When Peg Tyre’s cover story on boys falling precipitously behind girls in school appeared in Newsweek in 2006, many journalists and feminists cried foul. The real crisis, they said, was that poor black and Latino boys were underachieving. In other words: the problem wasn’t gender, but race and class. In fact, some said, rich and middle-class boys were doing just fine, being shepherded into top schools and, after graduating, outperforming girls. Of course, Tyre also had her supporters, who blamed the so-called “boy crisis” on feminism.
Get ready for deja vu. Tyre has expanded her article into a book, The Trouble with Boys. In it, she says that all boys are facing an educational crisis and that the problem isn’t feminism. Here, she talks about what she thinks the real issues are and how parents can handle them. – Kara Jesella
Did you expect the kind of criticism your Newsweek piece got and was there any credence to your critics’ position?
I was very surprised by the people pushing back on the story, because I didn’t come to the story as an advocate one way or the other, just as a reporter who started to look at national data at how broadly boys were not thriving across race and class lines. There are people who feel we shouldn’t focus on boys, that it’s somehow part of the feminist backlash. I don’t agree with that. I try to lay out in the book why I think this is an important issue for all people, whatever their political orientation. I consider myself a strong feminist and I am the mother of sons. I don’t feel that my looking at this is taking oxygen away from very serious issues that still need to be addressed, like gender equity in the workplace, that there are not enough women in Congress, equal pay for equal work. These are real issues, but we need to separate them from what is happening to schoolboys.
But is it true that this is really a “boy crisis” or a “some boy crisis”?
I think if you look at what’s happening to black boys and Latino boys it’s astonishing. They’re going over the cliff. When you break down achievement by race, boys of every racial category still do worse than girls. The way they underachieve is different depending on their socio-economic background. Poor boys underachieve by almost all measures. Boys in very affluent school districts tend to lag behind girls in reading and writing. Time was when girls lagged behind in math and science. But girls caught up in math and science and boys continue to lag in reading and writing. We’re in the middle of the information age and boys are doing very poorly in reading and even worse in writing. They’re falling backwards.
Until a few decades ago, girls were doing significantly worse than boys in school. Has elementary and high school education really changed that much in a way that privileges girls or has the message we’ve given to girls about our expectations for their achievement changed?
School has changed a great deal in the last twenty years. There is less recess – in some places, first graders get twenty minutes of free play all day. There is more seat work. More emphasis on fine motor skills. Federal education reform has created a more narrow curriculum with less time for science, art, and history. The curriculum is much more accelerated, too. And more kids than ever – boys and girls – are supposed to be on the college track.
Yes, it’s more inclusive to girls. The ways schools changed to help girls have hurt boys – that’s not true. I don’t see a lot of good evidence, though I hear people say that wherever I go.
You note that a majority of the issues you discuss – from the acceleration of academics and elementary school work that is developmentally inappropriate to schools not having recess – hurt not just boys, but girls, too. And in your chapter on single-sex schools, you say “Good teaching for boys turned out to look a lot like good teaching.” So why do boys have it worse? And is this really a broader educational crisis?
Well, it’s not a crisis until your son brings home his report card. But seriously, one in five parents of boys has talked to their doctor about their sons’ emotional issues. Boys, across race and class lines, underperform girls. Two and a half million more girls than boys go to college. These are profound changes in our culture that will have massive implications for our daughters and our sons.
You talk about the ways in which academic acceleration – kids going to academic preschools, entering preschools earlier, being expected to master skills at earlier grade levels than they used to – hurts boys. How?
There are a lot of so-called educational experts who prey off parental anxiety and say the earlier we introduce kids to preschool, the smarter they’ll be. That by age four, kids are on or off the bus to Princeton. But there is good research to suggest that too much academics too early can actually hurt kids’ achievement in the long run – and the kids whose achievement is most depressed are male. Preschool used to be about making friends, coping with a group dynamic and figuring out how to get your raincoat on by yourself. Now it’s about teaching Mandarin and computation. We have ramped up preschool programs that are supposed to give early academic enrichment, but it creates negative experiences for a lot of little boys.