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Boy Trouble

Boys and books.

It's been a year since Harvard President Larry Summers uttered some unfortunate speculations about why so few women hold elite professorships in the sciences. During Summers's speech, a biologist, overwhelmed by the injustice of it all, nearly collapsed with what George F. Will unkindly described as the vapors. Since that odd January day, Summers has been rebuked with a faculty no-confidence vote, untold talk-show hosts have weighed in, and 936 stories about the controversy have appeared in newspapers and magazines (according to LexisNexis). Impressive response, especially considering the modest number of these professorships available.

Compare that with what happened after the U.S. Department of Education, also about a year ago, released a 100-plus-page report weighing academic progress by gender. The results were bracing. Nearly every chart told the same story. Boys are over 50 percent more likely than girls to repeat grades in elementary school, one-third more likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to be identified with a learning disability. The response? Near-total silence.

What's most worrisome are not long-standing gender differences but recent plunges in boys' relative performance. Between 1992 and 2002, the gap by which high school girls outperformed boys on tests in both reading and writing—especially writing—widened significantly. Given the reading and writing demands of today's college curriculum, that means a lot of boys out there are falling well short of being considered "college material." Which is why women now significantly outnumber men on college campuses, a phenomenon familiar enough to any sorority sister seeking a date to the next formal. This June, nearly six out of ten bachelor's degrees awarded will go to women. If the Department of Education's report is any indication, in coming years, this gender gap will grow even larger.

The report illustrates a dramatic and unsolved mystery: At some point in the early '80s, boys' relative academic records and aspirations took a downward turn. So far, no one has come up with a good explanation for this trend, but it's a story that affects millions of boys and their families. And yet, according to LexisNexis, the report was cited by name in only five newspaper and magazine articles.

Not only has there been little media attention to this crisis in boys' education, but there has been surprisingly little research. And the conventional wisdom offered up to explain the problem—boys play too many video games and listen to too much hip-hop music—can't explain a gender slide that's affecting not just the United States but much of the developed West. It also can't explain why boys in a few schools manage to duck the gender gap. But promising new answers have begun to surface—and from some very unlikely places.

WHAT WE KNOW for certain about this mostly ignored gender trend comes from surveys that measure the academic attitudes of teen students. In the early '80s, boys and girls were almost evenly matched in their college ambitions. A decade later, everything had changed. Academic aspirations for girls soared as those of boys pretty much flatlined. And the trend has continued, with girls who say they plan to go to college or graduate school now far outnumbering boys. Among female high school seniors, 62.4 percent said they definitely planned to graduate from a four-year college program, compared with 51.1 percent of male high school seniors, according to a 2001 survey by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

A few things about this mystery are known. The gender gap between boys' and girls' academic achievement has long existed in the black community. Nearly twice as many black women as black men attend college, according to the latest numbers from the Department of Education. But, in recent years, the slippage broadened to the white middle class. American Council on Education researcher Jacqueline King has produced data showing startling shifts among middle-class white college students. Only eight years ago, the campus gender balance for this group (incomes $30,000 to $70,000) was an even 50-50. As of last year, the proportion of white men had dropped to 43 percent. In middle-class suburbs, it's common to hear parents wondering out loud why their daughters go to the colleges of their choice while their sons struggle to get into second-tier schools.

What's happening in those homes is itself something of a puzzle. Patrick Welsh, an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., offered the outside world a glimpse in a piece he wrote for The Washington Post in 2003. Welsh described his bafflement over privileged white boys who felt obligated to party too much and study too little. Their most obvious role models for how seriously to take life appeared to be popular rap artists.

But, as Welsh pointed out, even these underperforming boys nearly always landed a spot in some college. That's due to one of the best-kept secrets in college admissions today: the affirmative action campaign to recruit men. Most admissions directors sifting through stacks of applications from men and women can only sigh at the contrast. The average male applicant has far lower grades, writes a sloppy essay, and sports few impressive extracurriculars. Those admissions directors face a choice: Either admit less-qualified men or see the campus gender balance slip below 40 percent male, a point at which female applicants begin to look elsewhere.

What little research has been done on this shift in the gender gap falls roughly into two camps--the feminists and the pragmatists. The feminist viewpoint is summarized in "Raising and Educating Healthy Boys: A Report on the Growing Crisis in Boys' Education." This study, performed by the Educational Equity Center at the Academy for Educational Development and published last March, effectively asks: Why can't boys be more like girls? Boys are locked into a masculinity box, the feminist researchers say. Most boys stay inside that box, living by a macho boy code that precludes developing the "language of feelings" needed to express themselves or relate to teachers. Boys who break out of this box are doomed to a life of teasing and being bullied. In other words, young boys never get sufficiently acquainted with their feelings to write A-rated essays.

Expecting boys to become more like girls, however, will strike parents of boys as a bit odd—especially liberal parents who swore they'd never give their children violent toys, only to watch their sons mold clumps of clay into submachine guns.

The pragmatists, mostly male researchers, peer inside the school door and see a feminized world that needs tweaking. Professor Jeffrey Wilhelm, co-author of Reading Don't Fix No Chevys, decries the dearth of boy-friendly reading material. Most literature classes demand that students explore their emotions (not a strong point for boys).

Other pragmatists point to the simple things: Basing grades on turning in homework on time guarantees lower grades for boys. Studies consistently show boys have more trouble than girls turning in homework on time. Some educators and parents explain this by saying that many boys simply forget or decline to turn in completed homework. Here's the boy-thinking: If I answered the homework question to my satisfaction, the task is done. Why turn it in? If you're the parent of a girl, that may sound bizarre. It isn't. Parents of slumping boys know differently.

THE PROBLEM WITH these theories is that they can't explain the rare cases in which schools have managed to keep boys' learning on par with that of girls. The Education Trust, a Washington-based education reform group that looks after the education interests of less privileged students, scoured the nation for gender success stories and turned up Indian River School District in rural Delaware. Indian River's Frankford Elementary appears to be an unlikely candidate for achieving any sort of academic success, let alone overcoming the gap between boys' and girls' achievement: 76 percent of the students qualify for subsidized lunches, 22 percent land in special education, and 64 percent are either Latino or black. Most of the Latinos are sons and daughters of Mexican agricultural workers who have limited English skills.

And, yet, here's Frankford's 2004 state report card for fifth-graders: 100 percent of boys and 95 percent of girls meet state reading standards. When I contacted them, school leaders expressed pride at their success in educating poor and minority students but appeared bewildered when told they had conquered the gender gap. Turns out their education strategy had nothing to do with getting boys in touch with their feelings or eliminating late-homework penalties. Rather, the strategy was a roll-up-your-sleeves effort initially sparked by a state campaign to improve literacy skills. Students whose problems were identified early received extra help from teachers. A special eye was kept on black boys. Most important, no excuses were accepted--when boys fell behind, teachers weren't allowed to consider that the norm.

While the national research into this issue is dismal, a handful of individual researchers have turned up some important discoveries. The culprit they identify has little to do with the influence of anti-academic hip-hop music, too many video games, or the sometimes exasperating tendency of boys to be boys. The key appears to be literacy skills.

Ken Hilton is an unlikely pioneer in gender-gap research. Hilton is a statistician who works out of a small cinderblock office in the administration building of the Rush-Henrietta schools in the suburbs of Rochester, New York. Six years ago, then-school board member Dirk Hightower showed up to see his son inducted into the National Honor Society. What he saw was a long line of girls moving across the stage: "I heard nothing but heels clicking," Hightower recalls. Concerned about the obvious gender gap, Hightower asked Hilton what was going on. Hilton couldn't answer Hightower's question, but vowed to get to the bottom of it. Hilton is a pocket-protector kind of guy who arrives at his half-basement office every Sunday to catch up on work. When he promises results, he delivers. Now, six years later, Hilton has some of the best research into the gender gap available anywhere. (Though it hasn't been published or peer- reviewed.) And he seems barely aware of this. I'm the first national reporter even to inquire.

Hilton conducted a series of studies, culminating in the summer of 2004 with a large survey of 21 school districts across New York state. Twelve were blue- collar and middle-class districts just like Rush-Henrietta. Another nine were among the wealthiest school districts in the state. Here is what Hilton found: In the first group, the blue-collar and middle-class schools, girls not only excelled in verbal skills but each year put a little more academic distance between themselves and the boys. Even in math, long thought to be a male stronghold, girls did better. But the real leap for girls was in reading. Another significant find: In these districts, the big hit boys take in reading happens in middle school, as they hit puberty. That's when a modest gap in verbal skills evident in elementary school doubles in size. As for the wealthy schools, more on them later.

Combine Hilton's local research with national neuroscience research, and you arrive at this: The brains of men and women are very different. Last spring, Scientific American summed up the best gender and brain research, including a study demonstrating that women have greater neuron density in the temporal lobe cortex, the region of the brain associated with verbal skills. Now we've reached the heart of the mystery. Girls have genetic advantages that make them better readers, especially early in life. And, now, society is favoring verbal skills. Even in math, the emphasis has shifted away from guy-friendly problems involving quick calculations to word and logic problems.

Increasingly, teachers ask students to keep written journals, even as early as kindergarten. What gets written isn't polished prose, but it is important training, say teachers, some of whom rely on the book Kid Writing, which advocates the use of writing to teach children basic skills in a host of subjects. The teachers are only doing their jobs, preparing their students for a work world that has moved rapidly away from manufacturing and agriculture and into information-based work. It's not that schools have changed their ways to favor girls; it's that they haven't changed their ways to help boys adjust to this new world.

Suddenly, the anecdotal evidence becomes obvious. Open the door of any ninth- grade "academy" that some school districts run—the clump of students predicted to sink in high school—and you'll see a potential football team. Nearly all guys. Ninth grade is where boys' verbal deficit becomes an albatross that stymies further male academic achievement. That's the year guys run into the fruits of the school-reform movement that date back to the 1989 governors' summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Democrats and Republicans vowed to shake up schools. One outcome of the summit is that, starting in ninth grade, every student now gets a verbally drenched curriculum that is supposed to better prepare them for college. Good goal, but it's leaving boys in the dust.

The findings of the other researchers all play roles here. The feminists are right to finger macho, anti-reading attitudes of boys, especially in blue- collar districts. Patrick Welsh isn't wrong to cite the influence of hip-hop music. It's just that these are lesser players within a larger landscape. Those who continue to argue that toxic American culture is to blame may be unaware that this is a phenomenon that afflicts many post-industrial Western countries. A 2002 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found low academic performance to be more of a problem among boys than girls in 19 of 27 countries. Special problems were found in Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. In 21 of the 27 countries, the number of women graduating from university exceeded the number of men.

But why are some boys faring better than others and a few schools managing to level the gender playing field? Hilton's research on the wealthiest schools is revealing. Girls still do better in verbal skills in those districts. But Hilton discovered an important distinction. When the wealthy boys enter middle school, they don't lose ground. And that holds steady through high school.

Why the smaller verbal gender gaps in upper-income families? Hilton can only feel his way on this one, in part by drawing lessons from his own family, which teems with educators. At nights and on weekends, Hilton saw his father reading, just as the boys hitting puberty in the wealthiest districts see their well- educated fathers reading. If your father reads, it's not viewed as a sissy thing, as it's seen by many blue-collar students. Not only would that explain why the verbal gap doesn't widen for boys in the wealthiest districts, but it would also explain why the Harvards and Princetons and Stanfords have no trouble drawing talented men. Those schools run close to a 50-50 gender balance among undergraduates.

REVERSING THE ACADEMIC  underachievement among most boys may require an old- fashioned assault on poor reading skills. Frankford Elementary managed that, but even Indian River boys begin to lose ground in middle school, the black hole of U.S. education. Maybe Maryland has a partial answer. The state has been breaking out its test-score data by gender since 1992, which is why Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick is dismayed by the gender gaps she sees—72 percent of girls read at a proficient or advanced level by eighth grade, compared with 61 percent of boys.

Here's part of the Grasmick plan: Take existing comic books and graphic novels deemed to cover academic disciplines and sprinkle them around classrooms. Let the boys believe they're pulling a fast one on the teachers by grabbing a quick read. Sounds bizarre, but it's based on good hunches: Boys who become successful readers in high school often attribute that success to making a transition from comic books to school books in late elementary school. Why not offer curriculum-as-comic books? It just might work. It also might not. But at least Maryland is trying, which is better than most states.

Another solution lies with teachers' colleges, which, to date, have been part of the problem. Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently!, says his survey of education classes reveals that 99 percent fail to offer courses on biological learning differences. There is decent research on this, but it is rarely passed along to teachers.

Any solution to the problem must begin by acknowledging that it exists. And, unfortunately, the crisis in boys' education is woefully underexposed. Partly, that is understandable. Reporters look around their world and see men dominant in academics, business, and politics. What's to worry about? Plenty, as it turns out. Nearly all those male leaders now at the top of their field earned at least a bachelor's degree. And, in today's information world, a bachelor's degree is just a starting point. But, each year, fewer and fewer men make it to that starting line. That's a problem that merits attention--at least more than five articles.

Richard Whitmire, a USA Today editorial writer, researched this issue while a fellow with the Journalism Fellowships in Child and Family Policy at the University of Maryland. This article appeared in the January 23, 2006, issue of the magazine.