Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What We're Reading


Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Education System that’s Leaving Them Behind
By Richard Whitmire.

There has been a growing concern in recent years in educational circles and in popular literature about the troubles that boys seem to be facing in school, about a growing literacy gap between boys and girls that is resulting in a general academic performance gap as well. This seems to follow what has been at least anecdotally known for some time from the all too familiar experience of families who are struggling with the performance of sons in the classroom. Last year we reviewed in this blog an overview of the problem that was given by Peg Tyre in her book The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and what Parents and Educators Must Do. Education journalist Richard Whitmire has written on this subject for many years and hosted a blog for concerned educators and parents, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/whyboysfail/. He has now written a book that provides educators and parents with the most comprehensive treatment of this issue to date.

The particular virtue of Whitmire’s book is that he is willing to evaluate the controversies and evidence that surround this issue, identify which arguments he finds of merit, and make specific recommendations for addressing the problem. There is a point of view here; the book is not merely an overview of evidence that suggests a problem might exist. There will be arguments about Whitmire’s analysis and about his recommendations, but in reviewing the literature on this subject, it seems that debates, controversy, and political agendas are always inevitably part of the mix in dealing with large philosophical and practical problems when it comes to important topics in education. And perhaps in an area where there is so much at stake, this is as much a good thing as it is ineluctable. But those readers new to this subject should be aware that in this debate there are those who deny that there is really any problem at all concerning boys and education. Others find that the recent comparative success of girls in school is only an issue of relativity concerning boys and that they are not performing at a level that represents a “problem.” There are others who argue that the aggregate evidence that documents poorer performance by boys is really caused by the underperformance of minority male students and those who come from poorer families.

The “data” suggesting that a problem might exist has also been sometimes ambiguous or inconclusive. One of the reasons for this is that most “reports” from which information relative to the issue might be extracted have not been formatted for gauging this problem. They are often instigated for investigating a more general or specifically different problem and are usually confined to particular localities. National data gathered specifically for the purpose of documenting the performance of students by gender in schools throughout the country is hard to come by (one of the most recent studies of relevance is from this year by the non-profit Center on Education Policy that analyzes student achievement by gender by re-aggregating data reported nationally in testing related to the No Child Left Behind Act. It is available online at: http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/GenderReportMarch2010.pdf
But given the paucity of gender specific achievement data, it therefore seems right that the first and most important recommendation on Whitmire’s list is that the federal government undertake to study and gather data on this as an issue of national interest, in much the same way that the Australian and British governments have done.

Whitmire identifies the major problem relating to what he sees as the declining performance of boys in school as a literacy problem. His succinct conclusion is that the modern world has become more verbal, and that boys have not. Work and success in the modern world have come to depend upon skills that boys have traditionally possessed in a lesser degree than girls. In the arguments concerning the poor performance of boys in school, it seems that a consensus seems to be emerging about this being the central cause of the troubles boys face in the classroom. But beyond this, when the discussion turns to why this is so, opinions start to diverge. Are the reticence and poorer literacy skills of boys something genetically or culturally determined? And depending on how that gets answered, what is the plan for remediation that might best succeed? A bibliographical essay that reviews some to the literature and resources of the Burbank Public Library for concerned parents follows this review. Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Education System that’s Leaving Them Behind, however, is the introduction to this issue that would be the place to start.

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