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For many years I have been speaking and writing about the difficulties boys have had in schools. I devoted a chapter on the subject in my book, Doing The Right Thing: A Teacher Speaks. Much of this comes from what I wrote there. In addition, A NYT article dated October 22, 2015 adds a new factor, disadvantage.

A little boy came home from his first day at kindergarten and said to his mother, “What’s the use of going to school? I can’t read, I can’t write, and the teacher won’t let me talk.”

The boy’s mother took him to a psychologist….

The receptionist says: “Doctor, there is a boy here who thinks he is invisible.” 

The Psychologist responds: “Tell him I can’t see him right now.”

And there is the problem. Can we really see boys and their issues?

My son was born in 1990. By the time he was approaching kindergarten, we had to decide if he was to be one of those male kindergarten redshirts, held back a year to “mature.” We decided against it. We felt holding him back would, indeed, hold him back. What happened was eye opening. In preschool and kindergarten, teachers thought he was “hyperactive.” My wife is a clinical psychologist. She and I knew better. He was a boy. He acted differently than our daughter from his earliest moments. Eventually, we were proven right. He did fine in school. He was constantly described as very mature. A top student and athlete, he is a third year medical student at Tulane Medical School as I write this.

During the 1990s, a great deal of emphasis was placed on improving the education of girls. We worked hard on that reform and changed classroom behaviors to allow girls to be more assertive and improve their work. It was all good.

As part of that movement I was one of three Scarsdale Schools staff members to go to a conference on boys held at Wellesley College. Of the three, I was the only teacher. While in one workshop I heard volumes about the problems of female students being harassed and bullied and intimidated by aggressive boys who needed to be “fixed.” A bit nervous about presenting a different view, I stood up and recited a summary of what I had learned over the previous years of investigation in my school and from additional research. After much criticism and claims I must be fabricating evidence, I was summarily dismissed.

What had I found? In my classes, the boys’ final grades were anywhere from three to five points lower than the girls’. Overall, that meant the difference between a B- and B or B+. I followed the class of 2002 and found that from grades 9-12 approximately two-thirds of the bottom third of the class were boys and two-thirds of the top third were girls. This corresponded to the almost 3:1 ratio of girls to boys as valedictorians and salutatorians in the county of Westchester, NY.

Obviously something was up.

IN 2008: 137 women graduated college for every 100 men and 130+ women earned master’s degrees for every 100 men

(National Center for Education Statistics)

IN 2010: 185 women graduated from college for every 100 men

(The Bureau of Labor Statistics)


  • Boys are greatly outnumbered in every extracurricular activity outside of sports.
  • By twelve years of age, boys are almost twice as likely to have repeated at least one grade.
  • Boys comprise the majority of permanent high school drop- outs.
  • Boys are approximately three times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD or ADD and are ten times as likely to be referred for possible ADHD/ ADD as girls.
  • Boys are more than twice as likely to be suspended from school.
  • Boys are more than three times as likely to be expelled from school.

Researchers concluded that because of changes in the educational system, the average boy of fifty to seventy-five years ago would have been very likely diagnosed with ADHD today, especially if they were bored and gifted boys.

Overall changes in educational format and curricula as a result of NCLB and RTTT have been especially detrimental to boys’ learning. Among these are: more reading and writing at earlier ages, less physical and nonlinear learning, and the disappearance of gym and recess. The evidence shows that more schools have become less and less oriented to these boy strengths.

Verbally structured classrooms tend to decrease motivation and performance of boys. These results were especially found in middle and high schools with boys who had higher IQ scores and had earlier successes in elementary school. (Hey…that was I, grades nine to eleven!) Often too, the boredom of bright boys is misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Other researchers point more directly at early academics in K-2. Boys are not as reading/writing ready as girls. This has led to higher stress and failures, therefore diminishing boys’ motivation.

All the research points to the fact that boys simply learn better through experiential learning (“Kenntnis”) than learning about something through reading, whether print or computer-screen based (“Wissen- schaft”). Historically, boys’ learning has gone from physical apprenticeships, action, and practice to sitting in verbal/ written learning environments. The result is that normal fidgeting and physical movement, once necessary and normal, are now liabilities.

There are ways of reforming schools to take these issues into account, but they are not part of the No Child Left Behind, Race to The Top, Common Core and Standardized Testing “reform”. Over the years, even math problems have become more word oriented, for which girls’ brains are believed to have an advantage. ELA is theme based and often revolves around character feelings. Boys are more analytical and think more in terms of plot and action. Although the basic drilling for elementary reading skills works through fourth grade, the ELA curricula and practices in grades four through twelve have contributed to poorer boys’ results in those grades. In fact, although the test results of fourth-grade boys had improved, the twelfth grade results show that one in four boys does not read at a basic level of proficiency, as opposed to one in sixteen girls.

My son was stereotyped from an early age. Boys get the message that “typical boy behavior—loud, competitive, and physical–is bad, and that they need to become more like girls— quiet, cooperative, and gentle”. “Typical boy behavior” is often misdiagnosed as ADHD.

This occurs especially when the teacher first suggests ADHD testing. That occurs because most classroom settings are not boy-friendly enough; most teachers (predominantly female in the early grades) are not fluent in the needs of boys; and, especially now, too many K-1 classrooms are inappropriately, academically advanced.

In another example of stereotyping, African-American students, use of the sub-cultural “call and response” style of many inner-city males; physically active, loud, engaged, and enthusiastic learning is often perceived as angry and hostile. Most upper-middle-class secondary schools (where many teachers come from) stress higher, critical-thinking skills, conceptual thinking, and applications, while most lower-socioeconomic, secondary schools, stress safety, class management, and rote learning to achieve success on basic skills, as shown on national standardized tests.

The Common Core, Standardized Test, DOE, NCLB, RTTT reform movement, as it now stands, simply makes the situation regarding the education of boys even worse. The result is a lack of practice in the deeper understanding of material and the underlying skills for advancement, both to and in college. Today’s “reforms” have led to “more competent mediocrity”  and the growth of the “school to prison pipeline” in inner-city schools.

Today, Clair Miller adds, “Boys are falling behind. They graduate from high school and attend college at lower rates than girls and are more likely to get in trouble, which can hurt them when they enter the job market. This gender gap exists across the United States, but it is far bigger for poor people and for black people. As society becomes more unequal, it seems, it hurts boys more.”

New research from social scientists offers one explanation: Boys are more sensitive than girls to disadvantage. Any disadvantage, like growing up in poverty, in a bad neighborhood or without a father, takes more of a toll on boys than on their sisters. That realization could be a starting point for educators, parents and policy makers who are trying to figure out how to help boys — particularly those from black, Latino and immigrant families.

By the time boys from poor neighborhoods start kindergarten, they are already less prepared than their sisters. The gap keeps widening: They are more likely to be suspended, skip school, perform poorly on standardized tests, drop out of high school, commit crimes as juveniles and have behavioral or learning disabilities.

Boys tend to have more discipline problems than girls over all. But the difference is much bigger for black and Latino children — and more than half of the difference is because of poverty and related problems, the researchers found. For instance, while boys in well-off families have almost the same test scores as their sisters, the gap is more than three times as large in the most disadvantaged families, the study found. While well-off boys are 3.1 percentage points less likely than their sisters to be ready for kindergarten, the most disadvantaged boys are 8.5 percentage points less likely.

Problems in elementary school have long-term effects. Early suspensions are strongly correlated with not graduating from high school. The modern economy relies on skills like cooperation, empathy and resilience — and many boys are entering the work force poorly equipped to compete.

Though disadvantaged children are more likely to be in underperforming schools or neighborhoods with drugs and violence, this alone does not explain the gender gap, the researchers said. Even in the same neighborhood and schools and for children of the same race, the gender gap is wider in less-advantaged families.

Can we learn from all the research and institute real reform, not the “reformer style” we are currently engulfed by?

A few years ago, I heard Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz of Teacher’s College give a talk entitled “Using Culturally Responsive Pedagogy With Our Male Students.” She firmly stated that the approach to teaching boys, especially minority boys had to start with these HABITS OF MIND firmly established.

We must:

  • Recognize boy culture, especially minority street culture. If we dismiss their culture we dismiss them.
  • Use boys’ experiences positively to think of new ways to reach them.
  • Empower boys intellectually, socially, and politically by using specific cultural references to positively impact knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
  • Encourage the use of their boy based learning styles.

And we must:

  • Teach the whole child. Every child.

The “Reforms” of education we have had thrown down our throats have ignored the research. It is time we used the research and matched schools and classrooms with the findings.