Boys' Academic Failure

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The worry that boys are falling behind girls academically has repeatedly made headlines this year. But debate continues over whether this is actually true.

Nationally, boys lagged behind girls in the 2004 NAEP exams in reading at every age tested. The problem worsened as boys moved from elementary to middle to high school. At age 9, boys scored an average of five points lower than girls in reading; at 17, they scored 14 points lower. And some educators say state standardized test results reveal a similar gender gap.

Is there a crisis here? Some education experts think so, and they cite a range of possible causes, including schooling practices that are not "boy-friendly" and the nation's emphasis on standardized testing. Kathy Stevens, director of training at the Colorado -based Michael Gurian Educational Institute, which helps schools and parents improve learning environments for boys and girls, summarizes the main concerns:

  • Our educational system is "obsolete," she says. "It was developed during the Industrial Revolution to prepare students for a world of factories and manufacturing, and now it's the 21st century - the Information Age."

  • Past concerns about girls led to years of efforts to boost their achievement in science and math. The flip side, Stevens says, is that while girls have progressed, boys have fallen behind.

  • Boys and girls really are different. "We've learned in recent years that boys' and girls' brains are wired differently, so that they process information differently," Stevens says.

The Gurian Institute, founded by family therapist Michael Gurian, co-author of the books The Minds of Boys and Boys and Girls Learn Differently!, has trained more than 15,000 teachers in more than 650 schools and districts nationwide. Elementary school principal Kelley King says he's proud of his school's success under this program. Two years ago, teachers at King's school noticed a gap in achievement between boys and girls in writing. So they tried Gurian strategies such as increased movement, more reading choices for boys and encouraging visual-spatial thinking. "After one year of implementation of boy-friendly strategies," King says, "we saw amazing results in our writing achievement scores, especially for boys."

Success stories aside, not all educators believe the gender gap is real. Elementary school principal Polly Skinner says boys and girls fare pretty evenly in her school. She attributes this, in part, to excellent instruction.

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"We work to make sure both boys and girls have plenty of opportunities to be actively involved in their learning," she says. "Teachers are always searching for the key to unlock what is going to work with each individual student."

Noted gender researchers Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University, and Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, are two other doubters.

"The boy crisis we're hearing about is largely a manufactured one," they wrote in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post earlier this year. To support their position, they cited various authorities, including University of Michigan education professor Valerie Lee, who reports that gender differences in academic performance are "small to moderate," and Diane Halpern, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California's Claremont McKenna College who examined many studies of verbal and math skills and found that, overall, the gender differences were slight.

Articles in this series:

  • How Schools Are Confronting Their Own Problems: As kids stock up on notebooks, pencils and calculators for the new school year, teachers and administrators are beginning their fifth year under the country's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education reform law. Click to learn more

  • The Lag in Math & Science: We may be a country with vastly more resources than other nations, but when it comes to math and science know-how, our kids don't seem to count. Click to learn more

  • Boys' Academic Failure: The worry that boys are falling behind girls academically has repeatedly made headlines this year. But debate continues over whether this is actually true. Click to learn more

  • The Race & Class Gap: While the gender gap is debatable, almost everyone agrees that when it comes to academic achievement, race and class count far more. Click to learn more

  • Decaying School Buildings: With all the emphasis on boosting students' academic skills, it's not surprising that efforts and resources to maintain older school buildings have fallen by the wayside. Click to learn more


On the Web

  • Healthy Schools Network: This non-profit research and advocacy organization is dedicated to environmentally healthy schools.

  • MathMovesU:  This initiative of Raytheon Company aims to improve the way U.S. middle school students view math.

  • The Michael Gurian Educational Institute:  Provides parents and teachers with information about how boys and girls learn differently.

  • Moms for Math:  Helps parents understand the importance of math, and offers them tips to help children with math.

  • Parents for Public Schools:  Works to ensure that all public schools effectively serve all children. They offer a multitude of parent resources.

  • Smart Boys, Bad Grades: Offers tips for parents on helping boys succeed in school.