As the mother of three boys my eyes were drawn to the title of the book, Why Boys Fail, by Richard Whitmire. Parents do not want to assume that the gender of their child will play a part in his or her success or failure, but as Whitmire points out time and time again, boys are different from girls and girls are different from boys. However, those differences are not accounted for in the educational system of the United States, leaving our sons to falter just as they reach one of the most pinnacle points in their lives as they transform into young men.
Boys Are Failing in Schools
Whitmire makes a strong case for the fact that boys are failing in our educational system, and draws a connection between those failures and drops in literacy skills for the male population. The U.S. Department of Education does not focus on gender differences like it does race and family income factors, but gender clearly plays a role in the success/failure rates of our students.
- At the end of high school nearly 25% of white sons of college educated parents scored “bellow basic” on reading, compared to 7% of girls from the same socioeconomic and race group.
- 40% more boys than girls failed the Washington state reading test.
A 2006 survey of 11,500 students in 129 schools across 26 states demonstrates the stark differences between boys and girls in their education. Of those students surveyed:
- 55% of girls reported earning A & B grades, but only 41% of boys
- 49% of girls reported working hard to meet assignment details, but only 35% of boys
- 29% of girls reported revising essays to improve the quality, but only 16% of boys
- 68% of girls reported doing their best in schools, but only 50% of boys
The 9th Grade Bulge
Many of these failures can be seen at the 9th grade year for boys – known as the “9th grade bulge” – where schools see a peculiar rise in the number of 9th grade students. The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) out of Atlanta found 9th grade populations were larger in
- Georgia by 16%
- Florida by 19%
- Maryland by 17%, and
- Texas by 17%
Why Are Boys Failing in Schools?
These bulges in 9th grade population have twice as many boys in their numbers than girls, and researchers point to two specific reasons why there is a larger population in 9th grades for so many schools.
- For schools across the country, 9th grade is the time when curriculum shifts to preparation for college prep classes. Students who have not been academically prepared to deal with these more rigorous classes up to this point (often the boys) flounder and even lose motivation to complete high school at all.
- For schools across the country, 9th grade is also the time to begin more rigorous testing schedules, and schools need their students to score well. Students who are identified as those who might lower overall test schedules in the future might be forced to repeat 9th grade instead of risk failing test scores.
Boys at Risk for Failing Verbal Skills and Literacy
Whitmire cites research that shows that since 1988 the gap between the reading skills of boys and girls grows each year. Part of this is the transforming of standards, beginning in just the preschool years. Where reading readiness used to be taught in kindergarten and 1st grade, it is now a part of the criteria for Head Start and preschool programs, but our children are still children, and boys are no more genetically prepared to be early readers than they were 50 years ago.
Several other reasons are noted by Whitmire that contribute to the failing verbal and literacy skills that contribute to boys falling behind in schools.
- Boys tend to need phonics instruction more when compared to girls, but schools are moving more toward a whole language approach to reading (immersion in literature that will hopefully result in learning sounds and meanings naturally).
- There is a lack of reading instructions in the upper grade levels. Much beyond 3rd grade the tools needed to improve reading skills are not taught any longer. Students are required to read more and more, but there is a lack of actual attention paid to improving reading skills. If your son was one of many boys who didn’t develop language skills until later, he might be shortchanged for literacy education.
- Boys don’t have as many academically inclined role models. Their heroes are in the fields of sports, physical power, and machinery. They don’t see the daily connection between things like reading and success, and they are at higher risk for not having a positive academic role model in their lives.
- There just aren’t enough great books for boys. Some authors are trying to target that trend and turn it around, but for now the library shelves in many schools are filled with books geared toward girls.
- Literacy is pushed too soon, especially for boys. In my own microcosm example of my family with 1 daughter and 3 boys, I definitely saw a distinction between the boys’ readiness to read and my daughter’s. When they were 3, they boys wanted to run, climb, yell, and explore, but my daughter wanted to sit and look at books, before she could read all of the words. Whitmire shows that this is typical for boys everywhere, yet schools still expect boys to be ready before kindergarten to grasp reading skills.
- Science backs this premise. Brain scans of 3.5 year old girls are similar to those brain scans of 5.5 year old boys in the areas of language. MRI studies also show that girls have 11% more neurons in the brain areas devoted to language processing. However, boys and girls are still taught the same way at the same time.
How Can We Stop Failing Our Boys and Start Helping Them Succeed?
Our boys are worth our time and effort to help them succeed. They are not deficient – we are unprepared to help them learn in ways that meet their specific needs. Join the conversation tomorrow as I share some of Whitmire’s and others’ advice and findings about raising successful sons.