Boys fall behind girls in grades

Classroom cultures that favor female students and an increase in learning disabilities may explain the academic gap.

By Margarita Bauza / The Detroit News

PLYMOUTH — The nation’s boys are slipping and researchers say it’s time to worry.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, boys have fallen behind girls in academic achievement. Fewer boys than girls are enrolling in and graduating from college and fewer men have master’s and doctoral degrees.

While it may look like girls have won the gender wars, some wonder if something is amiss.

In the last 30 years, more boys than girls have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities, and more boys have dropped out of school.

“There is serious concern about what is happening to boys,” said Katherine Newman, a sociologist at Princeton University.

Experts offer a variety of reasons for the decline.

They say a disproportionate number of boys are diagnosed as learning disabled too early in life, a label that can later prove difficult to shed. Others argue that boys have been neglected in a large-scale societal effort to help girls. Others blame classroom cultures that have developed over time without accounting for the physically active nature of young boys.

“I think (elementary school) matches girls’ personalities,” said West Bloomfield mom Liz Fellows.

Whatever the reason, researchers agree the trend needs a closer look, in part because it will influence the ability of future men to make a living. “Since the 1970s, this has not been true,” Newman said. “This is a serious concern because the possibility of a well-paying job without education has become more of an issue.”

U.S. Department of Education data shows that dropout rates among boys have increased, and more boys are being diagnosed with learning disabilities.

Twelve percent of boys were dropouts in 2001, compared to 9 percent of girls, according to the department. In the 1970s, dropout rates for both boys and girls hovered around 14 percent.

Males are also more likely than girls to be identified with a learning disability. In 1999, about 21 percent of boys versus 14 percent of girls were diagnosed as having a learning disability. Those disabilities include visual impairment, deafness, mental retardation, emotional disturbance and speech impediments. Disabilities can also include diagnoses of attention deficit disorder, which researchers argue can be misdiagnosed in boys, who traditionally behave more aggressively and can be more distracted than girls.

Mirroring national trends, the percentage of males with bachelor’s degrees in Michigan has also fallen. In the 2001-02 year, more degrees were awarded to women by public and private higher education institutions in Michigan. Women received 27,629 compared to the 20,300 received by men.

Boys, girls develop differently

There is robust literature indicating that girls mature earlier than boys. Boys have traditionally been more physically active than girls and these characteristics are more pronounced earlier in life during the first years of school.Differences in learning behaviors were immediately clear for Fellows, the West Bloomfield mother of two boys and two girls. She recalls her boys were far more rambunctious and energetic at a young age than her two daughters. One of her sons was unable to sit down at a desk the whole time he was in elementary school. The other, she said, was a multitasker before the term was invented — he couldn’t focus on just one task.

In the meantime, her girls were model students — helping others with homework, following all the rules.

She received letters from teachers about her boys’ behavior and worried about them until she said the district began catching on.

At one point, Fellows felt teachers began to become aware of the learning differences between boys and girls. And that made a huge difference, she said.

“Boys process differently and have to be taught differently,” she said.

Finding learning models that apply to both boys and girls is the key to fixing this problem, experts say.

The classroom learning experience is much easier for girls than it is for boys, said teacher Rebecca Chadwick, an elementary school teacher in Livonia Public Schools.

Like Fellows, Chadwick sees marked differences in boys’ and girls’ behaviors in the classroom every day and understands that dealing with those poorly could have serious consequences.

Sending a child out to the hallway or the principal’s office is a common way of dealing with a child’s inability to sit still, she argues. But that child loses valuable hours of instruction when this happens, which in the long run aggravates the problem.

Testing troubles

Certifying a child as learning disabled too early has become a major problem, Chadwick said.

Testing children younger and younger has contributed to this problem, she added.

“The problem is that they are so conditioned that they’re going to fail in school, that they start believing it and it gets harder for them to change,” she said.

Newman, the Princeton sociologist, blames the current testing frenzy, which labels children as problematic earlier in life, for putting boys at a disadvantage. Boys develop more slowly than girls, she said. And though it evens out in later years, boys get more discouraged and less comfortable with school if they’ve fallen off track, she said.

“The catching-up process comes too late for the forms of labeling that we invoke in school,” she said.

Our system, she argues, holds a disproportionate number of boys back in school.

But Harvard education professor Wendy Lutrell rejects the idea that schools unduly harm boys.

“It’s true that they are more likely to have misbehavior result in disciplinary action and yes, they are more likely to be placed in special ed programs,” she said. “But the idea that boys are being mis-educated is also true for girls.”

Girls however, exhibit their relational issues later, when things like boasting and speaking your mind clash with ideas of docility and noncompetitiveness, which schools have traditionally rewarded in girls.

“Schools aren’t doing great in either score.”

Fixing the problem

The last several years have seen a surge in literature on the trouble plaguing boys.

Researchers say literature started to emerge following the publication of books like “Reviving Ophelia” and “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” which look into the failings of schools in relation to girls.

Books like “Raising Cain” and “Real Boys” were published soon after and are making their way onto the radar screens of educators.

The books look into the emotional life of boys and the difficulties boys and young men face in a world that offers little nurturing and asks boys to be tough. Many others have focused on the well-being of boys following the Columbine killings of 1999, where two teenagers staged an ambush on their classmates, killing 12 students and a teacher.

Researchers have also focused on investigating the increased attention deficit disorder diagnoses, and the culture of classrooms, which tend to punish temperament and things like boys’ inability to sit still.

Jennifer Davidson, an education consultant at Oakland Schools, is well versed in this issue. She visits classrooms and schools in Oakland County, lecturing and bringing attention to the fact that school learning environments need to change, she said.

“Educators are aware of it and are just starting to take steps in implementing changes in school cultures,” she said.

Those changes are as simple as incorporating more activity into classrooms, which can go a long way toward accommodating the temperament of boys.

While much work needs to be done, some say the current economic environment of budget cuts and frenzied testing have made issues like the well-being of boys less of a priority for the average teacher.

“They really would love to implement this stuff,” Davidson said.

Holly Bedwell, who has a son and a daughter in the Genesee County School district, said she wasn’t aware of research indicating boys were in trouble. Her son is struggling more than her daughter academically but she dismissed the idea that the school environment is to blame.

“When he was in the same grade level as her, they were doing the same,” she said. “I think it has more to do with his age and the fact that we just changed schools.”

Researcher Tom Mortenson, who published the report “What’s Wrong with the Guys?” in 2002, said he’s frustrated at what he feels is the lack of progress in helping boys.

“If I could do one thing, it’s go back to all colleges of education and require them to teach teachers that boys are different than little girls,” he said.

Mortenson argues that boys have been allowed to coast because “schools have been putting all their energy into girls.”

“People just stopped paying attention to boys,” Mortenson said.

“The women’s movement has accomplished extraordinary things. My argument has been that some energy needs to go into the development of little boys, too.”


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