Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind

Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind

by Richard Whitmire

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It's no longer a case of "boys being boys." By every statistical measure, boys are falling steadily and alarmingly behind in school. Why Boys Fail draws on a wealth of data, interviews, case studies, and clearheaded analysis to both document the problem and uncover the real culprit driving the academic slide of boys: they just don't have the reading and writing

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It's no longer a case of "boys being boys." By every statistical measure, boys are falling steadily and alarmingly behind in school. Why Boys Fail draws on a wealth of data, interviews, case studies, and clearheaded analysis to both document the problem and uncover the real culprit driving the academic slide of boys: they just don't have the reading and writing skills needed to keep up. And the book shares some good news in the form of schools that are getting it right by implementing practical strategies and programs for boosting literacy among the entire student body-boys and girls alike.

Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Jay Wise
Whitmire, a highly respected former USA Today education writer, creates a thorough, thought-provoking look at the increasing achievement gap between boys and girls. Questioning the usefulness of federally mandated tests based on reading comprehension and verbal skills—abilities young men often struggle with at seemingly younger ages—his conclusion is a simple one: "The world is becoming more verbal; boys aren't." Why, then, does this gap persist? According to the author, entrenched attitudes that focus on race and class at the expense of gender make research into differences between the genders too hot to handle, even though the problem has been proven to exist in upper income communities from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Wilmette, Illinois. Family wealth and ethnicity are not the culprits but rather a combination of brain development and lack of literacy skills. Males tend to pick up verbal skills at later ages than females, while school curricula shift from the phonics and reading instruction boys need in the upper elementary and middle school grades to grammar and literature. Using a combination of statistics and published studies (nearly all from Australia as this issue has largely been ignored in the U.S.), Whitmire describes programs that both have succeeded and failed in raising boys' academic performances and calls for ongoing, federally funded gender research. This engaging read, reminiscent of a highly polished op-ed piece, offers arguments that could be used by librarians, social workers, teachers, and other youth advocates to fund literacy and related programs for boys. Reviewer: Jay Wise
From the Publisher

“Armed with data, interviews, case studies, and analysis Richard Whitmire explores why boys fail in school…An eye-opening read for educators and parents.” —District Administration magazine

Selected as one of the Top 5 Educational Books by Literacy News.

"… excellent overview of the subject, examining how environmental factors, school policies, and parenting approaches can lead to gender gaps in education.” --Literacy News

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Meet the Author

RICHARD WHITMIRE is a former editorial writer for USA Today and President of the National Educational Writers Association. A highly recognized and respected education reporter, his commentaries have been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Republic, U.S. News & World Report, Politico, Washington Monthly, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Education Week. He also appeared on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition to discuss boy troubles. He is the author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.

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At first glance, it might appear that the ‘‘boy troubles’’ are

on their way to being solved. Much has changed since the original

publication of Why Boys Fail nearly two years earlier, and many of

those changes appear to be positive. At that time, the suggestion that

boys were in trouble and falling behind in school was hotly debated,

with many people including national feminist groups denying that boys

were in trouble. After the book was published, I debated doubters at

the National Press Club, at a panel at the American Enterprise Institute,

and on the pages of numerous education journals.

Today, those counterarguments have pretty much washed away, partly

due to the recession, which has hit men so much harder than women. At

one point, nearly 80 percent of the job losses were among men, in part

because they held jobs that required less education. It was a ringing re-

minder of how much better educated women have become. Reflecting

that situation are the obvious gender imbalances on college campuses,

with more campuses spilling over the already uncomfortable threshold of

60 percent women. One speech I gave on this topic was at the College of

Charleston in South Carolina, where there are twice as many female as

male students. The dilemma has become embarrassingly visible, which

makes denying the problem a losing argument.

In August 2010, the Atlantic ratcheted up the debate with a cover

story titled ‘‘The End of Men,’’ which explored the reasons the world

seems to have tilted in favor of women.1 Writer Hanna Rosin pointed out

something that may surprise many: These days, parents prefer having girls

over boys. Why not go with the winners? The cover story illustrated that

the mainstream press no longer considers the boy problems exotic issues

to debate. Rather, newspaper reporters and magazine writers have ac-

cepted the basic premise and prefer to focus on more targeted issues, such

as the controversies surrounding how brains are wired: Do boys and girls

really learn differently and therefore need different classroom strategies or

even separate classes? (A lot hinges on answering that question correctly.)

There’s a sense that solutions to the boy problems are in the works.

Many educators worried about boys falling behind are encouraged by the

proliferation of single-sex classrooms or schools. As of spring 2011, more

than 500 schools across the country offered single-sex education options

to parents. The state of South Carolina alone was watching over 127

single-gender programs during the 2010–11 school year that involved

around 20,000 students. In many urban areas, where African-American

boys have fallen so far behind they risk disappearing, the best and brightest

hope appears to be single-sex charter schools. The all-boys high school

in Chicago run by Urban Prep Academies draws national press attention

for sending 100 percent of its graduates to college.

All that sounds encouraging. But in truth, one fundamental fact has

not changed: Every day, thousands of parents wake up and ask themselves,

Why have our sons lost interest in school?

Despite the fresh attention being paid to the problems of boys,

many of the key indicators tracking how boys are faring are getting

worse, not better. In the late winter of 2010, higher education consultant

Tom Mortenson, who is considered the dean of the ‘‘boy troubles’’

experts, put together a past-five-year tracking indicator targeting males.

What he found was a decline—and worse. ‘‘By these measures the state

of adult male welfare is generally worse today than it was five years ago,

and in fact is the worst ever in recorded history, which is generally since

World War II.’’2

According to Mortenson:

■ Male labor force participation rates are the worst they have

ever been in data since 1948.

■ The employed-population ratio for males is the worst it has

been in data since 1948.

■ The male unemployment rate is the highest it has ever been

in data since 1948.

■ The average number of weekly hours worked for men is the

lowest it has ever been in data back to 1956.

■ Median annual income for men peaked in 1973 and is currently

well below the 1973 level.

The consequences of these conditions are felt in the family lives of


■ The share of men 35 to 44 years and 45 to 54 years that have

never been married is at record highs in data dating back to


■ The share of young men living at home with their parents is

high by historical standards, but below past levels.

■ The share of children born to unwed mothers is at recordhigh

levels in data dating back to 1940. This finding holds

for all racial/ethnic groups.

■ The share of children with a father is near record lows in data

dating back to 1960.

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