The Crisis in the Education of Boys

David Brooks wonders how Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters, would have fared in American schools:

By about the third week of nursery school, Henry’s teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry “had another hard day today.” He was disruptive during circle time. By midyear, there’d be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry’s parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.
By elementary school, Henry would be lucky to get 20-minute snatches of recess. During one, he’d jump off the top of the jungle gym, and, by the time he hit the ground, the supervising teachers would be all over him for breaking the safety rules. He’d get in a serious wrestling match with his buddy Falstaff, and, by the time he got him in a headlock, there’d be suspensions all around. First, Henry would withdraw. He’d decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he’d just disengage. In kindergarten, he’d wonder why he just couldn’t be good.
By junior high, he’d lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet. Then he’d rebel. If the official high school culture was über-nurturing, he’d be über-crude. If it valued cooperation and sensitivity, he’d devote his mental energies to violent video games and aggressive music. If college wanted him to be focused and tightly ambitious, he’d exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He’d have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realize them. Day to day, he’d look completely adrift.

Henry’s experience is similar to many boys these days.  Brooks suggests that “Our education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.”
In Why Boys Fail, Richard Whitmire said boys are in trouble, “However you slice the numbers–fifth-graders in special ed, ninth-graders held back, low senior grade point averages, high school dropouts, fewer college graduates–boys are performing far below girls.”
Science Daily said, “American women today are more likely to earn college degrees than men with women receiving 57 percent of all bachelor’s and 60 percent of all master’s degrees.”
“But the big story here is cultural and moral,” says Brooks. “If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time.”  He continues, “Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.”
Brooks make the case for school choice–a portfolio of options that work for all families and students.  One example of that Brighter Choice in Albany, the only K-12 school network (that I know of) with single-sex schools.  Their performance is impressive. This is an experiment worth watching.
Online and blended learning is making it easier and more affordable to offer engaging, challenging, and affordable pathways.  The potential to personalize learning for groups and individual students holds promise for addressing the crisis in educating boys.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Alison Anderson

This rings so true for me, as a teacher and a mom. As much as I prefer "friendship circles" in my own classrm, I fully recognize my own son succeeds in "boot camp". It has been a huge struggle to stay true to who my son is and find the best environment for him instead of opting for medication but feel we made the right decision. I want to work for more school choice! For the boys who struggle to find success in school, for sure, and the girls too. Great perspective in this article, so appreciate it.

Charlie Mas

I think it is very telling that when minority students are disciplined four times as often as White students everyone recognizes it as institutional racism and starts demanding cultural competency among the school staff (who are mostly White). But when boys are disciplined TEN times as often as girls no one wants to acknowledge the inherent sexism and no one is demanding cultural competency among the school staff (who are mostly women).
Men and boys are members of a different culture from Women and girls. There are different standards of behavior and different etiquette. That's why men and women so frequently give offense to each other when none is meant.
I strongly suggest that people first read You Just Don't Understand by Dr. Deborah Tannen to convince yourselves that the sexes are divided by culture and then view public education through a lens informed by the knowledge.
All of the rules of school come straight out of female culture, as Mr. Brooks describes. Men and boys are expected to deny their native culture while in school. We would not do this to anyone else.
The problem is not that boys do stuff that's against the rules, the problem is that the rules are against the stuff that boys do.

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