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.
Why have schools changed so much?
It’s partly a product of No Child Left Behind. The other thing that has changed is that we want all kids to go to college, which is really different. To make it in life without a college degree is hard and there’s a national mandate that all kids go to college. That’s really new.
In your book, a lot of experts note that teachers today – particularly female teachers, which most are – can’t deal with the way “normal” boys act in class, i.e. roughhousing, being loud, asking a lot of questions, not always paying attention, etc. But is this really true? I find it hard to believe that teachers in the past were any more tolerant of this kind of behavior.
School has changed a great deal. Our academic expectations are higher. Our curriculum is narrower. Our tolerance for boisterous play – post-Columbine – has evaporated. We have less recess. These are big factors that I argue are affecting our sons.
You talk about the myths our culture perpetuates about boys and how they are roadblocks to boys doing well in school. What are the messages that boys get about school and where do they get them from? How did school become something that girls are supposed to do well at but boys aren’t?
In the wake of Columbine, we’re uncomfortable with fantasy violence and play violence so we have zero-tolerance policies. But in many schools, zero-tolerance is taken way too far, and when a kid stretches his forefinger and goes “pew pew” we suddenly look at him like he is a potential Columbine. Many boys, whose natural fantasy life revolves around action and violence, start to feel like school is not for them. I think the increasing, grinding emphasis on seatwork and circle time and structured instruction is developmentally inappropriate for a lot of kids, many of them boys. They start to dread school. They don’t want to sit that long. Negative ideas about learning begin to take root.
Some of those anti-school ideas are validated in our homes. You have fathers who say, “I’ve never missed a soccer game” and you want to say, “Have you ever been to a PTA meeting?” Because the truth is that by and large the majority is women at the PTA. Who reads the bedtime stories? Who reads novels at home? I meet men at parties who say, “I don’t read. Talk to my wife.” That’s considered okay for men. What are we communicating to our sons?
You talk quite a bit about how many boys report that they don’t like to read and that part of the problem is that they get bored reading “girl books.” But has the reading curriculum really changed that much, or is it more, as you also note, that boys who are struggling with reading decide that it’s a girl thing, which makes it easier for them to give up on it?
“When a kid stretches his forefinger and goes “pew pew” we suddenly look at him like he is a potential Columbine.” You need to make sure that kids have all kinds of books available. Boys don’t. One boy told me he had to read Bee Season in his sophomore year of high school. That’s a hard book for a guy. I’m not saying boys should only read books about Nascar and girls should slog through Moby Dick. But knowing that boys are a grade-and-a-half behind girls in reading – even in affluent school districts, boys are behind girls – do you really want to assign Bee Season? The question is worth asking.
It seems like a lot of schools are actually making efforts to make things easier for boys: changing the qualifications for awards so boys will win more of them, lowering the admissions requirements for boys (but not girls). Won’t this hurt girls in the end?
The examples I cite in the book are the rare exceptions where schools are trying to re-engage boys in school. But I do think that the underachievement of boys will hurt girls and here’s how: girls grow up to be women and women want to marry guys with equal education and earning power. With 2.5 million more women than men in college this year – a gap which grows by 100,000 each year, I clearly see the way the underachievement of boys will hurt girls.
Why can’t boys who do badly in elementary school catch up in high school? And why can’t boys who do badly in high school catch up in college?
Reading. Once you fall behind in reading . . . I don’t want to alarm all the parents who have two-year-olds and want to whip out flashcards. Some kids learn to read early, some read late, some spontaneously, some not. Do not panic. But if your child is in fourth or fifth grade and more than a grade-and-a-half behind, the outcomes are not good. Most of the kids in the slow reading group, in whatever school you look at, are going to be boys.
What do you think parents who are worried about their sons’ progress in school should do?
Choose preschool carefully. Make sure it is not overly academic and that there is plenty of time for unstructured play. Make sure there is enough movement in the classroom and hands-on activities, like blocks and things to build with. Listen to your son. If he expresses fear, frustration, boredom or resentment towards school, it’s time to talk to the teacher. But before you go in for your conference, get some information. It’s not the teachers’ fault – they are probably doing the best they can. Ditto for parents. Know that there are larger cultural forces at work that are making it hard to be a schoolboy right now.