Richard Whitmire is a longtime education reporter and editorial writer who has chronicled a critical shift in the national education debate: While it was once presumed that girls were falling behind in school, now it appears that boys are at greater risk. Exploring the issue has become his passion, both in his blog and in his new book, Why Boys Fail. BookPage asked Whitmire to provide a tutorial on a subject of interest to parents, teachers and employers.
You didn’t always believe it was boys who were in trouble in school.
I was an education reporter in the Washington bureau of Gannett News Service when the American Association of University Women released its research on girls getting shortchanged in school. As the father of two daughters, I quickly wrote that up—uncritically—as fact.
What made you change your mind?
In the years that followed, I realized I had made a mistake. That research was flawed. It first became obvious anecdotally, by watching my nieces and nephews and the other students in local schools. More importantly, it became obvious in the national data. The gender gaps we see in college are the most obvious evidence—nearly 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 62 percent of associate’s degrees go to women. Unlike two decades ago, when uneducated men could find good-paying work, men today need those degrees as much as women.
How did the researchers get it wrong?
It’s not so much a matter of getting it wrong as never trying to get it right. By choosing not to investigate the problem, the U.S. Department of Education ducks the politically sensitive issue. In Why Boys Fail, I lay out the history behind that sensitivity, which starts with conservatives blaming feminists (unfairly, from my perspective) for the problems boys were experiencing in school. The national feminist groups went into a defensive mode and countered that boys were not experiencing problems. When men rule the White House and Wall Street, that argument carries a lot of credibility, at least on the surface. But when you bore down to the community level, to the boys and girls in your local schools and men and women in the local economy, the reality is very different. Men are in trouble, and much of that trouble can be traced back to unequal educations.
Does the failure of boys in school cut across all races and income levels?
I would say yes, with the possible exception of those coming from the most elite families. (And even in the most expensive prep schools I hear college placement advisers remark that their girls perform better than the boys.) Among Hispanic and African-American boys, the gaps are huge: Twice as many black women as men earn bachelor’s degrees. Less obvious, however, are the gaps we’re seeing among the sons and daughters of blue-collar families, where the daughters are far more likely to enroll and graduate from college. This is a key question, and it gets at what may be the most important insight from the book: There’s a common thread (literacy skills) connecting the problems minority boys are having with what we’re seeing in blue-collar/white and middle-class suburban schools.
Could it simply be that boys traditionally have never liked school as much as girls?
Yes, but in years past the boys were given plenty of time to catch up. Reading experts tell me that by fourth grade boys should pull even with girls in literacy skills, but that’s not happening. There’s a second issue here. In years past it was OK for many boys to dislike school. Blue-collar jobs were plentiful. Today, however, college has become the new high school. Want to be a cop? Better have at least an associate’s degree.
What are the risks of having too few male college graduates?
There are some national economic considerations. Women are less likely than men to major in the hard sciences or launch risky business ventures. But the real implications are interpersonal—the so-called “marriageable mate” issue that has inflicted so much pain among African Americans. Women hesitate to “marry down” to someone with a lesser educational background. Hence, a lack of marriageable mates.
What solutions do you recommend?
The obvious solution is to start at the beginning with a federal investigation. Once the causes are pinpointed, the Department of Education can launch research into remedies that can be pioneered by interested school districts. Just as urgent is federally sponsored research into single-sex education. Do boys and girls really have gender-specific learning styles that teachers must master? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s find out.