Solving the ‘Boy Crisis’ in Schools

This past week, the National Council of Teachers of English announced the winners of this year’s Promising Young Writers competition. Out of hundreds of entries, 51 8th graders from a dozen states received awards. My son, Zachary, an 8th grader at Poly Prep, in Brooklyn, was one of them. Of the eight winners from New York State, he was the only boy. In fact, there were only six boys in the entire country who were winners.

NotFocusingI say this not as a proud parent (though I am) but as a concerned social scientist. Many concerned educators and media pundits have decried the “boy crisis” in schools — the fact that girls are surpassing boys in college attendance (about 60 percent of entering first-year students this year are female), achievement (girls have caught up in science and math, and far outpace boys in English and language), and behaviors (boys are far more likely to be retained, suspended, diagnosed with ADHD and get into fights).

But many of the proposed remedies for this crisis have little, if any, empirical foundation. Single-sex classes for white boys tend to flatten differences among boys and teach to stereotypes that are both insulting and limiting to boys. (Proponents imagine them as Dead Poets’ Society, but they are just as likely to be Lord of the Flies.) There is some evidence that single-sex classes may have salutary effects for inner city minority boys.

Engaging more male teachers as role models may sound laudatory, but there is no evidence that sex of teacher has an independent effect on boys’ achievement.

NotRaisingHandThese reforms typically rest on shaky biological foundations that boys are girls are so fundamentally different that they need Mars and Venus classrooms — with different class configurations, desk arrangements, teaching styles and even temperature settings (boys at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, girls at 72 degrees Fahrenheit).

What social scientists actually know is that the small mean differences between boys and girls on any measurable trait pale in comparison with the enormous variations among boys and among girls.

We have to ask why so few boys were selected. Some will argue that since students were nominated by their English teachers (who are usually female) the teachers simply didn’t “see” boys’ submissions as worthy of consideration in a national competition.

Not Paying AttentionI think the social scientific evidence leads in a different direction. Boys’ underachievement is driven by masculinity — that is, what boys think it means to be a man is often at odds with succeeding in school. Stated most simply, many boys regard academic disengagement as a sign of their masculinity.

How little they care about school, about studying, about succeeding — these are markers of manhood in peer groups of middle and high school boys around the country.

In a brilliant ethnography, psychologist Wayne Martino observed middle school boys and girls. When he asked boys why they were doing poorly in English they said things like:

“Reading is lame, sitting down and looking at words is pathetic,” or “Most guys who like English are f****ts.” Another boy noted:

I find English hard. It’s because there are no set rules for reading texts. . . English isn’t like math where you have rules on how to do things and where there are right and wrong answers. In English you have to write down how you feel and that’s what I don’t like.

Compare this to the comment of one of the girls in the same class:

I feel motivated to study English because… you have freedom in English — unlike subjects such as math and science — and your view isn’t necessarily wrong. There is no definite right or wrong answer and you have the freedom to say what you feel is right without it being rejected as a wrong answer.

It is not the school experience that “feminizes” boys, but rather the ideology of traditional masculinity that keeps boys from wanting to succeed. “The work you do here is girls’ work,” one boy commented to a different researcher. “It’s not real work.” Or, as Catharine Stimpson, Dean of the Graduate School at NYU once put it, “Real men don’t speak French.”

If we want to understand boy’s underachievement in writing, literature, and languages — if we want to understand why so few boys won this year’s Promising Young Writers award — we need look no further than the way boys perceive these subjects. We must make academic engagement a sign of manhood — which we can only do by interrupting those other voices that tell our young boys to tune out.

This article originally appeared on The HuffPost Blog

2 thoughts on “Solving the ‘Boy Crisis’ in Schools”

  1. I wonder when this ideology of academic engagement no longer being a sign of manhood changed in our cultural history. For centuries in our history in the US and Europe, we had the opposite problem, where academic engagement was thought of as only a “Man’s” interest. Now, things seem to have flipped.

  2. . I feel the problem has “not been looked at” in terms of much differential treatment that increases as we go down the socioeconomic ladder and more time in those environments. If anyone looks in those areas, they cannot help but see how the numbers of boys problems diminish greatly as we go up the socioeconomic ladder, even there they also falling slightly behind their female peers. As we go down the socioeconomic ladder, the numbers increase greatly. We need to also look at “much differential treatment of boys and girls beginning from infancy onward through adulthood. It is amazing to me that such differential treatment has not be looked at by the researchers. I imagine there are two reasons:
    1. The belief in genetics has blinded researchers to the great social causes of learning, motivation and academics.
    2.The present view of average stress sees stress as only occurring in some present situation, event, or work. We need to see how our average stress is made up many layers of past, present, future – experiences, fears, preparations for defense, needs, values of others, a host of unresolved mental work that remains with us we each carry as individuals as an average that take up real mental energy from thinking, learning, motivation to learn, and affects our mental/emotional health.
    I developed a theory on the Male Crisis that shows how treatment given Males to make them tough is hurting academic growth. To understand this we must redefine average stress as many layers of mental work that take up real mental energy. Picture an upright rectangle showing our full mental energy. Now begin at the bottom drawing in narrowly spaced, horizontal lines to represent many layers of past present future experiences *aggressions given children (that create mental conflict) values of self/others; anything creating unresolved mental work or anxiety. All are being dealt with as many layers of mental work; stop about half way. The space leftover shows leftover ability to think and learn. This shows just how environments and “differential treatment” greatly affect thinking and learning not genetics. This Figure on my learning theory is for all to have.
    The problem is more complex than school curriculum or boy chemistry. We need to stop looking at where boys are in life, character, and behavior and begin looking at how boys are treated from infancy very differently from us as girls. We need to see how the more aggressive treatment they are given from infancy by parents, teachers, peers is creating more learning problems and less than correct behavior or care for authority and school.
    To understand this, “we must redefine our average stress as many layers of mental work we carry with us that take away real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think, learn, concentrate, and enjoy the learning process. This differential treatment creates very real differences in learning by individual and by group.
    The problem involves two entirely different treatments of Males and Females as early as one year of age and increases in differential treatment. This is creating the growing Male Crisis. The belief Males should be strong allows aggressive treatment of Males as early as one year, designed to create more layers of agitation, fear, and tension, so they will be prepared to fight, defend, and be tough. This is coupled with much “less” kind, stable, (very little verbal interaction) and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. This increases over time and continued by society from peers, teachers and others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance from parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; lags in communication, lower social vocabulary, poor sentence structure; also higher average stress: more layers of mental agitated conflicts and fears taking away real mental energy that hurt learning and motivation to learn; also more activity due to need for stress relief; also more social/emotional distance from adults/teachers, defensiveness and wariness of others further hindering emotional and social growth; and higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on pencil and tighter grip) that hurts writing and motivation to write. It creates much lag in development creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also society gives Males love and honor (essential needs for self-worth) only on condition of some achievement or status. This was designed to keep Male esteem and feelings of self-worth low to keep them striving and even give their lives in time of war for small measures of love and honor. Males not achieving in school or other are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not an option for fear of coddling. Many Males thus falling behind in academics then turn their attention toward video games and sports to receive small measures of love/honor not received in the classroom. The belief boys should be strong and the false belief in genetics that denies any connection with differential treatment and lower academics, lower esteem, and other problems over-rides all good sense when it comes to raising boys today.
    As for reading and wrting, we need high social vocabulary, social experience with sentence structure, and “lower average stress to perform the abstract skill of reading: decoding, visualizing, organizing, reaching back into our social vocabulary to learn new words in print, and enjoying the process. Boys are deprived in these areas due to much less care, interaction, and more aggressive treatment in general.
    I feel the shows of masculinity, misbehavior are pretty much copouts to both show separation from failure in school and to gleam small measures of love and honor from peers. The defensiveness from authority is really pretty straight forward, especially in lower socioeconomic areas where strength, power, and status hold very real currency in those areas. So for those students it not just misbehavior but for them, a tug of war or fight for minimum feelings of self-worth from a continual fight they feel outside the classroom as well as in.
    Since we as girls by differential treatment are given much more positive, continual, mental, emotional/social support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls compared with boys. We enjoy much more continuous care and support from infancy through adulthood and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things: lower average stress for more ease of learning. We do enjoy much freedom of expression from much protection that makes us look less stable at times; we enjoy lower muscle tension for better handwriting/motivation; higher social vocabulary; lower average stress for reading/motivation; much more positive, trust/communication with adults, teachers, peers; and much more support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the more amplified the differential treatment from a young age and increased and more differentiated over time. Now with girls and women taking over many areas of society, we are enjoying even more lavishing of love and honor, while boys and men still treated to be tough are failing more and are being given even more ridicule and abuse by society and yes, also by girls and women. My learning theory and article on the Male Crisis will go to all on request or can be read from my home site at

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