If you look at the numbers, it's a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Boys get up to 70 percent of the D's and F's on school report cards. Eighty percent of high school dropouts are boys. Boys make up 51 percent of the college-age population, yet occupy only 43 percent of the seats. Tenth-grade girls perform better on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) than their male counterparts. So do the seventh and fourth graders.

According to Jim Shelton, program director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the data are even worse for males of color, and the consequences are worse for them as well. "The dropout rates are higher, the rates of unemployment are higher and the rates of incarceration are higher," he says.

The disparity between male and female educational performance is not just an issue in the United States. According to a recent study by PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment), boys lag girls in academic achievement in all 35 of the industrialized nations where the test was conducted.

Apart from education, boys in the U.S. are three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. The vast majority of behavioral and discipline problems in schools also involve boys.

Theories abound to explain these trends. According to a 2004 UNICEF report, socialization plays a part, as does the gender balance of teachers. "Often boys' alienation from school and poor socio-economic circumstances go hand in hand," the report adds.

Some experts blame the gap on how our economy has evolved away from a hands-on, manufacturing-based foundation to one based on services and communication, which require more verbal skills.

Others point to how much effort has gone into boosting female educational achievement and correcting years of disparity, during which time boys received favored treatment. As a result, they say, boy-specific issues have been largely ignored, and the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme.

Yet another theory pins the cause on so many of our boys being raised with essentially no fathers in their lives. Without a paternal figure to guide them into adulthood, to instill a father's pride about successes and offer encouragement after failures, boys in particular seem to lose their bearings and flounder when it comes to education.

For social philosopher and author Michael Gurian, however, the answer is all in their heads.

In his most recent book, The Minds of Boys, published in September, which he co-authored with Kathy Stevens, Gurian makes his case for how male and female brains are noticeably different at the biological level, how these biological differences lead to different tendencies in the ways boys and girls access the world, and how those tendencies go a long way toward explaining why boys as a group are currently not benefiting as much from our educational system as girls.

Some examples:

  • Male brains tend to produce higher levels of dopamine in the bloodstream than girls. This affects impulse control and makes it harder for boys to learn when sitting still.
  • The neural connectors in the sense memory and listening centers of male brains tend to be weaker than those in girls. Boys therefore absorb less information verbally than girls, and are more stimulated by visual and tactile input.
  • Male brains get about 15 percent less blood flow than female brains. To compensate, brain activity is compartmentalized, which means boys tend to fare better when able to focus on a single task.
  • Male brains like to go into a rest state between tasks, which is characterized by reduced neural activity. A female brain "at rest" is much more neurally active than a male brain.

Once these differences are acknowledged and understood, a certain amount of conflict between the average male brain and the pedagogy they encounter in school appears inevitable.

"In every classroom of 30 kids -- which is, of course, too many -- I would estimate you're going to have five boys who are a mismatch," the Spokane-based Gurian explains in a recent interview. "The class is going to be too verbal for their brains. It's not going to be spatial-mechanical enough. It's not going to give them enough one-on-one learning."

If this mismatch is not addressed, Gurian adds, by the time those five boys reach adolescence they are primed for failure, not success.

For the Gates Foundation, the issue of how boys are doing in schools has grown in importance recently. "When we started, we were most concerned about girls, particularly how they were doing in math and science," program director Shelton says. "The focus on boys has come to the fore in the data in the last two years, although we've seen it in our scholarship data from the beginning, where only one-third of the recipients are male."

Strategically, the foundation's work is largely at the high school level. Tactically, there's a clear link between academic performance and attendance, so its goals for boys are centered on keeping them in school and improving graduation rates. A big part of those efforts involve creating the right environment.

"You have to keep them interested," Shelton says. "And you need a school where kids have strong relationships with adults and other kids." Small schools can obviously make this easier, he adds. But big schools can be just as successful if they have a curriculum that is challenging and relevant, and an environment where the students feel known, not anonymous.

Seattle resident Diane Maxwell has seen this issue from both sides, as a parent to her oldest son, Ray, and as an educator for a local school district. In fact, it was Ray's bumpy ride through the educational system, and her experience trying to advocate for him, that led in part to her deciding to pursue teaching as a career. (The identities of Diane and Ray have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Ray's struggles were somewhat atypical in that he fared better in language-oriented classes and struggled with certain subjects boys usually find easier -- math, in particular. "He was successful at certain things; he just didn't get rewarded for them," Maxwell recalls. "He had way more empathy than his brother, and was good at making friends. Everybody liked him. But he was very chatty."

Ray's math struggles were so persistent, Maxwell had him tested by the school psychologist. While the testing didn't reveal any official disabilities, it was clear Ray had some barriers to learning.

The results proved to be almost as much a burden as a comfort. "Since he didn't have a documented learning disability, there wasn't a system for him," Maxwell says. Looking back on that period, it's clear that navigating the system was a challenge for the mother as well as the son. Even with Maxwell working as her son's personal activist, Ray continued to struggle.

Eventually, as is often the case, these difficulties began to manifest themselves in Ray's actions. "It stopped being about him not doing well in math; it was about how he was behaving. By acting out, he could redirect people away from something he was uncomfortable with."

When Maxwell was able to get Ray into an alternative school, classes tended to be a better match for him. "The learning environment he was most successful in was more kinesthetic, which is definitely his learning style," she observes.

One local school that integrates issues of gender directly into its curriculum is Billings Middle School, located in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood.

For the head of the school, Ted Kalmus, looking at gender in the middle school years makes perfect sense. "We deliberately choose to address the issue of gender identity," he says. It's a period of transition and transformation, and kids yearn to understand it and themselves better. He finds that when you offer middle schoolers the chance to explore questions like what it means to be a boy or girl, they emerge as more abstract, critical thinkers.

One approach the school uses, which also happens to be one Gurian supports, involves single-gender classes. Each year in the spring, sixth and eighth graders are mixed together in the same classroom, usually for math and social studies periods, but segregated by gender.

How do the kids like it? "There's usually a couple of days of, 'What are you thinking?'" Kalmus notes. "Then they love it. They don't want all their classes like that, but they love having the chance to compare the single gender experience to the mixed environment. They become very empowered to see who they are in one environment versus another."

For girls, the classes take a decidedly analytical approach meant to engage them intellectually. They are encouraged to think critically about how females are portrayed in the media, history and literature.

However, that same analytical approach hasn't been as effective in the boys-only classes. For many boys, Kalmus says, moving from a child's body to a man's body can feel, well, disembodying. They crave role models for dealing with the journey into late adolescence, and they crave transition stories, particularly from fathers.

As a result, for the boys' classes, the school invites fathers from the community to share their stories (usually parents of students, but not always), especially about conflicts with their own paternal figures, dealing with challenges and moments of revelation. "It's about trying to illuminate a path toward transformational moments," Kalmus points out.

Disparities in learning styles between boys and girls lead to a whole different set of issues. "Technology has helped," Kalmus says. "There are tools available now that make you a better organizer, even if that's not your tendency."

Learning styles are ultimately a very individual issue, he finds, so it often makes more sense to try to teach children how to understand and get what they need out of different environments. Kids who favor auditory styles learn they need to be read to, or listen to recordings, or read materials aloud themselves, just as visual or kinesthetic learners can develop techniques relevant to their needs.

For Redmond parent Paul Lopez, the importance of recognizing his son Victor's individuality was a difficult and at times painful lesson. "We put way too much emphasis on finding the right school, the right teacher," he says. "When things didn't go well we'd change the environment, which hurt his ability to fit in."

It was clear Victor had aptitude, but he seemed uninterested in school. The biggest difference, Lopez found, was simply allowing Victor to discover a subject he found interesting. "We gave him Japanese lessons one summer, just kind of for the heck of it," he says. "He was hooked. It unlocked something for him, how foreign and different it was. Finding something that's interesting, it's improved his grades across the board. He spent part of his junior year on an exchange program and he wants to go back again."

One might assume that only boys who are struggling academically need attention, but this is not the case. As Wilder Dominick, head of the Open Window School in Bellevue, points out, children who have cognitive abilities beyond their age are usually not equally advanced in terms of emotional and social development. "With very bright kids, asynchronous development is the norm," she says.

The result can be the flip side of what students like Ray go through: a boy who succeeds academically but who suffers because of poor social development. "A boy with significant social, emotional issues might have difficulty performing successfully in academics," Wilder notes. "He might not be recognized for his true ability."

When confronting these sorts of issues, it's natural for parents to focus on how to change schools, but Gurian says they need to look at themselves as well. "Parents need to take back the education of the child," he says. "I don't mean the content of the education -- teachers are obviously trained and best at that -- I mean the responsibility for the child's success. We have to get rid of this idea that teachers alone can solve all of the kid's educational problems."

When parents are able to accept this responsibility -- for example, by monitoring homework and educational progress -- Gurian's data indicate that better grades and fewer discipline problems are not far behind. The reasons, he says, are not just because of the focus on academics. "Part of what they're getting is attachment and bonding and care and compassion and love, and that's being processed through homework. It refocuses the family on a specific task through which to love a child."

Instead of simply looking for a school that meets the right checklist, parents should become as familiar as possible with the nature of their child and how he is developing -- then trust their instincts, Gurian says. Most parents instinctively know how much space their sons need, how important access to nature and the outdoors is, and how much sitting still he can tolerate. Parents can then either select a school based on that knowledge, or advocate for their child more effectively in his current environment.

Kalmus says he frames the challenges facing boys as an opportunity, rather than a crisis. "The leadership skills of tomorrow are collegiality, patience, connecting with dynamic groups of people, building partnerships, multitasking. If you're still teaching toward the alpha male model, you're way, way behind," he says.

Josh Parks is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor and father of two. He also regularly contributes articles on fantasy baseball for baseballnotebook.com

Ways to motivate boys to learn

  • Encourage master-apprentice relationships. Historically, boys everywhere have been taught essential skills through one-on-one educational relationships. Research indicates boys respond extremely well to this approach. Coaches, special subjects teachers, individual tutors, reading and writing coaches, and in some cases religious or spiritual guides (such as bar mitzvah tutors) can all play mentoring roles, as can family members.
  • Involve extended family. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, godparents,
  • family friends and older siblings can all be part of a strong family network. Establishing a family-based web of support early builds trust and makes building mentoring and tutoring relationships easier later on.
  • Notice and nurture positive attributes. By showing boys areas where they are already successful, this feeling can be transferred to areas where they lack motivation.
  • Monitor screen time (TV, Internet, video games). Too much passive viewing can have long-term consequences for the developing brain. Don't allow your son to have a TV in his room. Use timers if necessary to enforce limits. Watch TV with your child, favor developmentally appropriate programming and talk about what you view together.
  • Food for thought. Encourage intake of water and protein (especially in the morning), and set limits on sugar (one "treat" per day). Involve relatives and schools in your nutrition plan.

Source: The Minds of Boys, by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens

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