The Boy Gap

As a volunteer in my daughter’s kindergarten class, I was asked to help children write a “story” (a few words) to illustrate their pictures. Only one girl needed my writing help; only one boy could write for himself. Nearly all the boys seemed to be a full year behind nearly all the girls in their ability to pay attention, follow directions, control frustrations, sit still, handle a pencil or crayon and do what used to be considered first-grade work.


As reading and writing are pushed down to earlier ages, boys are struggling harder to meet higher expectations, writes Richard Whitmire, a former USA Today reporter, in Why Boys Fail.

“Each year since 1988 the gap between boys’ and girls’ reading skills has widened a bit more,” Whitmire writes. Boys aren’t wired for early verbal skills — and teachers aren’t trained in “boy-friendly” techniques to help them catch up.

Boys are asked to do too much too soon — and labeled hyperactive or bipolar or autistic if they act like little boys, writes psychologist Anthony Rao in The Way of Boys. “Girls use more words; they cooperate with others; they use social skills effectively. A boy’s brain by contrast, is working on other tasks that are equally important but not always valued as highly in schools, such as learning through touching and exploration, developing motor skills and engaging in spatial tasks. Boys also engage in normal aggression, and they have a healthy interest in challenging rules to test the limits of their power.”

Most boys will catch up in a few years. But some never do. While girls are doing better in all academic areas, boys are not. They earn lower grades, acquire “learning disability” labels, get in trouble and drop out.  Boys who finish high school are less likely than girls to go on to college and those who do are less likely to earn a degree.

As a result, colleges are practicing affirmative action to keep enrollments from tilting so far female that girls don’t want to enroll either. A New York Times story profiles the University of North Carolina, 60 percent female, where coeds lament the shortage of males. 


Overall, 57 percent of college students are women, reports the American Council on Education.

Other countries are seeing similar gender gaps. Women 25 to 34 years old are better educated than men in 20 of 30 OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries with especially wide gender gaps in Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Men have more schooling only in Switzerland and Turkey.

In the U.S., the problems of boys are seen as a racial issue. Congress has mandated a $2 million study on minority male achievement. Certainly, black and Hispanic males are performing very poorly in school, falling way behind their sisters. Black females are twice as likely as males to go to college.

But some white boys are struggling too. “At the end of high school, nearly one in four white sons of college-educated parents scored ‘below basic’ on the reading section of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), compared to 7 percent of their female counterparts,” Whitmire writes. That means they can’t read a newspaper with understanding — or a technical manual.

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.


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