The Boy Gap

Problems start in preschool, where boys are far more likely to be kicked out for boyish behavior, writes Rao. "Boys are more likely to have trouble focusing and staying on task; boys have higher energy and tend to need to fidget to work off steam, which teachers and classmates can find distracting." Most boys will grow out of hyperactivity, if given time, he argues. What they often get is a label and a prescription for Ritalin.

“Boy-friendly” classrooms let students move, explore, and touch -- and let boys take their time to develop verbal and fine-motor skills. Teachers tolerate boys’ desire to fidget, daydream, challenge rules and fantasize about aliens, monsters, heroes and “robots fighting evil characters.” Children read adventure books, sports and nonfiction.

Yet when Whitmire went in search of gap-closing schools, he found that boy-friendly schools don’t teach boys differently than they teach girls.

KIPP’s middle school in Houston “succeeds with boys using methods that shred every bit of conventional wisdom about what works with boys.” Students are nearly all black; teachers are nearly all white and female. Class sizes are no smaller than normal. Furthermore, “the theories about boys -- they need to walk around a lot, experience hands-on learning, etc. -- are not in evidence at KIPP, which enforces some of the toughest sit-at-your-desk turn-in-your-homework policies you’ll see anywhere short of military academies.”

What KIPP provides is lots of extra help to get stragglers caught up.

“When you refuse to let even a single student slide by, you end up helping boys the most because the boys are the big sliders,” he writes.

Whitmire also looks at an all-male charter school and a district-run public school that have closed gender gaps. Both work very hard to teach reading to students who need extra help. To coin a phrase, they leave no child behind. The all-male school also provides character training to boys who may be growing up in fatherless homes, but there’s no reason boys can’t learn that in a coed setting, Whitmire theorizes.

Accused of shortchanging girls in a 1992 report by the American Association of University Women, schools pushed girls to study math and science.  That gender gap has closed by some measures. It’s time to focus on the widening gap in reading and writing skills that leaves so many boys unprepared for success in college or vocational training. Perhaps boys will succeed with early intervention for reading problems. Perhaps some boys need male teachers, boy-friendly teaching, or an extra year to get ready for reading and writing. We should be experimenting with different strategies -- including single-sex classes -- to find out what’s needed to help boys succeed.

If nothing else, our educated daughters are going to want to marry educated men -- not a “failure to launch” guy sleeping in his parents’ basement.