Why Boys Fail

Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind

 Why Boys Fail

Author: Richard Whitmire
Pub Date: September 2011
Print Edition: $15.95
Print ISBN: 9780814420171
Page Count: 256
Format: Paper or Softback

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A Conversation with Richard Whitmire

Author of WHY BOYS FAIL

How did you become immersed in the problem with our education system and boys?

Richard Whitmire: “My journey began more than a decade ago when, like every other education reporter at the time, I bought into the reports that schools were treating girls unfairly, shunting them aside in favor of aggressive boys. As the father of two girls, I was outraged, and I wrote stories uncritically. As my daughters matured past the elementary school years, I began to witness just how wrong those reports were. My nephews never seemed to fare as well as my nieces. The brothers of our daughters’ friends rarely did as well as their sisters. I started to wonder whether schools were treating boys unfairly. My investigation into the issue picked up speed with a reporting fellowship that allowed me to travel. I discovered that gender gaps in academic achievement are international and that several countries, including Australia, are ahead of the United States in probing the causes. I write about a lot of educational issues, including preschools, charter schools, and teacher quality. The issue of why boys are falling behind girls in school, however, is the only one I blog on and the only one I’ve researched deeply enough to justify writing a book. The reason I’ve poured special attention into the boy troubles is simple: far too many influential people—including teachers and parents—have got it wrong.”

How so?

Richard Whitmire: “Those who doubt that boys are in trouble err by looking at the White House and Wall Street, both dominated by men. Instead, they should be looking at college graduations, the pipeline to tomorrow’s workforce. On most college campuses, nearly 58 percent of the graduating seniors are women. Just as disturbing, those who acknowledge that boys are in trouble often settle on the wrong reasons. Railing against hip-hop music, feminists, or video games won’t make a dent in the boy troubles. Raising awareness of and settling both issues—whether and why boys are in trouble—are the cornerstones of my book, WHY BOYS FAIL.

Let’s start with the whether. Would you give us a sense of this problem’s scope and gravity?

Richard Whitmire: “Our country’s boy problem involves far more than playground roughness. It starts in preschool, where boys are four and a half times as likely as girls to get expelled. Although most obvious in high-poverty urban schools, the problem is mirrored in upper-middle-income schools around the country. On state exams from South Carolina to Alaska, boys are slipping behind girls in math scores, while falling far behind girls in reading.”

So, if it isn’t the usual suspects, who or what is the culprit? Why are boys in trouble?

Richard Whitmire: “The world has gotten more verbal and boys haven’t. That, in a single sentence, summarizes what I learned researching this book. Basically, boys lack the literacy skills—the ability to read critically and write clearly—to compete in the Information Age.”

How did this happen?

Richard Whitmire: “To prepare students for a more sophisticated economy, educators wisely pushed a tougher curriculum down through the grades. Preschoolers today are confronted with challenges first graders faced twenty years ago. On the surface, that makes sense, but educators overlooked the fact that young boys aren’t wired for early verbal challenges. Using the right reading techniques, there’s no reason boys can’t catch up with girls by between fourth and sixth grades, say reading experts. That, however, is not happening because teachers never adjusted their techniques to accommodate boys. And that’s largely because the ‘experts’ at the district and state levels never anticipated that teachers would need training to help boys survive the impact of ratcheting up standards. That oversight is proving disastrous to boys who not only don’t catch up by the end of elementary school but fall farther behind in middle school. Those broadening gender gaps persist through high school, which explains why more women than men enroll in college and, once there, are more likely to graduate.”

Is lack of literacy really a problem for all boys, regardless of race or socioeconomic status?

Richard Whitmire: “Among high school seniors, 23 percent of the white sons of college-educated parents scored ‘below basic’ on federal reading tests. That’s strong evidence against the argument that our country’s boy problem only applies to poor and minority boys. Of course, no serious person would attempt to argue that African-American and Hispanic boys aren’t in serious trouble. But saying that minority boys are faring poorly compared to whites doesn’t get at the essential issue. What most people miss is that minority boys are faring poorly compared to minority girls. That’s the ‘genderization’ of race. Take writing: At the end of high school, 37 percent of black males fall into the ‘below basic’ rating on federal assessments, compared to 17 percent of black females.”

Is it a national crisis that more women than men are graduating from college?

Richard Whitmire: “Not strictly speaking. Still, these gender gaps are shaking up professions from medicine to broadcast journalism. What happens in critical fields such as engineering, typically chosen by more men than women, when the pool of men entering college shrinks? That’s what worries CEOs from companies such as Intel. Gender imbalances have social and personal implications, too. For one, fewer college-educated men means fewer marriageable mates for college-educated women. Women prefer not to ‘marry down,’ social scientists agree.”

Have you found the answer to our country’s deeply troubling boy troubles?

Richard Whitmire: “In my years of reporting on this issue, I’ve come across parents who insisted on an equal education for their sons, teachers who took charge of producing good results for their male students, principals who insisted on reshaping their schools to give boys a fair shake, and even governments willing to probe the issue—though not in the United States. At the community and classroom levels, what works for boys ranges from an emphasis on phonics and targeted mentoring to single-sex schools. What our teachers need and deserve is federal research to pinpoint the source of the problem and fund experimental remedies. The point of writing WHY BOYS FAIL is less to convince parents and educators of my central argument—the world has gotten more verbal; boys haven’t—than to persuade the U.S. Department of Education to start the long-delayed task of laying out the causes and solutions for the gender gaps.”

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