Whitmire: Looking for Answers to the Current Male Education Crisis? Start With Elementary School
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Recently, there has been a significant decrease in male college enrollment and graduation rates, prompting many academic experts to offer their explanations. While these experts provide valuable insights, it seems like none of them have truly experienced the gender gaps that start in elementary school.
In a recent article for The New York Times, writer Thomas Edsall explored the issue of "boy troubles." The theories proposed by these academics reflected their respective areas of research, such as fatherless families, outsourcing of jobs, societal pressure to appear masculine, and the slower development of the male brain.
For example, Frances Elizabeth Jensen, chair of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, commented on the emotional fluctuations teenagers experience. She compared them to a Ferrari with weak brakes, explaining that their limbic system, responsible for controlling emotions, is fully developed while the frontal lobe, responsible for critical thinking, is not well-connected. This means that teenagers may struggle to make rational decisions or consider the long-term consequences of their actions.
I can relate to this, especially after observing my grandsons. It’s amazing how they manage to navigate through high school with these challenges.
However, my issue with these theories is that most of them fail to account for the recent decline in male enrollment and graduation rates. Boys have always had slower-developing brains, so this alone does not explain the current situation. Additionally, these theories often neglect to consider what happens in elementary school classrooms, which research for my book "Why Boys Fail" in 2011 revealed as the origin of many gender-related issues.
Let’s discuss the recent news about declining male enrollment and graduation rates in college. An article from The Wall Street Journal thoroughly examines this dilemma, revealing that soon there will be twice as many women earning bachelor’s degrees compared to men.
Some argue that this is not a problem, like higher education columnist Kevin Carey who expresses his views in a recent column for The New York Times. Carey believes that just because women are excelling does not mean men are failing. However, the majority of recent reports seem to indicate that there is indeed a problem. When we consider the significant societal impacts of this trend, such as the increase in single-parent households and the growing political divide between the educated and less-educated, it becomes evident that action is necessary.
So, what can we do about it? I have reservations about explanations like excessive machismo because not only have these factors existed for a long time, making them unable to explain recent declines, but they are also difficult to change. How can we expect to transform machismo or alter the rate at which male brains mature?
Therefore, these observations do not provide solutions. However, there is one explanation that can address both the recent decline in male performance and is not unchangeable: literacy deficiencies.
Indeed, boys do tend to mature at a slower pace, particularly when it comes to acquiring literacy skills. In my book, I recall visiting my oldest daughter’s first-grade class and noticing that while the girls were meticulously forming letters, the boys struggled with their grip on pencils, tearing holes in the paper. Initially, I wondered if our daughter had simply ended up in a class full of underperforming boys. Eventually, though, the boys caught up in reading, at least by fourth or fifth grade, and everything seemed to be fine.
However, these were the days before the education system underwent reforms that transformed elementary schools. Starting with the 1989 governors’ education summit in Charlottesville, most states intensified their curriculum to prepare students for a world where a college education was increasingly necessary. Unfortunately, schools increased their reading demands by around two grade levels, expecting even kindergarten students to keep journals. Yet, many teachers failed to adapt their teaching strategies to ensure that boys could keep up.
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Could this be the explanation for the declining academic performance of boys in schools? Well, it may not provide a complete answer, but it sheds enough light on the issue that if we were to reverse these detrimental practices, we could make a significant impact on the concerning trend highlighted in the Wall Street Journal data.
So, what can be done? There are various measures that can be taken, starting with improving literacy instruction for elementary school teachers. They should all be encouraged to adopt research-based methods that prioritize thorough instruction in phonics. Additionally, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of comic books and graphic novels when it comes to getting boys interested in reading.
For parents, it’s important to closely monitor your son’s literacy development and take advantage of online resources like Guys Read. If your child’s elementary school teachers aren’t assigning reading materials that appeal to your son, take the initiative to find suitable material yourself. And let’s not limit ourselves based on gender stereotypes – both fathers and mothers should engage in diverse activities with their children, whether it’s reading with daughters or playing football with sons.
While there has been a successful effort to bridge the gender gap in math and science for girls in K-12 schools, the same cannot be said for boys when it comes to reading. Why?
Following the publication of my book, I engaged in numerous debates with representatives from advocacy groups such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which is closely affiliated with teacher unions predominantly comprised of women. The AAUW is skeptical about the issue of boys falling behind in schools and primarily advocates for maintaining the focus on girls. From these interactions, I gathered that these groups downplay the challenges faced by boys in K-12 schools and ignore the growing gender disparities in college. Why? They view it as a zero-sum game, where addressing boys’ literacy concerns would detract from the efforts being made for girls in math and science. This mindset needs to change.
Once again, it’s important to note that boy-friendly literacy instruction cannot completely solve the problem. Matters such as the unique struggles faced by boys from fatherless families cannot be addressed solely through the use of graphic novels.
However, if we acknowledge that a problem exists and we have a solution that tackles a major portion of the problem, what is preventing us from taking action?
Richard Whitmire, an education writer and author of six books (including "Why Boys Fail: Saving our Sons From an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind"), highlights the need for change.
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