Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why boys fall behind in education

Jul 11, 2012

by David Brooks

Henry V is one of Shakespeare's most appealing characters. He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older.

But suppose Henry went to an American school. By about the third week of nursery school, Henry's teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry "had another hard day today". He was disruptive during circle time.

By mid-year, there would be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry's parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it and they find school much easier.

By elementary school, Henry would be lucky to get 20-minute snatches of recess. During one, he would jump off the top of the jungle gym, and, by the time he hit the ground, the supervising teachers would be all over him for breaking the safety rules.

He would get in a serious wrestling match with his buddy Falstaff, and, by the time he got him in a headlock, there would be suspensions all around.

First, Henry would withdraw. He would decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies, and he would just disengage.

In kindergarten, he would wonder why he just couldn't be good. By junior high, he would lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet.

Then he would rebel. If the official high school culture was uber-nurturing, he would be uber-crude. If it valued cooperation and sensitivity, he would devote his mental energies to violent video games and aggressive music. If college wanted him to be focused and tightly ambitious, he would exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture.

He would have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realise them. Day to day, he would look completely adrift.


This is roughly what is happening in schools across the Western world.

The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: One who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who do not fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling. Far from all, but many of the people who do not fit in are boys.

A decade or so ago, people started writing books and articles on the boy crisis. At the time, the evidence was disputable and some experts pushed back.

Since then, the evidence that boys are falling behind has mounted. The case is closed. The numbers for boys get worse and worse. By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores.

The eminent psychologist Michael Thompson mentioned at the Aspen Ideas Festival a few days ago that 11th-grade boys are now writing at the same level as eighth-grade girls.

Boys used to have an advantage in maths and science, but that gap is nearly gone. Boys are much more likely to have discipline problems.

An article as far back as 2004 in the magazine Educational Leadership found that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D's and F's.


Some colleges are lowering the admissions requirements just so they can admit a decent number of men. Even so, men make up just over 40 per cent of college students.

Two million fewer men graduated from college over the past decade than women. The performance gap in graduate school is even higher.

Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things.

After all, boys are falling behind not just in the United States, but in all 35 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they cannot pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he will sit quietly at story time.

If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they cannot pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.


Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: Not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honour environmental virtues, but teachers who honour military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programmes that work like friendship circles, but programmes that work like boot camp.

The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don't fit the ethos get left out.

Henry has a lot going on inside. He is not the unfeeling, uncommunicative, testosterone-driven cretin of common boy stereotype.

Little Prince Hal is just inspired by a different honour code. He does not find much inspiration in school, but he should.


David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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