How Do We Solve the Problems of Educating Boys?

Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys (2001), writes in her New York Times Opinionator blog that there’s mounting evidence that we need to be actively concerned and solving the problem of why boys don’t like school.

In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists were concerned about the opposite problem: boys dominated most classes and went on to better careers. But in making the classroom experience better for girls, they may have gone too far. Girls are doing so much better in school that boys are positively discouraged and lagging behind. They are not lagging behind only their female peers, but behind male peers in the rest of the world:

Richard Whitmire, an education writer, and William Brozo, a literacy expert, write that “the global economic race we read so much about — the marathon to produce the most educated work force, and therefore the most prosperous nation — really comes down to a calculation: whichever nation solves these ‘boy troubles’ wins the race.”

The gender gap, Sommers says, is particularly startling among minorities. While middle-class white boys are lagging behind girls, Latino and black boys are lagging much farther behind Latino and black girls.

Black women are nearly twice as likely to earn a college degree as black men. At some historically black colleges, the gap is astounding: Fisk is now 64 female; Howard, 67 percent; Clark Atlanta, 75 percent. The economist Andrew M. Sum and his colleagues at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University examined the Boston Public Schools and found that for the graduating class of 2007, there were 191 black girls for every 100 boys going on to attend a four-year college or university. Among Hispanics, the ratio was 175 girls for every 100 boys; among whites, 153 for every 100.

The basic problem, says Sommers, is that schools insist on behavior standards that many boys can’t easily meet. A British study recently concluded the same thing: girls mature sooner and find it easier to sit still and pay attention. Not just individual boys, but boys as a group end up as the classroom fidgets, troublemakers and failures. It influences their learning ability. Another researcher found that 23% of white high school boys with college-educated parents still fall below “basic” achievement level. This might be the first generation to see its sons achieve less than their parents.

Sommers suggests that we find ways to permit more wiggle room, literally, for behavior. If girls and boys can’t be educated together without boys looking like failures, perhaps we need more sex-segregated schools. These schools can set policies that are adapted to boys’ slower maturation without labeling its effects as failure.

Vo-tech schools can also work with boys’ motivations. Many boys will try to sit still and study if they are immediately rewarded with activities that are high interest. The author describes a high school that is co-ed but specializes in aviation mechanics and technology:

On a visit to Aviation I observed a classroom of 14- and 15-year-olds focused on constructing miniaturized, electrically wired airplane wings from mostly raw materials. In another class, students worked in teams — with a student foreman and crew chief — to take apart and then rebuild a small jet engine in just 20 days. In addition to pursuing a standard high school curriculum, Aviation students spend half of the day in hands-on classes on airframes, hydraulics and electrical systems.

The Queens, New York school serves about 2000 low-income, often minority students, mostly boys, but its graduation rate is the envy of middle class schools. 90% of its students graduate, and on an average day, 95% are in attendance. High schools in the US, and also in other countries, are all struggling with attendance problems. Could the answer be as simple as providing more compelling studies?