Why Boys Fail Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That s Leaving Them Behind

by Richard Whitmire

Author Richard Whitmire Isbn 978 0814415344 File size 1MB Year 2010 Pages 256 Language English File format PDF Category Family and Friendship Boys are falling behind in school The world has become more verbal boys haven t Even in their traditionally strong subjects of science and math boys are hit at a young age with new educational approaches stressing high level reading and writing goals that they are developmentally unable to achieve The gap between male and female achievement has rea

Publisher :

Author : Richard Whitmire

ISBN : 978 0814415344

Year : 2010

Language: English

File Size : 1MB

Category : Family and Friendship



W H Y

B O Y S

F A I L

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Why Boys Fail
Saving Our Sons from an Educational
System That’s Leaving Them Behind

Richard Whitmire
Foreword by Michelle Rhee,
Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Whitmire, Richard.
Why boys fail : saving our sons from an educational system that’s leaving them behind / Richard
Whitmire.
p. cm.
Includes index.
ISBN-13: 978-0-8144-1534-4 (hardcover)
ISBN-10: 0-8144-1534-2 (hardcover)
1. Motivation in education. I. Title.
LB1065.W49 2010
370.15⬘4—dc22

2009031663

䉷 2010 Richard Whitmire
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in whole or in part,
in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the
prior written permission of AMACOM, a division of American Management Association, 1601
Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
Printing number
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Robin, Morgan, and Tyler

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C O N T E N T S

Foreword by Michelle Rhee, Chancellor, District of
Columbia Public Schools ix
Acknowledgments xiii
Introduction 1
1

Discovering the Problem 13

2

The Reason for the Boy Troubles: Faltering Literacy
Skills 27

3

The Likely Causes of the Reading Lapses 39

4

The Writing Failures 63

5

The Blame Game: What Gets Blamed (Unfairly) for the
Gender Gaps 79

6

Solutions: What Works for Boys?

7

Impediments to a Solution: The Ideological
Stalemate 135

8

The International Story: Australians Struggle with the Boy
Troubles 151

9

Why These Gender Gaps Matter 163

10

107

Actions That Need to Be Taken 181
vii

viii

Contents

Appendix: The Facts About Boys 211
Notes 217
Index 229
About the Author 239

F O R E W O R D

I met a twenty-one-year-old high school senior who
was struggling to push through his last few credits of high school. He was
working with two tutors through a small pilot program targeting students
at risk of dropping out. Facing an emotional disability and embarrassed in
his summer school classes full of tenth graders, his frequent outbursts
meant he was spending more time in the office and on suspension than he
was in class.
LAST SUMMER

I met him through a fortunate accident. On one of his trips back to
class after a suspension, he happened to overhear the program manager,
who was visiting the school that day, from my office, inquiring about a
truant student she was trying to pair with a tutor but who was not showing up.
The listening student immediately interjected himself into the conversation and advocated forcefully on his own behalf, convincing the program
manager that with a child on the way, and driven by a strong desire to
move away from the violence he had seen and been a part of, he was
willing to do whatever it would take to earn his diploma, if she would
find someone to work with him. As all of our volunteer tutors were assigned already, part of ‘‘what it took’’ involved riding his bike to my office
every day where my staff members had volunteered to work with him.
In Why Boys Fail, Robert Whitmire has hit not only on the root of
this student’s challenges and their impact on his life and choices, but on
the ways that his challenges weave through the stories of millions of boys
ix

x

Foreword

in this country. This student’s tutors—one in English and one in chemistry—quickly learned that his biggest challenge was literacy.
Many school districts are addressing early literacy deficiencies, but
building literacy has to continue throughout the grades, and it must include developmentally appropriate materials for teenagers who are still at
an elementary reading level, as our summer school student was. Twice as
many boys as girls are classified as special education students. Boys in the
D.C. public schools fall behind girls by about nine percentage points in
reading and five in math (DC Comprehensive Assessment System/DC
CAS). Of our incarcerated youth, 97 percent are boys. Without the reading and writing skills they need to tackle other course areas, either their
frustrations come out in the classroom, they begin to shut down, or they
drop out.
Our student last summer faced a tenth-grade book while reading at
an estimated fifth-grade reading level. He was intelligent and could pick
up concepts quickly when they were explained to him. The chemistry
textbook was especially daunting, and even with a tutor, the reading was
painstaking. In English, he was required to read a novel set in World War
II, and he found many connections between the characters’ discussions
and the streets of Washington, D.C. But even with a strong identification
with the characters, he had to read it out loud, slowly, and with intensive
one-on-one support to discuss the vocabulary and connections to his experiences.
He discovered that he loved new vocabulary words, and he drank
them in as if they were water. After one conversation about narrative voice
in fiction, he had to be convinced not to tattoo ‘‘omniscient’’ on his arm!
But even with his excitement about his increasing literacy skills, he was
no picnic for his principal, teachers, or tutors. Bright and self-aware, he
knew he did not have the skills he had trusted us as adults to give him.
He was angry.
It was clear that his display of this anger during instruction appeared
or intensified when he faced a task he did not suspect he could do. When

Foreword

xi

he feared he would not succeed, he would curse, refuse, or go silently
angry. With much of the work requiring a greater level of literacy than
he had, this meant more than a few awkward incidents for visitors to the
chancellor’s office that summer.
But in the end he was true to his word. He put in the hours, and his
tutors split the teaching of everything from phonemic awareness to ionic
bonds (they may have missed a meeting or two!). He read the novel, wrote
the paper, and passed his tests in chemistry and English, literally sweating
through his last two courses of high school.
He made it—and I got to shake his hand and congratulate him as he
walked across the stage.
But why did it have to be so difficult for him, and for the millions of
other young men like him?
There are countless factors other than literacy that can impact boys’
achievement, and what is impressive about Whitmire’s analysis is that,
without oversimplifying this socially, politically, and academically complex
issue, he addresses them all while narrowing our focus on the root of
literacy that links them all.
Even with a high school diploma, as Whitmire shows is true for millions of boys who graduate without the skills they need, our summer
student also has had a difficult time finding and keeping a job, despite the
continued coaching he has received. He checks in every month or two,
and on his latest visit he picked up a book to continue increasing his
reading skills until he will be able to handle the coursework of college.
But like the statistics Whitmire cites throughout Why Boys Fail, every
day our graduate faces earning a living without the literacy skills he
needs—in this economy, a challenge even for those who got what they
needed from their school systems. He is now a father, and while I hope he
continues to turn away from the options in his neighborhood that compete
with us for young men’s attention and will, I also know it is a daily struggle and choice.

xii

Foreword

There is no reason he or the other boys like him should have fallen so
far behind. We have access to reams of research and best practices on how
to teach children to read and write according to individual needs and
learning styles. But we do not definitively know why we are not doing it
for boys across the country, and when it comes to children, it is always
worth it to find out.
Whitmire illustrates beyond a doubt that the student who studied in
my office last summer is far from alone. As adults—whether professionals
in education, or simply parents trying to do right by our kids—we spend
much of our time and energy battling with the forces that compete for
boys’ attention, often luring them away from achieving according to their
astonishing potential.
It does not have to be this hard. If we do our jobs right from the time
boys are young, teaching reading and writing in ways that engage boys,
it does not have to be a competition, and parents will not have to wring
their hands wondering what went wrong, or feel their hearts break watching their sons fall short of dreams they are perfectly capable of achieving.
Michelle Rhee
Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools
Washington, D.C.

A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S

chilly mountain inn in Australia’s Blue Mountains, I
listened to the spooky calls of cockatoos in the surrounding forest and
wondered if my research into U.S. boys falling behind in school had gone
astray. Why was I here in Australia, a two-hour train ride out of Sydney,
rather than visiting more American schools? The journey that brought me
to this unusual location started a decade ago when I realized that, contrary
to the conventional wisdom among educators and parents, boys—not
girls—were the ones struggling in school.

HUDDLED IN A

My investigation into the issue started slowly and picked up speed
with a reporting fellowship from the University of Maryland that allowed
me to travel. I quickly discovered that gender gaps are international and
that several countries, including Australia, are ahead of the United States
in probing the causes. Eventually, that led me to the Blue Mountains of
Australia, home to the Blue Mountains Grammar School in Wentworth
Falls, one of scores of schools across Australia where teachers are redesigning schools to buck up the boys who, like the boys in the United States,
are lagging well behind the girls. Much of what I learned from this investigation can be found at my website and blog, whyboysfail.com.
Those who read my blog and freelance pieces might guess that the
gender gap is my only education interest. Actually, I write about a lot of
other issues, including preschools, charter schools, and teacher quality.
The boys issue, however, is the only one I blog on and the only issue I’ve
researched deeply enough to justify writing a book. The reason I’ve poured

xiii

xiv

Acknowledgments

special attention into the boy troubles is simple: Far too many teachers
and parents have it wrong.
Those who doubt that boys are in trouble err by looking at the White
House and Wall Street, both dominated by men. Instead, they should
be looking at college graduation ceremonies, the pipeline to tomorrow’s
workforce. There, the gender imbalances favoring women are startling.
Just as troubling, those who acknowledge that boys are in trouble often
settle on the wrong reasons. Railing against hip-hop music, feminists, or
video games won’t make a dent in the boy troubles. Settling both those
issues—whether and why boys are in trouble—are the book’s cornerstones.
Naturally, I received some help and encouragement along the way,
starting with my wife, Robin, and my two daughters, Morgan and Tyler.
It may seem odd that a father to two daughters would become so interested in the boys issue. But seeing this issue through their eyes—the
brothers, nephews, and male classmates who by comparison always
seemed to be coming up short—proved to be invaluable. Other thanks go
to the University of Maryland for granting me a fellowship to study the
boys issue. My editors at the USA Today editorial page, Carol Stevens and
Brian Gallagher, allowed me to pursue this issue over several years and
numerous editorials. They have never regretted that decision and have
proved more than willing to stand up to the criticisms from doubters of
the gender gaps.
Most impressive were insightful educators I found along my research
path. Given that the boy troubles fall on the wrong side of political correctness, only brave and independent educators dare even probe the issue.
When I met Kenneth Hilton he was overseeing testing at a school district
outside Rochester, New York. Until a school board president asked why
girls were winning all the academic awards, Hilton had never thought
much about the boys issue. But once a data hound like Hilton burrows
in, there’s no stopping him. Hilton’s research remains unpublished, but
he managed to place his finger on the core issue long before anyone I

Acknowledgments

xv

know. He reminds me of a congressional investigator I got to know who
probed construction quality at nuclear plants. It’s all in the data, he would
tell me as he sat at his Capitol Hill desk surrounded by teetering piles of
documents. You just have to look for it—few actually make that effort.
He was right.
Tom Mortenson continues to turn out the best national and international research on this issue. I once approached him about co-writing a
book on the issue and he replied that he wouldn’t know what to cite as
the solution. That answer gives me pause, even today. Also deserving of
thanks are the school leaders who allowed me into their buildings for
extended observations: Duncan Smith at Frankford Elementary in Delaware, Jabali Sawicki at Excellence Boys Charter School in New York City,
and Susan Schaeffler and Sarah Hayes at the KIPP Key Academy in Washington, D.C.
In Wilmette, Illinois, Glenn ‘‘Max’’ McGee was a first-rate guide to
the research done within his school district. And in Australia, Trevor Barman from the Blue Mountains Grammar School was astonishingly generous in turning over the entire school for my examination. Sara Mead, an
honest doubter of the boy troubles, sharpened my arguments by challenging them. Sarcasm, I suppose, has no place in a book acknowledgment,
but had the U.S. Department of Education done its job and investigated
this problem there would be no need for this book. Given that the department continues to fail in that duty—not a single study is even on the
horizon—the book goes forward.
My editors at AMACOM have been exacting in their edits, and my
agent, Ted Weinstein, gets a head nod for sticking with me through a
sometimes bumpy ride.
The reader will notice that collecting this information was a true journey. I made some reporting trips during the University of Maryland fellowship in 2004–2005. I had a chance to visit Australia in 2007. Other
reporting was shoehorned in shortly before publication. The interesting
thing to note is that little has changed over those years of research. I first

xvi

Acknowledgments

linked up with Ken Hilton in 2004 when he was investigating gender
gaps in his school district in a suburb of Rochester, New York. When we
last spoke in the spring of 2009, he was superintendent of a rural district
in the Catskills. Hilton’s report from the Catskills: Girls were seriously
outpacing boys there as well. This is not a problem that can be turned
around quickly. What’s troubling is that, at least in the United States,
we’ve barely begun.

Introduction

remembers the day she discovered
the difficulties boys were having in her elementary school. She and the
other parents with children at Pearl Creek Elementary in Fairbanks,
Alaska, had gathered for the spring awards ceremony. Nestled into a
wooded hillside and surrounded by homes that overlook the Alaska Range
to the south, Pearl Creek is a school with a dream location and a student
body to match. With the University of Alaska as a neighbor, the school
draws the children of professors as well as the sons and daughters of Fairbanks’s doctors and lawyers. Parents here have ambitious plans for their
children, which makes the spring awards day a big event. This day1 had
a beautiful start. The birch trees had greened up the week before and
temperatures rose enough to hold the picnic for the sixth graders outside.2
Following the picnic about 150 parents filed into the school to sit on
folding chairs facing a tiny elevated stage. Sitting to the side on bleachers
were the sixth graders about to be honored. As the principal called out
the awards, often given in clusters, the honored students climbed the stage
to receive their awards.
B E V M C C L E N D O N C L E A R LY

‘‘It was very visual,’’ said McClendon. ‘‘You would see one, two, three,
four girls climb up to the stage and then walk off. And then another three
or four girls would be called up. Here were all these little girls getting the
awards.’’ Of the roughly twenty awards given out, it was pretty much a
clean sweep of academic awards for the girls that day. Wait, two boys won
a ‘‘most improved’’ and a third boy got a good sense of humor/positive
attitude award. Ouch. McClendon remembers saying to herself, ‘‘Oh,
that’s horrible.’’
It’s not as if the school didn’t see this coming. In the days prior to
the awards ceremony, school counselor Annie Caulfield realized she had a
problem. Awards that normally went to one boy and girl, such as the
2

Introduction

3

American Legion prize, were instead going to two girls. The prospect of a
potentially embarrassing girl sweep caused Caulfield to check on past
awards. ‘‘Over the last eight years we’ve seen gradual changes, with more
girls winning, and then ‘bam.’ This year was so blatant, so one-sided. I
encouraged the teachers to go back and look again, but they felt this is
what it needed to be.’’ What keeps boys off awards stages is a combination
of academics and behavior; they don’t earn perfect grades and they are
more prone to playground tussles. While those boy/girl differences have
held for decades, something has happened in recent years to accelerate the
problem.
McClendon has few regrets her son didn’t get an award that day. He
gets plenty of accolades. But what about the other smart boys at Pearl
Creek? Other parents of boys, especially those with younger boys in the
school, appeared worried that day. ‘‘I’m a staunch feminist, but my God
look at what they’re doing. You can’t tell me there were no boys in that
school who deserved an award.’’
To avoid this situation in the future, school officials faced a dilemma:
either they start practicing affirmative action for boys or suspend the
awards ceremony. They chose the latter. Pushing the problem from public
view to avoid another embarrassing clean-sweep ceremony, however, falls
short of a long-term solution. This is not a local problem confined to Pearl
Creek Elementary. Boys falling behind in school are both a national and
international phenomenon involving far more than playground roughhousing. In the United States, the problem is most obvious in highpoverty urban schools, where boys are losing sight of the girls. In Chicago,
the girls at Gen. George Patton Elementary School outpaced the boys by
fifty-five points on the 2007 state reading tests.3 Boys are four and a half
times as likely as girls to get expelled from preschool and four times as
likely to suffer from attention-deficit disorders. In state after state, boys
are slipping behind girls in math scores on state exams—which steps on
all the conventional wisdom about boys excelling in math—while falling
far behind girls in reading. And while the problem is most serious in poor
neighborhoods, the awards day snapshot offered up by the upper-income

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