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Losing Boys

Conventional wisdom might suggest that, absent being an expert, broaching anything having to do with gender at this point in our societal evolution is a fool’s errand. Gender assignment versus gender orientation, cisgender or transgender, and the numerous variants along the gender spectrum are a hot topic. We are even careful to assign pronouns that are appropriate to the gender identification of each individual. Other than acknowledging that these conversations are important, I lack expertise at the intersection of psychology and physiology to offer anything significant.

The same would be true of the gender inequity that we observe across our society, and in many other industrialized nations. Women have struggled for generations to gain the status and economic recognition they rightfully deserve. While some progress is being made, it has been painfully slow. I don’t have adequate credentials in socio-economics to effectively explain why this inequity persists. I can only offer my support and hope that sooner, rather than later, women will be appropriately recognized for the contributions to our society, including being paid in the workforce commensurate to their male counterparts.

Numerous double standards proliferate that seem to have gender as a common thread of differentiation. By example, we readily accept that women and girls have successfully borrowed pages from the male wardrobe play book: pants, boots, button-down shirts, over coats. Yet, a boy or adult male appearing in a dress or a skirt is sure to raise eyebrows, unless, of course, he is Scottish and the wearing of a kilt is accepted as a traditional uniform rooted in identity, pride and virility.

I’m a school guy. My interest rests in understanding what happens in schools and to advocate for revised practices that will improve the instructional experience for all children. Within the field of education, there is compelling and reliable data that suggests that gender differences are at play, and many of these data cause us to conclude that boys are being left behind.

In an article appearing in Atlantic in September 2013, Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys, writes that while girls appear to be thriving in our education system, boys are languishing. She points to the following data to inform this argument. (Please bear in mind that these data points are eight years old.)

  • Women in the United States now earn 62 percent of associate’s degrees, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and 52 percent of doctorates.

  • Boys in all ethnic groups and social classes are far less likely to feel connected to school, aspire to earn good grades or have high academic expectations when compared to their female peers.

  • The National Bureau of Economic Research documents a remarkable trend among high-achieving students: In the 1980s, nearly the same number of top male and female high school students said they planned to pursue a postgraduate degree (13 percent of boys and 15 percent of girls). By the 2000s, 27 percent of girls expressed that ambition, compared with 16 percent of boys.

A study conducted by Jayanti Owens, a professor at Brown University, Rhode Island, was reported on WebMD in 2016, based on an analysis of data from children in the United States born to women in their early to mid-20s in the 1980s and followed into adulthood. Owens found: "When I compared 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls who had the same levels of behavior problems -- including difficulty sustaining attention, regulating emotions, delaying gratification, and forming positive relationships with teachers and peers -- I found that boys were less likely to learn and more likely to be held back in school. My study also showed that the way schools respond to boys' behaviors plays a significant role in shaping their educational outcomes years later.” In elementary school, boys reported significantly greater exposure to negative school environments and peer pressure compared to girls, the study found. “In high school, boys reported significantly higher rates of grade repetition and lower educational expectations.”

Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, offers this perspective, based on her practical experience as a secondary teacher: “The statistics are grim. According to the book Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies That Work and Why, boys are kept back in schools at twice the rate of girls. Boys get expelled from preschool nearly five times more often than girls. Boys are diagnosed with learning disorders and attention problems at nearly four times the rate of girls. They do less homework and get a greater proportion of the low grades. Boys are more likely to drop out of school, and make up only 43 percent of college students. Furthermore, boys are nearly three times as likely as girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Considering 11 percent of U.S. children—6.4 million in all—have been diagnosed with a ADHD, that's a lot of boys bouncing around U.S. classrooms.”

Some readers might respond to these observations with “so, boys will be boys. What’s the big deal? They seem to catch up eventually.” Not so fast.

Returning to Christina Hoff Sommers’ Atlantic article, she points out some dire economic issues related to an apparent gender gap in schools: “A 2011 Brookings Institution report quantifies the economic decline of the median male: For men ages 25 to 64 with no high school diploma, median annual earnings have declined 66 percent since 1969; for men with only a high school diploma, wages declined by 47 percent. Millions of male workers, say the Brookings authors, have been ‘unhitched from the engine of growth.’ The College Board delivered this disturbing message in a 2011 report about Hispanic and African-American boys and young adults: ‘Nearly half of young men of color age 15 to 24 who graduate from high school will end up unemployed, incarcerated or dead.’ Working-class white boys are faring only slightly better.”

Have things improved in the eight years since Sommers’ referenced data? Is the issue now one of historic curiosity? The answer to both questions is “No.” Conditions are stagnant and the downward trends continue.

I’m going to leave this topic here for the time being. Rather than delving immediately into causes and solutions, I challenge my readers to ponder what I’ve presented here. Possible strategies that might counter the effects described thus far are only useful if we believe that a problem exists. So, I ask for thoughtful consideration and reflection on the following questions:

  1. Are boys different from girls in the way they learn or process information?

  2. Many gender scholars insist that the sexes are cognitively interchangeable and argue that any talk of difference only encourages sexism and stereotyping. Does the data support this conclusion?

  3. Think of the boys in your life, those that you know or have known. What was their experience in school? If possible, ask some young men and boys about their experiences. Listen carefully and pay heed.

  4. What are the consequences of looking away, turning a blind eye to the possibility, at least, that boys may be underserved by our current instructional practices.

  5. Is this specifically a gender issue, or does it represent a larger failure, or shortcoming, of the experience we currently offer children in our schools?

PLEASE . . . leave comments regarding your reaction to these questions or respond with an email message to There is also a message link from my website: Either way, I hope for responses and look forward to hearing from my readers.

Next week’s post will address this issue with some specific suggestions that may support the reversal of an unfortunate trend. I operate from the premise that we have a national obligation to provide the education kids deserve. Inherent in that objective is “all kids.” We can never get to “all” if we ignore, or short change, approximately 50% of the children who are counting on us.

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