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Back to April Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 291 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS APRIL 2010

How Schools are Failing Boys
The grim statistics keep coming: boys are twice as likely as girls to repeat a grade, and 32% of boys drop out of school compared to 25% of girls. Girls have long been recognized to have a verbal advantage over boys; now in many states, girls do slightly better on math tests as well. Women have earned 57% of bachelor's degrees for the last decade.

It's no surprise to educators that American boys are lagging behind girls academically. What is a surprise, says Richard Whitmire, is how slow the education establishment has been to acknowledge the problem, much less identify the causes and enact remedies. Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, has spent the last several years examining the issue, and believes he's found at least some of the answers.

The central problem, he says, is that kids are now expected to use literacy skills at increasingly younger ages. Kindergartners are now expected to do work previously assigned to second graders, thanks to the standards and accountability movement and "No Child Left Behind" laws. Since boys take longer to develop verbal competencies, they start off behind and never recover. Whitmire says that two or three decades ago, boys usually caught up by the fourth or fifth grade; today, in most schools, they don't.

What has changed in the last few decades? Whitmire blames instructional trends such as whole-language reading, which emphasizes the recognition of words based upon context rather than using the decoding skills of phonics training. He also feels that many of the books assigned in school appeal to girls, but bore the boys.

Many boys favor action and gore when it comes to writing assignments, but teachers tend to discourage that kind of imagination for fear it will lead to real-life violence. When limited to topics girls find interesting, boys learn to dislike writing.

Even math classes, once an arena in which boys could discover their strengths, have become more verbal. Math used to focus more on calculations, but now involves analyzing lots of word problems.

Boy troubles aren't limited to the U.S., and Whitmire's quest for solutions led him to Australia, where political correctness hasn't kept educators from admitting and addressing the problem, though they have yet to fully fix it. In just one year, a grammar school there was able to close the gender imbalance among its best students. How? The school switched to a phonics-based reading program, broke the curriculum into manageable "chunks" to aid organizationally challenged boys, introduced some single-sex classrooms, and held parent-teacher conferences well before exams to give parents a heads up if their kids were in trouble.

Another education policy researcher, Martin Morse Wooster, agrees with some of Whitmire's remedies, but has sharp criticism for others. Wooster, author of Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds, concurs with a return to phonics instruction, and applauds Whitmire's call for more volunteer tutors to help boys struggling to read.

However, Wooster says, Whitmire's suggestions show he's spent too long in Washington, because "His first solution is that the federal government should launch a national commission. . . . He should know that most reports by national commissions are unread." Wooster also characterizes a proposal to give boys comic books and graphic novels to read as "dubious," and recommends instead "a good selection of fiction with the action and adventure boys crave."

Whitmire's best solution, according to Wooster, is to "remind teachers to work harder to make sure that all children succeed in the classroom." Wooster refers to the KEY Academy, a Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school in Southeast Washington that Whitmire visited as part of his research. There is no test-score gender gap there, Wooster asserted, "because KIPP believes that long school days and hardworking students and teachers result in boys doing as well as girls on standardized tests." (Washington Times, 2-17-10)


 
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