Resolving the Boys Crisis in Schools

March 4, 2009 at 6:00 pm Leave a comment

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A recent Chicago Board of Education report showed that girls enjoy a 63-37% advantage over boys in gaining admittance to Chicago’s eight selective-enrollment college prep high schools. In response, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and top administrators at Jones, Whitney Young and Brooks prep schools are advocating that schools consider “gender weighting.”  Yet to balance the scales by employing admissions preferences is misguided.  What’s needed instead is a rethinking of the way we educate, beginning at the earliest levels.

Many healthy, energetic, intelligent boys are branded as having behavior problems as soon as they begin school, and are punished and put on Ritalin or other drugs so they will sit still. Little thought is given to two obvious questions: How could a six or seven year-old be “bad”? And how could so many boys need drugs to function in school? Because schools and classrooms do not fit their educational needs, many boys disengage from school long before they ever reach the prep school level.

Many modern educational practices are counterproductive for boys. Success in school is tightly correlated with the ability to sit still, be quiet and complete paperwork and assignments, which are sometimes of questionable value. A “get tough” mentality—under which teachers give excessive homework lest they appear uncommitted or weak—has become a substitute for educators actually having a sound reason for assigning all the work they assign.

Many young boys are bodily kinesthetic learners who respond to hands-on lessons. The educational establishment finds this inconvenient, and thus largely ignores it. 

The trend against competition and the promotion of cooperative learning strategies run counter to boys’ natural competitiveness and individual initiative. Lessons in which there are no right or wrong answers, and from which solid conclusions cannot be drawn, tend to frustrate boys, who often view them as pointless.

Efforts to make schools gentler and to promote women’s writing, while understandable, have pushed aside the action and adventure literature, which boys have treasured for generations. In their place are subtle, reflective works, which often hold little interest for boys.

The dearth of male teachers–particularly at the elementary level, where female teachers outnumber male teachers six to one–is a problem for boys. The average teacher is a well-meaning and dedicated woman who always did well in school and can’t quite understand why the boys won’t sit still, be quiet and do their work like the girls do. Instead, boys need strong, charismatic teachers who mix firm discipline with an understanding and good-natured acceptance of boyish energy. And though it’s rarely mentioned, most teachers are weighed down by paperwork and secretarial labor, which limits the time they can spend planning creative, hands-on, boy-friendly lessons. 

Recess and physical education time allotted during the day are insufficient for boys’ needs, and the trend has been to reduce this time rather than to increase it. Pervasive fear of lawsuits has turned educators into guards vigilant to prevent any manifestation of natural boyishness outside the classroom from becoming the school district’s latest legal settlement payout.

The deterioration of vocational education also hurts boys. U.S. Department of Education data show that these programs suffered a sharp decline from 1982 to 1992 and never recovered. Vocational classes once started low and middle achieving boys on the path to careers as skilled tradesmen. They have now often been replaced by an asinine yet pervasive mantra that defines as successful only those who go to college and become doctors or lawyers. This mantra often disrespects boys’ blue collar fathers, who also happen to be their primary role models. In fact, to suggest that a boy pursue a career working with his hands leaves a teacher open to charges of harming students by encouraging low expectations.

The boy crisis in our schools is more than an educational crisis—it is also a significant public health issue.  Nearly nine million prescriptions of Ritalin are written for American children each year, most of them for boys between the ages of six and 12. According to a federal expert advisory panel, 10% of 10 year-old American boys are on Ritalin or similar drugs. In February the panel, which reviewed several dozen reports of deaths, heart problems, and toxic reactions associated with these drugs, recommended they carry a prominent ‘black box’ warning, the strongest warning for prescription drugs.

The gender weighting currently being pondered by Chicago’s educational establishment wouldn’t begin to solve these problems. Nor would it address the wide gender disparities that exist among low and middle achieving students. Boys don’t need admissions preferences—they need a system which meets their educational needs.

Jeffery M. Leving is one of America’s most prominent family law attorneys. He is the author of the book Fathers’ Rights: Hard-hitting and Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in a Custody Dispute. His website is www.dadsrights.com.

Glenn Sacks’ columns on men’s and fathers’ issues have appeared in dozens of America’s largest newspapers. Glenn can be reached via his website at www.GlennSacks.com or via email at Glenn@GlennSacks.com.

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