Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What We're Reading: The Trouble with Boys


THE TROUBLE WITH BOYS
By Peg Tyre

Peg Tyre is a writer on education and social trends for Newsweek, and this book grew out of a cover story that she wrote for the magazine in 2006. Newsweek and the author received many strong reactions to that article. There were letters from parents that found their own problems with the poor academic performance of their sons collaborated and given voice in an article that got national attention and let them know they were not alone. There were letters which criticized her and made her realize the thicket of gender politics into which she had wandered. Both made her determined to investigate the issue further. Her book explores through both aggregate statistics and individual case studies the scope of the problem, the possible causes, and the changes that may be necessary in our secondary education system if we want boys to achieve their potential in school.

The statistics are in fact alarming. Only 43% of boys are now going on to college as opposed to 57% of girls. Boys, who have always lagged behind girls in reading and writing, are falling even further behind. And they are now falling behind in subjects where they had long performed better than girls in school, like science and math. Except for sports, boys are participating in fewer and fewer extracurricular activities and they are a smaller and smaller group in advanced placement classes. The divergence grows worse as they progress through higher grades at school. And the problem is not confined to poor boys from lower socio-economic classes, boys are underachieving in school across the social and economic spectrum. Boys seem to become more alienated, frustrated, and disengaged as they awkwardly progress through the school system.

The problem is not that boys are less intelligent than girls; that conclusion isn’t any more justified than the not too distant under-achievement of girls in certain subject areas meant that they were less intelligent than boys. The nature of the problem does seem to reside in differences in how girls and boys learn and perhaps at what ages they are receptive to certain instructional methods. You can argue that such gender differences are biological or socially constructed, but in general the variations appear to be quantifiably real. It would appear that relatively recent changes in our educational system have been successful in helping girls to achieve in school, both intentionally and fortuitously, but that they may have been less efficacious for boys. Or perhaps elements are now lacking in that system that are important in fostering the achievement of boys.

In the abstract, the changes that are needed to fix this problem will have to pass through a minefield of gender politics. But the parents at home who worry every day about the problems their boys seem to face in school are not focused on the politics of the issue. Like all parents of both girls and boys they want their children to do well, and not only they, but all of us have a vested interest as a society in all of our children performing to their full potential. While the remedies are not yet clear, a consensus seems to be developing that our educational system is somehow failing boys, that this is fast becoming a crisis, and that we must find solutions. This book is the place for parents and educators to start.

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