The world has gotten more verbal; boys haven’t.
That quote pretty much sums up the “why” of Richard Whitmire’s new book, Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons From an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind (AMACOM, January 2010, $24.95 retail). Of course, the book is about much more than that: Whitmire first makes the case that boys are falling behind in schools, then tries to examine the reasons for the performance gaps, the areas in which boys are falling behind the most, and potential solutions to the problem.
Before I go any further, let me assure you that I know this is a touchy subject, with all sorts of political and personal agendas tied to it, and it’s certainly not a simple problem with a simple solution. Years ago, I remember hearing in the news that schools are biased against girls. It was counterintuitive—predominantly female teachers showed biases towards boys?—but with the way our society often confers advantages to men, I didn’t really question it. Plus, I was out of college, didn’t have kids myself, so the whole thing seemed less relevant at the time. Whitmire, formerly a writer for USA Today, admits that he reported on the story uncritically as well, and it wasn’t until the years following that he discovered that boys are falling behind girls at significant rates, and it’s gotten worse in recent years. Now, I have two daughters just entering school, and when I first read about Why Boys Fail in BookPage, I was very curious: is it true? And if so, then what?
The evidence that Whitmire cites repeatedly through the book is pretty compelling:
- boys have lower grade-point averages than girls
- more girls earn academic honors, even in traditionally boy-dominated fields like math and science
- more boys repeat grades, drop out, get expelled, or have disciplinary issues
- more girls are graduating high school
- more girls are entering college
- of those who do enter college, girls are more likely to graduate within six years
- women are earning more higher education degrees
That’s a snapshot, and Whitmire tries to discredit various arguments that the failures are primarily due to socioeconomic class, race, lack of male teachers, or video games. The gap between boys and girls can be observed within the same families, and is true of boys across class and race boundaries. And it’s nothing new, either: the research cited starts back about a decade ago, but there hasn’t been a wider investigation into it. Whitmire’s biggest goal with his book, it seems, is to start a federal investigation into the issue, much the way Australia did when they first discovered the problem. But in the U.S. there’s an “ideological stalemate” which Whitmire largely blames on Christina Hoff Sommers’ book The War Against Boys, published in 2000. In it, Sommers laid out the problems with gender gaps, and put the blame squarely on the shoulders of feminists; later books also were direct attacks on feminists as well. According to Whitmire, this has unfairly conflated the two issues, to the point that nobody wants to examine it too closely for fear of offending somebody. (But then he makes the curious comment that President Obama, “with his sensitivity to the plight of black boys,” would be the ideal person to launch a research program—as if that wouldn’t be fraught with political conflicts.)
The issue of the gender gap really fascinated me and I would like to know whether it’s true. However, because there hasn’t been an in-depth investigation, not all of Whitmire’s conclusions and suggestions are based on solid evidence. Sometimes he falls back on anecdotes or guesswork (at one point he makes the comment that a particular question “can’t be answered with data” and relies on his own observations instead). I think there should have been a clearer separation of hard facts and opinions. The book is poorly edited: some of the statistics are quoted again and again, as if I need a review of Chapter One each time I pick up the book. So while I do think it is a potentially important problem, I wish there was a more coherent presentation of it.
That said, the single biggest factor Whitmire cites is literacy, and he does make some excellent points, some of which seem obvious in hindsight. The way schools work, literacy is taught in earlier grades but later it’s assumed. When you take high school biology, the biology teacher doesn’t make sure you know how to read: they simply want you to know the science. Same with math, history, or any other subject. Even English is more focused on the literature than the literacy. But if boys fail to master reading and writing early on, the problem just gets compounded in middle school and high school. Whitmire draws a comparison between giving boys extra help with reading and tailoring math and science courses to be more attractive to girls—if a particular method works better for one gender than the other, why not give it a shot?
It’s a very complex issue and I’m still processing the information. The book has convinced me that there is a gender gap in education, but I’m not quite as sure about the why and even less so about what the solution should be. But there are wider implications, not least of which is that it’s harder to get a job with only a high school degree in today’s world than it used to be, and the ability to read with comprehension and write articulately is required in even entry-level positions.
The last chapter of Why Boys Fail is about Actions That Need to Be Taken, and many of Whitmire’s suggestions would be useful in any case: making high school more relevant, volunteering for tutoring programs, turning boys into early readers (including my favorite: using comics as a literacy tool). The gender gap will certainly be a difficult problem to overcome, all the more so because of the political and ideological debates it will stir up along the way, but hopefully this book will help pave the way for a better understanding.
I’m torn about whether to recommend Why Boys Fail: having read the book, I believe it’s an important issue worth discussing, but the book is a bit frustrating to read. I think ultimately I hope that people will at least give it a quick read-through, and that it sparks some discussion and closer examination of the problems and potential solutions.
Wired: The gender gap is a very significant topic with far-reaching implications.
Tired: Poor editing, repeated sections, and lazy guesswork make the book less than a joy to read.
Disclosure: AMACOM provided a copy of the book for review at my request.