dialogue
In Wilmette, the district launched a full-scale study of exactly when and how boys tune out. An affluent district in Edina, Minn., did the same. If you don't have the resources for a full-scale study, try a smaller-scale study group or launch a discussion among your school's most thoughtful administrators and teachers. Engage parents: They see too well the ways their sons are falling behind. Keep in mind that it was only in the past 40 years that girls attained equal access to education. They only achieved an equal footing because many women (and some men) in the field of education fought hard to provide it for them. Make sure that everyone understands that pro-boy efforts aren't an attempt to roll back support and enthusiasm for our high-performing girls.
Take a Look at Scheduling
In many schools, the unrelenting pressure to improve reading and math skills means that opportunities for children to experience free play and a regular recess during the school day are disappearing. Teachers and administrators know that to get the best out of our children, we need to mix seat work and physical activity, but this is especially true for boys. Studies conducted by a developmental psychologist in Canada show that on average boys move around a little more than girls — but the outliers, the kids who need a great deal of physical activity, are almost always young males. That urge to move around doesn't stop once they reach first grade, either. The difference between the activity level of boys and girls becomes pronounced at age 2 and peaks when boys are about 8. Are you running a program to accommodate this natural development? It may be that the boys who seem to have ants in their pants are acting well within the normal range of activity for regular kids who just happen to be male.
Rethink Zero-Tolerance Policies
Violence in our schools is deplorable. As most people know, research shows that kids can't learn unless they experience basic feelings of safety and well-being. But in our eagerness to create a positive learning environment for all students — and to set an example of positive conflict resolution — many schools have adopted zero-tolerance polices that alienate young male students. For better or for worse, many little boys seem to be preoccupied with fantasy, action aggression, and violence. But boy psychologists and long-time teachers caution that pretend violence is not the same as violence. In fact, points out Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, when boys are play-acting violence, they are often thinking through notions of courage, valor, and loyalty. Thinking about violence and playing at it may in fact be a way for boys to dispel their aggression. When we forbid boys to outstretch their thumb and pointer finger and "shoot" each other, we communicate to them that it is unacceptable for them to be who they are — and they must hide their inner life — when they are at school.
Boys like to read about and write about different things than girls. It's a tender moment when children select their first book on their own. They go from sounding out words to stepping into the world of independent readers. Be sure that your classrooms have the kind of books that engage boys as well as girls, which means having plenty of nonfiction: funny books, irreverent books, graphic novels, comic books, and books filled with facts and statistics like Guinness World Records.
When it comes to writing, be careful not to always praise personal narratives over action stories. Boys tend to go heavy on plot and light on relationships between characters. They also tend to write a lot about Star Wars, as well as fantasy, action, adventure, violence, and sometimes gore. Encourage them. It's easier to build good writing skills in boys who like to write (even if it's about a Wookie). It's not so easy to teach boys who will only grudgingly pick up a pencil. Encourage more boys to take leadership roles in school. By the time boys get into high school, girls dominate in all kinds of extracurricular activities — newspaper, chess club, yearbook, dramatics, student government — except for sports. Yet, participating in these non-academic school activities ensures that students are an active part of the school community. They also teach leadership and responsibility and give students an opportunity to practice time-management skills. Get more dads involved in school.
Dads boast about never missing their sons' soccer games, but when teachers invite parents into the classroom, it is mostly moms who show up. Parents need to be reminded: Little children, especially boys, need to know that Mom and Dad are both stakeholders in their education. Not many men showing up for PTA meetings? Think about starting a Dad's Club, a kind of PTA auxiliary that provides extra hands in the classroom and at school-wide events. Moms shouldn't be the only ones checking homework, signing the report card, and reading the bedtime story either. Little boys need to see men reading in order to understand the importance of becoming literate men. Hire more good male teachers. The number of male teachers is now at a 40-year low. What keeps men out? Male teachers, particularly those in the lower grades, complain that they are often treated with suspicion. When male teachers do get hired, they tend to move into administration faster than women.
Take a Look at the Hiring Practices in Your School
What are the barriers to getting men in front of the chalkboard? To tackle the gender gap in Wilmette, McGee surveyed his teachers on the subject of boys, girls, and learning. Of the 265 teachers he polled, 88 percent said they believe the "curriculum engages both boys and girls equally." Yet for the last four years, those same teachers were awarding girls far more A's and B's, while boys earned more C's and D's. Many teachers, McGee noticed, have a kind of blind spot when it comes to boys and school. When McGee asked them if boys and girls learn differently, they invariably parroted what they'd been told in teacher's college: Girls and boys are equals, and all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, or background, learn in the same way. But if McGee asked them to describe the most challenging kids to teach, they'd launch into descriptions of kids who can't focus, neglect homework, or fail to follow instructions. Nine times out of ten, those teachers were talking about boys! Teachers seemed to believe that boy troubles were specific to their particular class or that young males who weren't thriving were catching up in other classes or grades — ideas that McGee could now demonstrate were untrue. McGee laid out some of the most salient results from the study. To his surprise, the teachers seemed instantly relieved to have a chance to talk about ways to reach hard-to-teach boys. With a can-do attitude that is typical for his faculty, a handful of teachers formed a study group and came up with practical solutions they could implement.
One female teacher who ran a Famous Women in History group for fourth-grade girls suggested a male teacher form a male-only enrichment group, which was very successful. Another teacher broke up her classroom work so that every fifteen to twenty minutes, all her kids could get up and move around more. The teachers launched "Grammar Monday," a weekly commitment to cover key concepts in word usage, punctuation, and capitalization where boys seemed to lag. Some teachers launched friendly competitions among children to see who would come up with the most elegant sentences and who could use the most sensory detail in their writing. Another teacher replaced worksheets with an in-classroom ballgame — tossing a sponge ball to kids and having the catcher come up with a synonym on the spot.
The data-hungry community has been watching District 39's experiment closely. After two years, teachers are seeing changes: A handful of hard-to-reach boys are tuning in more frequently, and a couple of boys, ones who used to simply tolerate school, are becoming more enthusiastic about their lessons. As for test score and trend lines? "It is too soon to have a lot of hard data about the children," says Wilmette's assistant superintendent, Toni Shinners, Ph.D. The most demonstrable change, she says, is that their teachers have a knowledge of the gender gap and strategies to combat it. "They're working to ensure that boys and girls excel at the same high rate in our schools," says Shinners. No one, she says, could ask for more.
Books for Boys
Boys aren't reading as much as they once did. But we're not sharing the right books with them, either. While boys often prefer non-fiction, the majority of teachers assign fiction time and time again. The good news is that publishers and educators are now pushing to get high-interest books in the hands of boys. Here are some of our favorites for fall.
The Trouble Begins at 8 by Sid Fleischman
Why We Like It: Sid Fleischman knows boy humor, and this biography of Mark Twain is fresh, relevant, and funny.
The Diamonds of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau
Why We Like It: It's the much-anticipated fourth installment of the guy-friendly Books of Ember series.
The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan
Why We Like It: Trading card and web components make this new adventure series, The 39 Clues, a draw for reluctant readers.
Sir Fartsalot by Kevin Bolger
Why We Like It: Beyond the potty humor galore, Kevin Bolger offers a fast-paced, funny adventure story that's the perfect antidote to an overdose of Disney princesses.
The Way We Work by David Macaulay
Why We Like It: Macaulay takes us on an tour of the human body, in the way only he can — with an astonishing level of detail and facts.
Monsterology by Ernest Dr. Drake (Arthur G. Slade and Derek Mah)
Why We Like It: Where else can you find out the scoop on hippogriffs, other than this tongue-in-cheek guidebook?
Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Do-It-Yourself Book by Jeff Kinney
Why We Like It: Fans of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series will go nuts for the chance to write their own middle school dramas, Ã la Greg Heffley, using this interactive journal.
Animal Tracks and Signs by Jinny Johnson
Why We Like It: Kids can pore over photographs of actual tracks of more than 400 animal species. Don't be surprised if they uncover a new neighbor on the playground!
A Giant Problem by Holly Black, illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi
Why We Like It: Black takes readers Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles in this edge-of-your-seat tale of giants on the rampage.
This article was originally published in a 2008 issue of Instructor magazine.