Boys in school: Why Don’t We Pay Attention to the Facts?

David Greene

My son was born in 1990. By the time he was approaching kindergarten, we had to decide if he was to be one of those male kindergarten redshirts, held back a year to “mature”. We decided against it. He was a very bright and very tall boy. We felt holding him back would indeed, hold him back. What happened was eye opening. In pre-school and kindergarten teachers thought he was “hyperactive.” My wife is a clinical psychologist. She and I knew better. He was a boy. He acted differently than our daughter from his earliest human moments. Eventually we were proven right. He did fine in school. He was constantly described as very mature. A top student and athlete, he is now a pre-med senior in college.

During the 1990’s a great deal of emphasis had been placed on improving the education of girls. Books like Reviving Ophelia, the work of Carol Gilligan, and the political pressure placed on policy makers by organizations such as the National Organization of Women (NOW) made girls’ education a top reform of the early and mid ‘90s. Much of this was very important and good policy. We worked hard on that reform, had workshops, read the research, and changed classroom behaviors to allow girls to be more assertive and improve their work. It was all good.

One afternoon in 1995 we had one of our monthly faculty conferences. It was on the subject of female experiences in the school, under the guise of “gender issues”. At the long table sat several female students, and, at the far end, one male, Andrew. Andrew was last to speak. He was not one of the many superstar students. Andrew was an average kid who felt he had to speak up and tell the story from the male perspective. What Andrew had to say was a far cry from what most of us had heard, but some of his experiences rang true to me. What he said was that most boys don’t have it as good in school here as “you all” think. He gave several examples. They sounded like what my son had experienced. Questions and comments came forth from a few interested people. One person, Ron Bouchier, the school’s Athletic director, came prepared. One of the issues discussed was male dominance in several areas, including sports. Ron not only disputed that, he presented evidence of 16 years worth of team, league, sectional, and state championships and finalist results, and even national individual honors. The facts diametrically opposed the impression most of us had and clearly refuted what had been presented.

I was hooked. I knew Andrew and Ron to be straight shooters. They were on to something real and important. The trouble was that they were ignored at best, cynically assaulted at worse. I also knew the issues and stereotyping my son had gone through so far in school. I was determined to find out more. I started small. First I looked closely at the grades of my senior students. I had no idea what I would find. Little did I know it would launch me on a 16-year investigation on the issues plaguing boys in schools.

A couple of years later I was one of 3 Scarsdale staff members to go a conference on boys held at Wellesley College. I was the only teacher. The other 2 (women) were an assistant superintendent and a guidance counselor, both members of the district’s “Gender Equity Committee”. It had already become obvious to me that gender was a euphemism for “Female Equity”. While in a workshop on boys, I heard volumes about the problems of female students being harassed and bullied and intimidated by aggressive boys who needed to be fixed. A bit nervous about presenting a different view, I stood up and recited a summary of what I had learned over the past few years of investigation in my school and from reading the local papers about valedictorians and salutatorians in Westchester County. After much criticism and claims I must be fabricating evidence, I was summarily dismissed. However a woman sitting near me asked me to tell her more and asked if I wouldn’t mind being interviewed for a book she was writing. I said sure, and found the following in her book and article that appeared in the May 2000 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. That was Christina Hoff Sommers.

What had I found? In my classes, the boys’ final grades were anywhere from 3 to 5 points lower than the girls. Overall that meant the difference between a B- and B or B+. When I checked other social studies classes, the pattern held. In AP classes there was no significant differences. I colleague of mine, John Harrison, and I researched grades from all subjects in the school. The patterns held except in 2 or 3 of the highest-level science and math classes. I redid the work of Ron Bouchier and verified the information he had given those few years earlier. In fact the pattern stayed the same. Together, John and I looked at all kinds of information. We followed the class of 2002 and found that in each year approximately 2/3 of the bottom third of the class was boys and 2/3 of the top third was girls. This corresponded to the almost 3:1 ratio of girls to boys as valedictorians and salutatorians in the county of Westchester.

John and I presented our findings to the staff, and again, seven years later, they were hard pressed to acknowledge what we had found. Not much had changed. Then, as part of an ongoing series of talks and forums for parents the Scarsdale PT Council sponsored a forum on boys called “Are We Failing Our Boys?”. I had invited two other speakers with lots of letters following their names to give what I thought would give the talk more “cred”. The expected audience was about 30-50. Two hundred and fifty people (almost entirely moms) showed up and they were most interested in what I had to say about boys in Scarsdale. Mothers knew what was going on. So did I. But few are willing to acknowledge it in an academic world dominated by NOW and women studies at the University level.

I joined others in this work. I read a great deal on the subject. I gathered much information and from that work, teamed with Dr. Ed Stephens of the On Step Institute and Foundation for Male Studies, helped write a grant for the Leadership Learning Lab of the Central Park Historical Society, and spoke at two local colleges.

One of the most consistent findings in the research is that over the past 30 years how schools have moved to teaching methods that favor how girls learn. Add this to the increasing data about how boys are faring less and less well and you have an understanding about how much of a crisis this is within education, especially among minority males, our most failing demographic. What follows is a summary of what I have found over the years.

In 2002:

12th Graders below Basic Literacy in reading tests

MALES: 33%            FEMALES: 20%.

12th graders with a parent who graduated from college who scored below basic writing proficiency levels:

MALES: 27%           FEMALES: 9%

In 2003: 70 percent of public high school students graduated

Of those,

  • 72 percent of all female students
  • 65 percent of all male students (-7%)
  • 59 percent of African-American female students
  • 48 percent of African-American male students (-11%)
  • 58 percent for Hispanic female students
  • 49 percent of Hispanic male students (-9%)

(Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters, Manhattan Institute for Policy research civic report?No. 48 April 2006)

IN 2005:

BS Degrees by Age and Gender

Age: 65 or higher:               Male          Female

  •                                            24.3%        14%

Age: 45-64:                         Male          Female

  •                                          30.7%         26.6%

Age: 35-44:                        Male           Female

  •                                         29%            26.6%

Age: 25-34:                     Male            Female

  •                                       27.2%         32.5%

(US Census: American Fact finder)

IN 2008

  • 137 women have graduated college for every 100 men
  • 130+ Women earned master’s degrees for every 100 men
    (National Center for Education Statistics)

IN 2010

  • 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

(David Brooks, NYT)

Aside from those comparative annual statistics, in general from K-12:

  • Boys are greatly outnumbered in every extracurricular activity outside of sports, from student government to student newspapers and academic clubs.
  • By 12 years of age, boys are almost twice as likely to have repeated at least one grade.
  • Boys comprise the majority of permanent high-school dropouts.
  • Boys are approximately 3 times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD or ADD
  • Boys are 10 times as likely to be referred for possible ADHD/ADD as girls
  • Boys (ages 15-19) are 5 times as likely as girls to commit suicide.
  • Boys are more than twice as likely to be suspended from school.
  • Boys are more than three times as likely to be expelled from school.
  • Preschool boys (ages 3-4) are expelled at a rate about 4 ½ times that of girls.

The U.S. Department of Education concedes that no serious research is available comparing different instructional methods that might help boys. Many education researchers have been found to be reluctant regarding research aimed at exploring gender differences in learning. In short, the researchers have found that because of changes in the educational system, the average boy of 50-75 years ago is very likely to be diagnosed with ADHD today, especially if they are bored and gifted boys (Armstrong, 1996, Hartnett et al. 2004, Howard and James, 2003).

There is also a great deal of agreement on the major reasons why these horrors are occurring:

  1. Gender roles in education, especially in elementary school, where 85% of teachers are women.
  2. Popular books (Reviving Ophelia 1994) and groups such as the American Association of University Women alerted the public to an educational failing that helped convince educators that schools were ignoring important girls’ problems, such as the loss of self-esteem among middle school girls who had been successful in elementary school
  3. Resistance from educators who also point to male success in the workforce as proof that advocacy for boys is unnecessary. (Even as statistics point out how men have been and will remain hardest hit by the “Great Recession” and the economic shifts in our nation.)

Over the past 20 years a great deal of knowledge has been accrued regarding biological and brain differences between boys and girls. Some of it shows the following. The language area of an average 5 year old boy’s brain is the same as a 3 ½ year old girl’s thus less able to learn to read K-2 (NIMH, 2006). Girls have more brain area in the frontal lobes devoted to language and expression of emotion as well as superior connectors between language areas to the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center (Neu,8).

Girls’ advanced prefrontal cortex also provides an advantage in decision-making and impulse control (Baron-Cohen, 2003). Girl brains are earlier to process emotional (tend/befriend tendencies) while boys rely more on brain stem and cerebellum resulting in more fight/flight tendencies under stress (Taylor et al., 2000). Boy behavior is far more likely to be determined by Nietzsche’s “will to power” (wanting to be in control of one’s environment) thus more likely to turn to video games and exhibit more confrontational and contradictory behaviors (Gleitman, 1980). As a result of differentiated development of boy and girl brains boys are worse listeners, and thus have greater difficulties in classrooms.

Other researchers point more directly at early academics in K-2. Boys are not as reading/writing ready as girls. This has led to higher stress and failures producing diminishing boy’s motivation. Oddly, or not, the nation that scores highest in the most widely used international reading and writing tests is Finland. They start formal school at the age of 7 (Gurian, p 20, Finnish National Bd. Of Education). Verbally structured classrooms tend to decrease motivation and performance of boys. The results show an increase in the use of boys’ resting brain states, poor note taking, poor attention to directions, and less homework done. These results were especially found in middle and high schools with boys who had higher IQ scores and had earlier successes in elementary school (Gurian, p 246). Hey..that was me grades 9-11. Often too, the boredom of bright boys is misdiagnosed as ADHD. (Howard and James, 2003)

Other educational mismatches between methods and gender differences abound. Overall changes in educational format and curricula over the past 30 years have been detrimental to boys’ learning. Among these are more reading and writing at earlier ages, less physical and non-linear learning, and the disappearance of gym and recess. The evidence shows that more schools have become less and less oriented to these boy strengths. Boys simply learn better when interested and motivated. The research has also shown that boys are primarily visual, logical, musical, kinesthetic, and naturalistic learners (James, p228).

All the research points to the fact that boys simply learn better through experiential doing (“Kenntnis”) than learning about something through reading whether print or computer screen based (“Wissenschaft”). HIstorically, boys learning has gone from physical apprenticeships, action, and practice to sitting in verbal/ written learning environments (Grossman and Grossman, 1994). The result is that normal fidgeting and physical movement, once necessary and normal, are now liabilities (Gurian, p53). There are ways of reforming schools to take these issues into account but they are not past of the No Child Left Behind syndrome.

Let’s take MATH and ELA. Over the years, even math problems have become more word oriented, for which girls’ brains are believed to have an advantage. ELA is theme based and often revolves around character feelings. Boys are more analytical and think more in terms of plot and action. Girls see more global outcomes and themes (Jonassen and Grabowski, 1993). Sax and Judith Kleinfeld (White House conference on Helping American Youth, 2006) contend that although the basic drilling for elementary reading skills works through 4th grade, the ELA curricula and practices in grades 4-12 have contributed to poorer boys’ results during those grades. In fact, although the tests results of 4th grade boys had improved, the 12th grade results show that 1 in 4 boys does not read at a basic level of proficiency as opposed to 1 in 16 girls. (USDE 2007)

Another area to rediscover is the issue of stereotyping. It is what got me interested in this issue in the first place. My son was stereotyped from an early age. Boys get the message that “typical boy behavior—loud, competitive, and physical–is bad, and that they need to become more like girls—quiet, cooperative, and gentle” (James, p115). “Typical boy behavior” is often misdiagnosed as ADHD. According to both Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax this occurs especially when the teacher first suggests ADHD testing. Sax postulates that occurs because most classroom settings are not boy friendly enough, most teachers (predominantly female in the early grades) are not fluent in the needs of boys, and too many K-1 classrooms are inappropriately academically advanced. (Ironically, since the early 1990’s girls have been getting the message to become more assertive, competitive, and more physical.)

In another example of stereotyping, a 1992 study showed that “60% of teachers believed that their male African American students would not go on to college.” In that particular study 65% of the teachers surveyed were African American (Garibaldi, 1992). One reason was the sub-cultural “call and response” (Schwartz, 2001; Townsend, 2000) style of many inner city males, actually physically active, loud, engaged and enthusiastic learning is often perceived as angry and hostile (Grossman and Grossman, 1994). Most upper middle class secondary schools (where many teachers come from) stress higher critical thinking skills, conceptual thinking, and applications while most lower socioeconomic secondary schools, stress safety, class management, and rote learning to achieve success on basic skills as shown on national standardized tests.

That is the reform that needs to be made most. The reform movement as it now stands simply makes this worse. The result is a lack of practice in deeper understanding of material and the underlying skills for advancement both to and in college. Today’s “reforms” have led to more competent mediocrity in inner city schools.

Whatever the causes, boys are found with:

  • Poorer motivation (Gurian, 244)
  • Poorer learning while sedentary as a result of their need to move around (Gurian, Sax, James, Tyre, Neu and others)
  • Poorer ability to hear softer higher sounds such as female voices (McFadden, 1998 and others)
  • Poorer episodic memory, less oriented to detail, thus poorer at test taking (Davis, 1999 and others)
  • Poorer at planning and paying attention (Naglieri and Rojahn, 2001)
  • Poorer at delaying gratification (Canada, 1999, 2000)
  • Poorer emotional communication skills.
  • A greater need for lists, clear directions, depth of learning vs. breadth (Gurian, 48)
  • Greater frustration, with less control and more discipline problems
  • Greater use of the brain’s “rest state” (zoning out or looking distracted)
  • A preference to shut down or say they didn’t do the work instead of admitting they don’t know (Gurian, p165).

What We Can Change In Districts? How can we learn from all the research and institute real reform beyond the Gates, Bloomberg, Duncan, and Rhee style we are currently engulfed by?

  • Use more Kenntnis (experiential learning) and less Wissenschaft (the linear pursuit of knowledge:
  • Install appropriate experiential learning programs K-12.
  • Restore old-fashioned Kindergarten.
  • Start formal school a year later. Both genders will benefit.
  • Start MS and HS at 9:00 AM. Use adolescent sleep studies.
  • Evaluate and improve the screening for ADHD.
  • Use more effective modes of discipline. Boys, again unlike girls, usually react better to “power assertion” (clearly stating the rules and explaining how they were broken) and “attention withdrawal” techniques as opposed to induction (How would you feel if you were Johnny?) Induction, because it is not direct, often creates anger and defensiveness and thus makes some boys suspicious over time thus escalating their reactions (Heyman and Legare, 2004).
  • Provide access to good male mentors, heroes, and role models.
  • Get parents and the community involved.
  • Restore recess and add more physical education classes…Jim needs GYM!
  • Consider single sex classrooms, subjects or schools. The research is still out.

What We Can Change In Classrooms?

  • Use differentiated instruction and assessments based on boys’ preferred learning styles and intelligences. As math has included more word problems and essay questions (female strengths) ELA and Social Studies should incorporate questions allowing for visual answers (ex: cartooning), and grade for logic and being concise.
  • Design units and lessons using Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design (1998)…Start at the outcomes and plan backwards, including appropriate authentic assessments.
  • Provide reading choice. Boys comprehend more when they read about their interests.
  • Questions should ask what would you “do” as opposed to what would you “feel?”
  • Use analogies where possible. It is a boy strength…either as teaching tool or in tests. So why did the College Board remove these from SAT tests?
  • Give problem-solving assignments.
  • Use direct language in giving directions. Be matter of fact. Do not coddle. Give them what they need in order to solve the problem.
  • Be vigilant about monitoring work and returning results swiftly and constructively.
  • Train students to take verbatim notes and then to summarize them.
  • Use voice modulation so boys can hear well.
  • Add touch and eye contact, depending on sub-cultural issues.
  • Use visuals, graphics, art, drama, music, and physical activities.
  • Build in strategic “Brain breaks.”
  • Use humor.
  • Use competition, with winners and losers, especially as part of a team.
  • Put boys in groups larger than three.
  • Do not over-compliment boys or sweeten comments without merit. Self esteem for boys must be addressed differently than for girls. Boys, unlike girls, will not do better if they think they are good in a subject. (Baumeister et al., 2003)

The Gates, Bloomberg, Duncan, and Rhee, TFA, and Teachers College Workshop model reform movement have thrown many of these methods out. It’s time we looked back at the research and matched up with the findings.

  • “If you think about how many boys are getting bad grades, failing tests, not performing in class, becoming discipline problems—and if you look beyond the reading and writing gap, you might notice other key elements of male nature that are now a mismatch with conventional schooling.” (Gurian, 52)
  • “Despite the research, schools that allow boys to function in accordance with their natural development are a dying breed.” (Tyre, 75)
  • Many school districts, from Atlanta to Wilmette, have finally realized they must react to these issues. In Wilmette, after a huge in district probe, a “final committee report provided irrefutable evidence that [even] upper middle class boys were not thriving in school.” The Board of Education’s response “was clear: Do whatever it takes to improve the performance of all children—including boys” (Tyre, 121,122).

Thus it is our task to create a more equitable education system for boys, without sacrificing the success of its girls. To accomplish this all involved must open their minds beyond the current trends and understand the research based socio/neurobiological foundations of cognitive gender differences as they relate to education. We must recognize the levels to which curricula and teaching respond to these research based foundations. And we must develop educational approaches based on solid research to provide a more boy-friendly instructional climate yet still be responsive to both genders. (James, 8 )




David Greene is a guest contributor who is a former High School Social Studies teacher and coach in The Bronx, Greenburgh NY, and Scarsdale NY. He presently is an adjunct for Fordham University, mentoring Teach For Americans in the Bronx. He is a staff member of WISE Services, an advisor to the Foundation For Male Studies, a HS football coach, and was a member of the Save Our Schools March and Call to Action Program Committee.


6 thoughts on “Boys in school: Why Don’t We Pay Attention to the Facts?”

  1. Dear Mr Greene,
    I am a Scarsdale parent of a boy born in April 1995. Your article struck home with me on so many levels. Since my son was in kindergarten, I was told I should have him “tested”. Now a junior in HS (not Scarsdale), he is all AP/honors classes. Boys will be boys, seems to be a thing of the past. Boys should be more like girls, seems to be the phrase of the day. His fourth grade teacher called me to say he was “extremely pissed off” (can you imagine), at my son’s inappropriate behavior on a class trip. I could not think of any thing he would do to require a phone call/foul language. He went through the revolving door at the MET twice, instead of once. Are you kidding me? He was NINE years old. Anyway, very interesting article.
    Cathy McDonald

  2. When are we going to see curricular offerings at schools of education that train our instructors in these basic approaches? Isn’t our current 60/40 college enrollment girls/boys projected to be 70/30 by 2020 a national alarm signal for all of us.
    Thank you David for being such a great teacher!

  3. Here is one main reason boys are failing: The government wants them to. Here is Obama’s recent statement about this fact- (matching the feminist and women’s groups reveling in boys failing) :

    Yes, boys failing in school is a great American accomplishment. Obama will see that this continues as he has refused to form a men and boys’ council, only a women and girls council.

  4. Just a few corrections and additions here:
    – Males do significantly better at maths, physics, and engineering. Males on average score 50 points higher in The Scholastic Aptitude Math Test (SAT-M). Of those people scoring above 700, the sex ratio is 13:1 (men to women). [Benbow, C.P. (1988) Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability in intellectually talented preadolescents: Their nature, effects, and possible causes. Behav. Brain Sci. 11, 169–232][Geary, D. (1996) Sexual selection and sex differences in mathematical abilities. Behav. Brain Sci. 19, 229–284]

    Some of these tests (including other intelligence tests) have been dumbed down since the late 1990s in order to include more female-oriented sections, this is the real reason why the more recent studies have seemingly “closed the gap” more.

    – Males have superior constructional abilities.
    [Kimura, D. (1999) Sex and Cognition, MIT Press]

    – Males show great attention to relevant detail.
    [Elliot, R. (1961) Interrelationship among measures of field dependence, ability, and personality traits. J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol. 63, 27–36][Voyer, D. et al. (1995) Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: a meta-analysis and
    consideration of critical variables. Psychol. Bull. 117, 250–270]

    – Males are better at organizing, categorizing and planning systems.
    [Atran, S. (1994) Core domains versusscientific theories: evidence from systematics and Itza-Maya folkbiology. In Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in
    Cognition and Culture (Hirschfeld, L.A. and Gelman, S.A., eds), Cambridge
    University Press]

  5. Thank you for putting this study into action. I have worried about this issue for the past two years (since my son started preschool), and have started a campaign to begin a “boys school” in my state. Some day, I believe that there will be the proper learning environment for all children and I hope to take part in that movement.
    Boys will be boys, and demoralizing them in order to create “order” in the classroom and a less disruptive environment for our girl students is not the path to take. I want my son to grow into a good man who is smart AND strong, compassionate AND tough when needed.

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