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Gender Gap: Why Boys Can't Keep Up

Gender Gap: Why Boys Can

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Updated on Jan 5, 2011

For decades, it’s been a prevailing belief: girls are at a disadvantage in the classroom, especially when it comes to certain subjects. But the classroom gender gap might not be what you expect. These days, it’s more likely to be male students that just can’t seem to keep up with their female counterparts.

Richard Whitmire, education reporter and author of Why Boys Fail: Saving our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind, says that the problem starts early, but is most notably reflected by two indicators: rising aspirations by female high school seniors while those of male students stay flat, and lagging representation of men in college graduation rates. “Among those earning bachelor’s degrees it’s almost 58 percent female,” he said, “and among community colleges it’s 62 percent female.”

What’s behind the new gender gap? Theories of why boys are struggling in today’s classrooms abound. In her controversial book The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men, Christina Hoff Sommers writes that classrooms remodeled to serve the needs of girls are creating a reverse sexism that hurts boys. Less structured learning environments and less focus on grades and competition are hallmarks of a changing school landscape that, according to Sommers, puts boys at a disadvantage.

Others speculate that a lack of boy-friendly reading material, a scarcity of male teachers, and the disappearance of recess may be hurting boys in the classroom. So which of these theories is really behind the problem?

In his book, Whitmire says, he sifted through all the theories cited as sources of the problem. Whitmire argues that, while some of these factors may contribute to the problem, there’s one major issue that’s holding boys back. “If you solve this one big thing,” he says, “then you could solve the brunt of the issue, and that is the literacy issue.”

Reading and writing have always been an integral foundation for classroom learning. But more recently, Whitmire explains, an extra emphasis on literacy in the early years sets many male learners back from the get-go. “School reform pushed literacy demands into earlier and earlier grades,” Whitmire explains, and boys are at a developmental disadvantage when it comes to early literacy challenges. Where girls tend to pick up reading earlier, boys typically need more time. The problem is that without awareness, support and effective instruction, they may never catch up.

According to Whitmire, parents should keep a close eye on what is going on at school if they want to prevent problems. “If your son is struggling, and the teacher says ‘Oh don’t worry, boys always get a slow start and they always catch up,’ that should set off alarm bells. Don’t assume that all of a sudden boys are going to catch up.”

Peg Tyre, author of The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do, agrees. In her book, she outlines the following warning signs: “Watch out for teachers who complain that boys are too active, who clamp down on boys’ fantasy play, who allow boys to languish in reading and writing, who chastise boys for poor organization or bad handwriting.”

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