Whitmire: Looking for Answers to the Current Male Education Crisis? Start With Elementary School

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A recent dramatic dip in male college enrollment and graduation flushed out multiple academic experts to explain why. The academics sound smart, and they all offer valid pieces of the puzzle.

Problem is, I get the impression none of them has ever reported from an actual elementary school, where these gender gaps start.

This week, New York Times writer Thomas Edsall produced another of his great deep academic dives into an issue, this time the “boy troubles.” The theories from the academics appeared to reflect their personal areas of research: fatherless families, jobs offshoring, a constant need to act macho and the slowly maturing male brain.

One example, from Frances Elizabeth Jensen, chair of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, responding to Edsall’s query:

Teens go through a period of increased emotional fluctuation and are like a Ferrari with weak brakes. The emotional center of the brain, the limbic system, which controls emotions, is fully connected, but the frontal lobe that sharpens critical thinking isn’t well-connected. That means the part of the brain that makes them pause and say to themselves, “Bad idea. Don’t post that on Facebook because it might hurt my chances of getting a job in the future” or “Don’t jump in the lake, there may be a rock,” isn’t mature.

I get that, especially after watching over my grandsons. How do they ever survive through high school?

The issue I have with all their theories is that most don’t explain the recent decline. Boys have always had slower-maturing brains. And none of them appear to dive into elementary school classrooms where, as best as I could determine while researching my 2011 book, Why Boys Fail, many of these recent gender problems originate.

First: the recent news about men: A Wall Street Journal piece about the slipping numbers of men enrolling and graduating from college expertly laid out the dilemma. Soon, there will be two females earning bachelor’s degrees for every one male.

Is that a problem? Veteran higher education columnist Kevin Carey doesn’t think so, and he made his case in a recent New York Times column. Carey’s argument is familiar: Just because women are doing better doesn’t mean men are doing worse.

But the bulk of the recent reporting seems to favor the we-have-a-problem side of the argument, and I agree. When you weigh the considerable societal impacts that are part of this trend, an increase in single parenting and a rise in political polarization between the educated and less-educated, we have a problem.

So, what to do about it? The issue I have with explanations such as excessive machismo is not only have these factors been around forever, and thus can’t explain recent declines, but they are also immutable. What, exactly, is going to turn around machismo or male brain-maturation time?

As a result, these observations don’t lead to solutions. And there are solutions that can turn around at least some of the problems we’re seeing with boys and men.

In my book, I sifted through multiple explanations offered for boys falling behind, and settled on one that can both explain the recent boys-failing phenomenon and is not immutable: literacy shortfalls.

Yes, boys do mature slower, especially in the acquisition of literacy skills. In the book, I describe my shock when visiting our oldest daughter’s first-grade class. While the girls were sketching out graceful letters, the boys were tearing holes in the paper with deathgrip clutches on pencils.

At the time, I recall innocently wondering: Did our daughter just happen to land in a class full of boy dunces? Eventually, of course, the boys caught up in reading, at least by fourth or fifth grade, and all was good.

But those were the days before education “reform” changed elementary school. Starting with the 1989 governors education summit in Charlottesville, nearly all states ramped up their curriculum to prepare students for a world where college was the new high school.

The governors’ logic was prescient, but the follow-through by school systems was lacking. Schools pushed their reading demands up by roughly two grades, meaning even some kindergarteners are expected to keep journals. But most teachers failed to shift strategies so that boys would not fall behind.

In short, girls adapted to an early push on literacy skills, but boys couldn’t. Soon, non-reading boys were seen by teachers as aggressive and in need of discipline, while the boys themselves concluded that school was for girls. Suddenly, video games became far more appealing.

Does this explain everything behind the sinking fortunes of boys in school? Of course not, but it explains enough that reversing these harmful practices could make a dent in the dismaying trend we saw in the Wall Street Journal data.

How? There’s a long list, starting with better literacy instruction for elementary school teachers so they all follow research-based methods that embrace extensive instruction in phonics. And don’t fear comic books and graphic novels — many boys get their reading launched that way.

For parents, it’s a matter of watching your son’s literacy growth and being aware of online resources such as Guys Read. If your elementary teachers aren’t assigning reading that appeals to your son, find it yourself. And dads — and moms — stop reading with your daughters and throwing footballs with your sons.

In K-12 schools, there’s been a successful push to catch girls up on math and science, but a resistance to doing the same for boys around reading. Why?

After my book was published, I had many editorial debates with representatives from advocacy groups such as the American Association of University Women, which is closely tied to the female-dominated teachers unions. The AAUW is a key skeptic of boys falling behind in school and the primary advocate for keeping the focus on girls. My bottom line from many interactions: Groups such as AAUW downplay the boys’ problems in K-12 schools and ignore the rising gender gaps in college for a simple reason. They see this as a zero sum game: Doing something for boys on literacy would subtract from what’s being done for girls in math and science. This has to cease.

Again, boy-friendly literacy instruction can’t solve the entire problem. The special burden that fatherless families place on young boys, for example, can’t be solved with graphic novels.

But if we know there’s a problem out there, and we also know of a solution that addresses a good chunk of the problem, what’s holding us back?

Education writer Richard Whitmire is the author of six books. His first was “Why Boys Fail: Saving our Sons From an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind.”

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