NCFM Book Review, “Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System…””

October 25, 2011

Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System that’s Leaving Them Behind. By Richard Whitmire. New York: AMACOM, 2010. 238 pp. $24.95.

Review by J. Steven Svoboda

NCFM Public Relations Director

Journalist Richard Whitmire has written and the American Management Association’s publishing wing AMACOM has published a nuts-and-bolts book about boys’ failure to keep pace educationally with girls. Whitmire is not a gender warrior but is simply interested in fixing the problem, noting that colleges already face a 60-40 (or greater) imbalance in favor of females, and only manage to keep disparities at that level by essentially employing affirmative action on behalf of men. Often 80-90% or more of a school’s awards will go to girls. Girls are now outdoing boys in every subject area including mathematics. Many supposed discipline problems are in fact academic problems in disguise. A shocking one out of every four white high school senior boys with at least one college-educated parent cannot read the local newspaper with “understanding,” which is the official definition of reading “below basic” level. Whitmire sees the problem as simpler than the analyses of other authors such as Michael Gurian and William Pollack: boys can’t read as well as girls, and in the new world information economy, literacy is more important than ever before.

In the best journalistic tradition, Whitmire comes up with a few slogans that he uses repeatedly. “The world has become more verbal, and boys haven’t.” “College has become the new high school.” Regarding the world’s increasing verbal orientation, reading expert Richard Allington says, “What forty years ago was considered the ‘reading readiness’ component for first grade is now the Head Start exit criteria for four-year-olds (knowing letter names, how to write the letters, letter sounds, and a few words).” Regarding college being the new high school, police officers, for example, were once required only to graduate from high school, but “now need at least an associate’s degree, not just to get hired but to acquire the report-writing skills that keep them out of legal trouble.” Similarly, Enterprise Car Rental’s management trainees almost always have college degrees. In Whitmire’s words, “Sure, a guy graduating from high school has the skills to check cars for damage and fill out basic paperwork. He may even know more about the inner workings of a car than [female college graduate and Enterprise management trainee] Lyndsay. But he’ll rarely get a chance at Enterprise to display his talents.”

Noting that several other countries including the United Kingdom and Australia have investigated the issue in depth, Whitmire repeatedly calls the US Department of Education to task for sticking its head in the sand and not looking into the issue at all. Even more sadly, when Maine’s Department of Education launched its own investigation, it ended up covering up its own discoveries as politically inconvenient, lamely suggesting that the problem was “not boys falling behind in school… but rather the press’s writing about boys falling behind” (!) or that any inequities were due to racial disparities (this, in a state that is more than 99% Caucasian!). In fact, in contrast to what racial denialists suggest, black female are now surpassing white males in college attendance!

Whitmire tells in detail the engrossing stories of several motivated educators such as Paul Ortiz of a tiny town near Santa Fe, New Mexico, who have taken on boys’ education and achieved some notable success. Sadly, each such educator must basically reinvent the wheel on his or her own, receiving no support or programmatic assistance from state or federal educational institutions.

Other contributing factors may not be obvious at first consideration. Publishers of children’s books target females because they buy the most books, reinforcing a vicious cycle. “To make things worse, many boy-friendly books that get published never make their way into classrooms.”

Whitmire downplays, while not entirely denying, the harm caused by other forces, some of which authors such as Gurian consider to be critical—the distraction introduced by video games, lack of male teachers, medical issues such as autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), overemphasis on homework, over-reliance on testing, a toxic culture created by crack cocaine and hip-hop’s message that “school ain’t cool,” and Pollack’s “boy code” theory. The author is particularly weak on the importance of the absence of male role models, especially from middle school, despite his admission of a strong downturn in male performance during those years. Essentially he tells us he personally doesn’t believe it is very important and leaves it at that, with little elaboration.

On the other hand, the author provides us with several heartening and enlightening stories of schools that have managed to turn around the performance of their male students. A charter school in New York’s famously high-poverty Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood allows the boys to play an aggressive game called “battle ball,” where “competing teams rush to the middle of the gym floor to push against a huge, weighted ball. First team to push it over a line on the gym floor wins.” Uniforms and good sportsmanship are mandatory, with opponents looking each other in the eye after a competition, shaking hands, and saying, “Good game.”

A District of Columbia academy located just one Metro stop from the Capitol imposes mandatory homework, mandatory summer school, and “enforces some of the toughest sit-at-your-desk, turn-in-your-homework policies you’ll see anywhere short of military academies.” At the same time, “teachers often urge students to call their home or cell numbers with any questions—unheard-of offers in most schools.” Says principal Sarah Hayes, “Once they know you care about them they’re going to do what you want…  They’re going to perform in class, they’re going to do their homework, and they’re going to come to school.” Here the author is helpful in noting, “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.”

Whitmire tabulates the evidence suggesting that, if anything, measures taken to help boys also benefit girls. He seems bewildered trying to understand, “Why would such politically shrewd people [in several feminist organizations he names] go to such extreme lengths to diminish the problems boys are having in school, especially when at least half their female supporters have sons in school?” This is indeed a telling question, and it is regarding such issues that the author’s seeming lack of understanding of feminism and the gender wars is most problematic.

On the other hand, Whitmire is at his best in laying out heartening news of huge strides made by educators who do tackle the issues head on. In Australia, reforms were instituted at one rural school after it was discovered that 75 percent of the girls were reaching the school’s benchmark goals and only 30 percent of the boys were. The changes included special literary intervention for lagging students, a formal phonics program, teaching the staff to break down learning tasks into “chunks” to reach boys with limited organizational skills, starting single-sex classes, and refusing to accept substandard work from boys. As a result, about 68 percent of the boys are now reaching the benchmarks, a dramatic improvement.

The author closes with a useful, lengthy chapter entitled “Actions that need to be taken.” The Department of Education needs to launch an extensive inquiry into how boys’ performance can be improved. Boys need to be turned into early readers, and research-based tutoring programs using volunteer tutors need to be launched. Literacy instruction in middle and high school should be intensified, and high school should be made more relevant to boys by focusing their teaching on topics that matter to them without diluting the material taught. Consideration should be given to single-sex instruction, and community colleges need revamping. Men’s resource centers are needed at colleges and universities, and lastly, the author suggests that a deal should be struck with feminist leaders to shortcut their resistance to these changes.

Why Boys Fail is worth a read by anyone who cares about men and boys. It’s probably wisest to accept the pearls the author has to offer while forgiving him his ignorance of gender politics and sometimes naïve suggestions. Recommended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *