Resolving the Boy Crisis in Schools

Published on March 22nd, 2011

By Jeffery M. Leving & Glenn Sacks

A recent Chicago Board of Education report showed that girls enjoy a 63-37%
advantage over boys in gaining admittance to Chicago’s eight selective-enrollment
college prep high schools. In response, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and
top administrators at Jones, Whitney Young and Brooks prep schools are advocating
that schools consider “gender weighting.” Yet to balance the scales by employing
admissions preferences is misguided. What’s needed instead is a rethinking of the way
we educate, beginning at the earliest levels.

Many healthy, energetic, intelligent boys are branded as behavior problems as soon as
they begin school, and are punished and put on Ritalin or other drugs so they will sit
still. Little thought is given to two obvious questions: how could a six or seven yearold
be “bad”? And how could so many boys need drugs to function in school? Because
schools and classrooms do not fit their educational needs, many boys disengage from
school long before they ever reach the prep school level.

Many modern educational practices are counterproductive for boys. Success in school
is tightly correlated with the ability to sit still, be quiet and complete paperwork and
assignments which are sometimes of questionable value. A “get tough” mentality—
under which teachers give excessive homework lest they appear uncommitted or
weak—has become a substitute for educators actually having a sound reason for
assigning all the work they assign.

Many young boys are bodily kinesthetic learners who respond to hands-on lessons. The
educational establishment finds this inconvenient, and thus largely ignores it.
The trend against competition and the promotion of cooperative learning strategies run
counter to boys’ natural competitiveness and individual initiative. Lessons in which
there are no right or wrong answers, and from which solid conclusions cannot be
drawn, tend to frustrate boys, who often view them as pointless.

Efforts to make schools gentler and to promote women’s writing, while understandable,
have pushed aside the action and adventure literature which boys have treasured for
generations. In their place are subtle, reflective works which often hold little interest
for boys.

The dearth of male teachers–particularly at the elementary level, where female
teachers outnumber male teachers six to one–is a problem for boys. The average
teacher is a well-meaning and dedicated woman who always did well in school and
can’t quite understand why the boys won’t sit still, be quiet and do their work like the
girls do. Instead, boys need strong, charismatic teachers who mix firm discipline with
an understanding and good-natured acceptance of boyish energy. And though it’s rarely
mentioned, most teachers are weighed down by paperwork and secretarial labor, which
limits the time they can spend planning creative, hands-on, boy-friendly lessons.

Recess and physical education time allotted during the day are insufficient for boys’
needs, and the trend has been to reduce this time rather than to increase it. Pervasive
fear of lawsuits has turned educators into guards vigilant to prevent any manifestation
of natural boyishness outside the classroom from becoming the school district’s latest
legal settlement payout.

The deterioration of vocational education also hurts boys. US Department of Education
data show that these programs suffered a sharp decline from 1982 to 1992 and never
recovered. Vocational classes once started low and middle achieving boys on the path
to careers as skilled tradesmen. They have now often been replaced by an asinine yet
pervasive mantra that defines as successful only those who go to college and
become doctors or lawyers. This mantra often disrespects boys’ blue collar fathers,
who also happen to be their primary role models. In fact, to suggest that a boy pursue a
career working with his hands leaves a teacher open to charges of harming students by
encouraging low expectations.

The boy crisis in our schools is more than an educational crisis—it is also a significant
public health issue. Nearly nine million prescriptions of Ritalin are written for
American children each year, most of them for boys between the ages of six and 12.
According to a federal expert advisory panel, 10% of 10 year-old American boys are
on Ritalin or similar drugs. In February the panel, which reviewed several dozen
reports of deaths, heart problems, and toxic reactions associated with these
drugs, recommended they carry a prominent ‘black box’ warning, the strongest warning
for prescription drugs.

The gender weighting currently being pondered by Chicago’s educational
establishment wouldn’t begin to solve these problems. Nor would it address the wide
gender disparities that exist among low and middle achieving students. Boys don’t
need admissions preferences—they need a system which meets their educational needs.

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times (5/7/06).

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