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Monday, December 29, 2008

The Trouble with Boys

Peg Tyre has written a remarkable book about a problem that many of us have sensed (but failed to articulate and complain about) for years: our young boys are being shortchanged from the first day that they enter a school building. Not too many years ago the concern in public education was how to prepare girls to grow into women able to compete with their male counterparts in the work world. That was a legitimate concern and, much to the credit of this country, a tremendous, and very successful, effort was made to correct the problem. But as always seems to happen, the pendulum continued to swing their way long after females had achieved educational equality. The momentum created to correct the initial problem was so strong that it eventually placed male students at a disadvantage, a new problem just as serious as the one it corrected.

I have personally observed much of what Peg Tyre describes in The Trouble with Boys. For what it is worth, I can offer anecdotal evidence of my own that the problem Tyre describes is a serious one. I am the father of two daughters, both elementary school teachers now, and the grandfather of one granddaughter and two grandsons, all of whom are elementary school students. Because I am convinced that learning to read well, and as soon as possible, is the key to anyone’s future, I encouraged my daughters to become readers and have done the same for their children. It is in observation of their children that I first became aware of just how different so many little boys are from little girls when it comes to their early schooling.

According to Tyre, the problem for little boys begins as early as preschool because they are physically and mentally less mature than little girls their age. Boys at this age are less verbal than girls, a deficit that makes it more difficult for them to learn to read, and they have less well developed fine motor skills, making it more difficult for them to control a pencil or a paintbrush. But their biggest problem is the great difficulty they have in sitting still for long periods of time, a tendency that almost guarantees that they will be disciplined at a much higher rate than girls and that they will learn at a slower pace.

The physical disadvantage faced by young boys has become more and more exaggerated in recent years because of the emphasis on starting our children into preschool programs at younger and younger ages. Little boys find themselves labeled early on as troublemakers and poor students by teachers that simply do not recognize or understand the handicaps the boys are facing in the classroom. As a result, boys are almost five times as likely to be expelled from preschool and are twice as likely to be placed under medication for some type of attention deficit disorder.

And, of course, this makes them much more likely to hate school and learning. Too many of them tune out, barely skating by academically and staying in school mainly because of sports programs and the girls they meet there. These boys have subconsciously assimilated the message they received from preschool through elementary school that they are problem students whose behavior and study habits are not appreciated.

And the result is predictable. Boys and girls enter preschool at about the same level but around the fourth grade girls are noticeably pulling ahead of boys academically, a lead they never relinquish. By middle and high school girls make up a substantial majority of top-ranked students and today they outnumber male university students to such a degree that many schools have created a kind of affirmative action plan for boys in order to create some balance in their student enrollments.

In effect, the American education system has been over-feminized by its tendency to reward the behavior more common to girls and to punish that more likely to be shared by young male students. The Trouble with Boys offers solutions and possible corrective measures that need to be adopted before another generation of men is doomed to second class status.

As Tyre points out, this country simply cannot afford to write off half of the population if it is to successfully compete in the global economy of the future. Advocates of equality for women may be concerned by any new emphasis on the same for men, fearing that the infamous pendulum will once again swing too far before stopping. But, as Tyre emphasizes, that is not what anyone is proposing or expecting; this is simply a matter of true equality for both sexes, a goal that will benefit all of us.

The Trouble with Boys makes a strong case that something must be done quickly in order to correct the biggest problem now facing this country’s school system. It should be read by parents (regardless of whether they have boys or girls), school teachers and administrators, and everyone concerned about the future. It is a good place at which to begin the conversation – read it and pass it on to others before we waste another generation of young men. It is time that we quit treating boys as “defective girls.”

Rated at: 5.0

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