Why our boys are failing – and what you can do about it

image courtesy of Richard Whitmire
image courtesy of Richard Whitmire

It’s Christmas, and I have a request for fathers out there: Buy your sons some boy-friendly books and then read with them. If you’re rubbing your head thinking, “What the heck’s a boy-friendly book,” chances are you’ve let Mom handle the literacy efforts in your household. Time to change, because in spite of No Child Left Behind, boys are being left behind in droves and fathers are a key part of pulling them out of the abyss.

After decades of GrlPwr, female-only science and technology camps, mentoring for the fairer sex and teacher education focused on “catching girls up,” there are some critical minds noticing that little Johnny’s failing and, oh by the way, that’s a serious issue for U.S. international competitiveness.

One of those minds is that of Richard Whitmire, author of the recently published Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System that’s Leaving Them Behind. If you’re the parent of a son, school reform advocate, elementary school teacher, or, most importantly a school administrator or member of any of the school boards in the Tucson metroplex: you need to read this book, sooner rather than later. And, Dads? You need to read with your boys more than you play World fo Warcraft with them.

“Fathers need to model literacy,” said Whitmire. “Fathers tend to throw the football with their sons and read to their daughters, and that doesn’t work anymore.”

Whitmire, a former editorial writer for USA Today and immediate past president of National Education Writer’s Association, is uniquely qualified to write about this issue, IMHO, because of his reporting 10 years ago about the AAUW study that claimed schools were discriminating against girls due to such heavy data as boys aggressively calling out answers in class (instead of raising their hands) and teachers favoring boys by encouraging them in math and science.

I wrote about the same study in my then-weekly column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and, like Whitmire, I basically parroted what was being reported by the AAUW. There’s only one problem with that: a brief glance at the statistics of who graduates from high school, who goes to college and, most importantly, who graduates from college, shows that girls are doing just fine, thank you very much, but the boys? No so good.

Richard Whitmire
Richard Whitmire

“I reported (the AAUW) uncritcally and later realized it was boys, not girls, who were struggling. I saw it personally, in the extended family and neighborhood, and also in the national data,” said Whitmire, the father of two girls. “I have 10 nephews and nieces and you can draw a line right down the middle of them and the girls were all sailing through academically and the boys were struggling – they were disinterested in school. The girls clearly wanted to do well in school and the boys’ could care less.”

But why do the boys care less? Because, Whitmire argues, they experience failure as early as kindergarten and first grade due to an increased focus on literacy competence at younger ages than in the past. Whitmire did what good reporters do when wondering about data – he started digging. What he came up with is reported in detailed in his book, but here are a few of the basics offered via e-mail and a morning phone interview:

  • In the late 70s, “standards-based education” got its start with a meeting of the states’ governors. At that meeting, they decided more students should be on a college track in high school and because college track work requires heavy doses of critical reading and writing, they pushed literacy skills that used to be taught in second grade down to kindergarten. Yes, kindergarten, according to literacy experts he interviewed. Problem with that: Boys do not do so well with early literacy.
  • In the past, boys used to catch up. This is no longer the case, and part of that is due to what we pre-service teachers learn in about in classes: New learning builds on prior learning. If you didn’t master content in the prior year, you’re begin this year behind the starting blocks. Ironically, boys tend to be good test-takers, which may be one reason no one really notices how far behind they are until high school, when the college-prep work turns to reams of reading and writing – not multiple choice tests.
  • Few notice the “gender gap” where boys are concerned because “the school accountability movement measures socio-economic and race data,” Whitmire said. “They think ‘race’ but never ask the question, ‘How come the African-American girls seem to be doing well, while the boys aren’t?” He said researchers are just beginning to discover that racial learning gaps are impossible to solve without taking into consideration gender learning gaps.
  • The usual arguments that boys do poorly because they all have ADD or ADHD or are addicted to video games are specious. Those events are symptoms of the problem, not the cause, Whitmire says. “Too many boys fall behind early, see the girls excelling and conclude that school is for girls. They get fidgety and look for other outlets, such as video games, which get blamed for the problem. But the games, rap music, etc., are not the cause, they’re the escape.”
  • Latino males may be most at risk, followed closely by African-American boys. White boys from blue-collar families aren’t far behind and far more boys from middle class families are floundering than people think. Sons from wealthy families, where literacy skills are present constantly, suffer little.

Not surprisingly, Whitmire’s reporting and research hasn’t been met with an ‘Attaboy!’ from the AAUW or other women’s groups. They “continue to resist that boys are having problems,” Whitmire said, pointing to Wall Street and board rooms and the lack of female CEOs, etc. in those areas. Ergo, they argue, girls must be struggling in school. Or – and this is my opinion, not necessarily Whitmire’s – since the data show that more girls finish high school and college than boys, maybe girls are doing just fine in school but prefer careers outside of science, technology or high-powered businesses.

(Moment for a blog rant: Why do we have a problem accepting that girls and boys might actually like different things? It goes against our political-correctness grain, I know, but like it or not, only ¼ of girls entering college choose the high-tech majors, so without more boys, who – like it or not – naturally choose more high-tech majors, finishing college to become the engineers, scientists and inventors we need, the U.S. is in huge trouble when it comes to international competitiveness.)

“I applaud what schools have done for girls,” Whitmire said. “It’s just that they pushed the literacy demands into pre-k, Kindergarten and first grade without realizing that many boys can’t handle literacy that early, at least not the way it’s traditionally taught. … We need to pause to figure out how to teach literacy to boys at those young ages.”

Whitmire says to fix this problem, the U.S. DOE needs to do something similar to what happened in Australia seven years ago. The government there decided that “boy problems” were such they warranted a national investigation. That investigation discovered that literacy – or lack there of – was the “common element behind all the problems.” The country developed experimental programs, evaluated them, selected the most effective and launched them nationwide to save their boys.

“That is not happening here,” Whitmire said. “The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t touch this (literacy gender-gap) subject and it is because, I assume, of the political correctness hurdles.”

I think he’s right about the political correctness, and mores the pity. We’ve got boys dying out here, folks – and a lot of it is because they are not successful in school. This week, for my final in one of my teacher certification classes, I wrote a paper on motivating the unmotivated student. One of the facts I discovered is that all students have 12 academic needs that, if unmet, lead to student failure. One of these required needs is: “Receive instruction matched to their learning styles and strengths.”

It is time we accepted that (gasp!) boys and girls are not exactly the same, not in communication methods, learning styles, or interests and that the educational system needs to be adapted to them – not them to the system. Because, as a brief glance at the boys around you will show, they aren’t adapting. And they aren’t succeeding. They need us to fight for them with the same force with which we fought for their sisters years ago. If you want to be armed for the battle, get Whitmire’s book here.

10 Replies to “Why our boys are failing – and what you can do about it”

  1. Early literacy relies too much on fiction books, which tend to appeal more to girls, and not enough on non-fiction, which tends to appeal more to boys.  This is starting to get recognized in the educational community – I work with a series that pairs fiction and non-fiction in every unit.  Most of the reading that people do is non-fiction – we should learn how to do it well. 
    By the way – I’m a hard core feminist, and I recognize that there are differences between boys and girls as groups, let’s just not go so far as to say “x is true of all girls” or vice versa.


    1. Nanette:
      Great suggestion about non-fiction for boys – that is absolutely true! I just never recognized it before… I’m glad schools are looking into it. I, too, am a feminist, but I’m of the old-school, which was all about equality – not necessarily thinking we are all the same. X may not be true of ALL boys or girls, but when it is true of the majority, I think it is important to accept the differences, appreciate them, and, in the case of school, differentiate for them. We did a great job getting some girls more interested in the sciences, for instance — but I really believe there was so much emphasis put on “saving” girls that we forgot the boys. We bought into the idea (so un-feminist of us, actually) that the boys are just fine b/c, I think subconsciously, as a culture, we view boys/men as able to handle anything. They aren’t handling school.


  2. Boys need active learning, not sitting and listening and putting small things in small containers. We took our kids to the International School of Tucson which teaches them to sit and work, but also allows them to ove around, and to leanr while doing instead of learn while listening.  It is noisier and messier than some of the other schools we visited, but the results speak for themselves and it is not anti-boy!


    1. Funny you mention “anit-boy”. I see that all the time, it is subtle most of the time, other times, not so. I picked my kids teachers on if they liked boys or not, and I could tell the minute I walked in the room. The only time I wasn’t able to pick the teacher, my one son got Attila the Hun for kindergarten – she hated boys.And, not surprisngly, he hated school. We also need to pay lots more money in elementary school to teachers so we can draw men into the profession. Like it or not, more men than women are the “primary” breadwinners and married women will settle for less money – but we need men in those early grades to help our boys (and to see that not every boy needs medication!!!!) and if that means upping the pay, we should do it. Why? because its a hell of a lot better than paying for gang reduction later on … and prison time and …


  3. This is one humongous topic, and the  platitudes about gender are worn to the bone.
    Our children attended Catholic schools K-12 and their was nothing notable about distinctions between male and female behavior in the academic arena.
    However, I have noticed over the years a marked gender distinction in levels of motivation and desire to excel.  The reason? Well, that is the  humongous part, that may entail some lengthy dialogue here.
    It is my belief that the American male has been emasculated over the past 30 years.  I can hear some of you sighing now…. yet, it may help to know that my wife tags me as the only feminist Marine she knows!
    By emasculation, I mean the metaphorical one, not literal, in that the American male has deprived of manly strength and vigor by our economical climate. Few males can act out their protectionist instinct in their desire to support a family. The 2-3-4 job family is here to stay, leaving virtually no time to mentor/role model  or even socialize with your own family.
    Fathers are MIA in America, for economic reasons not educational or spiritual. How is that for a starter!


  4. It should be mentioned that whether one is a boy or girl it helps if they see their parents reading and it also helps if their parents  share with them something exciting or interesting that they’re reading.
    The same goes for teachers. As a principal I would carry the latest book I was reading with me as I made my way around the school – so the Kids might say: “What are you reading, Mr. McCray?” I’d tell them and I’d always mention something about the book and then ask them “What are you reading? Tell me something about it.” Often a character in their book would be similar to one in my book then we’d in a natural way find ourselves involved in “book talk.”
    If the adults in their lives are excited about reading, the children, boys included, most likely will be too.


  5. Reading is the key to learning. I’m not surprised by today’s low comprehension levels. When teachers were told to take phonics out(sounding out words) in favor of  ‘new and more advanced’ teaching curriculum, the slide began. Why folks have to fix something that isn’t broken is beyond me.


  6. Funny I should come across this as I am a Memom (grandmother) of the first boy in our family.  He is a smart little 5 year old.  As I purchased literature for him (devotionals, cds.etc) and looked at the reading material out there, I was thinking… sure would be good if they were more male oriented.  I am still looking for a cd with a male voice thast he can identify with more.  As a mother of all girls, I can attest tat boys are different and would benefit from more male oriented materials.


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