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Boy Problems

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Peg Tyre is a staff writer for Newsweek and the mother of two school-age boys. In 2006, she wrote a cover story for Newsweek with the headline “The Boy Crisis,” which profiled a group of boys—all struggling readers—at an elementary school in Colorado. She found that while most people were still focused on the challenges of girls, as she had been for many years, boys were falling far behind in literacy, classroom achievement, and college enrollment, among others areas. The story became a topic of heated debate, met with accolades from concerned mothers of sons and criticism from feminist academics.

The Trouble With Boys cover

Tyre has since expanded her look at the issue in a recently published book, The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do. The book, based on interviews with hundreds of boys and their families, as well as gender-gap experts, details the problems boys are facing in school and argues for a new, boy-focused “gender revolution.”

We recently talked to Tyre, by e-mail, about her book and what her research might mean for schools and teachers.

What persuaded you to look into the problem with boys in school?

I covered education and social issues for Newsweek for seven years. I spent a lot of time in classrooms and a lot of time looking through the national data on boys and achievement—what I sometimes call “The Sad Facts." What I found is that across demographic lines, in nearly every community, boys are underachieving and disengaging from school.

As you mention in the book, boys and girls perform nearly equally on standardized tests, but boys struggle more in the classroom overall. For example (and I witnessed this in my own years as a teacher), boys get worse grades, are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, and are expelled more often. Why do you think this is?

I think the way we raise our children, educate our children, and the messages they get from the community have changed a great deal in the last 15 years. What I've come to believe from my research is that many of these changes—although well-intentioned—have been bad for boys. Little children get less and less unstructured free time. In school, we've had an acceleration of academics, a narrowing of the curriculum and, in an effort to boost test scores, many schools have a school schedule that isn't in line with what is developmentally appropriate for lots of children, especially boys. In our post-Columbine world, there is also less tolerance for boy behavior. Anti-violence policies, which are good, have evolved into anti-fantasy-violence policies, which I think deny boys (who, for better or worse, think and play a lot around violence) a chance to be their authentic selves in school.

Peg Tyre
Author Peg Tyre
—Greg Martin

In the book’s introduction, you explain that boys “continue to lag badly behind girls in reading and writing,” and suggest that “schools may be teaching them wrong.” What are some common mistakes schools are making? Describe how teachers can prepare reading and writing lessons that reach both girls and boys equally.

I want to be perfectly clear that I have nothing but respect and admiration for teachers. That said, it is hard for me to understand why schools ignore the persistent underachievement of boys in reading and writing. It used to be that girls lagged behind in math and science. Then teachers made a special effort to get girls on board in those subjects. Now girls do just about as well as boys in math and take more biology classes than boys! I think teachers need to take the same creative approach to boys’ reading and writing. If you are working in the lower grades, you might want to revisit the way you teach reading. It turns out that there is good research from the U.K. that suggests if you use phonics you can actually improve the achievement of all kids and buck the national trend by keeping boys from falling behind girls in reading. For example, in the U.K. they have begun to use an amped-up phonics program that involves manipulating refrigerator magnet letters on a magnet board, which has shown to be successful for boys. Secondly, you can sustain these achievements by getting more boy-friendly reading material in the classroom—humor, non-fiction, action, Captain Underpants, Sports Illustrated.

You can also help boys become better writers by opening up the parameters of what is an acceptable topic to write about. Many boys don't tend to spin out narratives in their heads about relationships. Often, they are oriented around plot and action. No one wants to correct three stories in a row about Star Wars but wouldn't you rather have a boy write passionately about a Wookie than in a stilted way about what he did this summer?

You say that teachers should allow boys to express themselves by engaging in the activities they enjoy, even if they mimic violence. You cite the example of a teacher who lets her students play swordfight with foam noodles. Is it possible that we have socialized young boys to tend toward aggression and violence rather than it being an innate predilection? Couldn’t teachers find ways to direct their energy rather than allowing aggressive play?

No one knows if it is nature or nurture, but it turns out that many little boys think a lot about violence and play a lot of fantasy games involving violence. Parents of boys will know what I'm talking about. You can forbid play guns and fantasy violence in your house and your sons will end up shooting each other with celery sticks at lunch. Teachers, though, have a challenge. How do they maintain an appropriate learning environment without alienating little boys? What I've seen is that, too often, "directing their energy" looks like being intolerant of what little boys are really like. When we tell boys to "turn that play sword into a wand," I suggest that, although we have good intentions, what we are teaching boys is that who they really are is unacceptable in the school environment. Boys start to express the opinion that school is "girly" and doing well, or getting the teachers' approval, is only for girls. And so begins that pattern of disengagement that continues right up to (the lack of) enrollment in college. In classrooms across the country, there are a lot of teachers who are trying to keep boys engaged by expanding their tolerance for noise, movement, letting little boys choose action books to read that include some swashbuckling—basically not keeping such a tight lid on the boys—and they are getting good results.

You state: “According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2003, 14 percent of boys across the nation were identified as having ADHD by the time they reached their sixteenth birthday. . . Either we are witnessing the largest pandemic in our country since influenza struck in United States in 1918, or school-age boys are being overidentified and overdiagnosed.” What might be the effects of overdiagnosis? In what ways do you think schools are contributing to misidentification?

Schools and teachers have a big role in what I see as the overmedication of boys for attention problems. The school day has less recess and fewer breaks. The curriculum is narrower and more test-focused. 39 percent of first graders have less than 20 minutes of recess a day. And instead of fixing the school schedule to make it more developmentally friendly to all children but especially boys, we try to fix the boy. I'm not Tom Cruise. I see that ADHD medication helps a lot of kids, but in some schools 20 percent of boys are taking these pills at lunch. Don't we think there might be something wrong with that? That our definition of "normal" behavior for boys has gotten a little too narrow?

How do we boost achievement among boys without hindering girls?

We move forward in this dialogue with great care. Many of the techniques that I write about in the book that teachers are using to help boys turn out to be good for girls as well.

Even so, do you have any concerns about possibly undoing the progress we have made in preventing gender discrimination against girls?

I am writing this book for smart, empowered teachers and parents who want the best for all our children. And as I say all through the book, we have to make sure that the supports we provide for boys don't hurt our terrific girls, who, in the last 40 years, have begun to do so very well. I am a grateful beneficiary of the feminist movement and a woman. I whole-heartedly support the achievements of girls and women. But we can't look at this as a seesaw—that girls are up and so boys are down. We need to develop programs that help both girls and boys do the very best they can in school.

What makes the school- achievement issue pertinent if men continue to excel in the workplace and get paid more than women?

I'd like to see more women in Congress. More women in the corporate boardrooms. Gender-equity issues in the workplace are frustratingly slow to change. But it is my firm belief that we cannot fight gender battles on the backs of 9-year-old school boys. There is good data that suggests that school boys are in trouble. And we need to address that. We know that an educated population is the cornerstone of our democracy. It is crucial that teachers strive to get the best out of all our children—boys and girls.

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