Batavick: Why do boys fail? It starts in elementary school

My wife had the occasion to attend two high school senior awards ceremonies this past spring. I accompanied her to one prior to our granddaughter’s graduation from a large Baltimore County school. The other was when she was invited, as a board member of the Carroll County Arts Center, to award a scholarship at a much smaller county school. A former elementary school teacher, my wife came home pondering why the majority of scholarship winners and 100 percent of the class officers of both schools were female. This got me to thinking.

We both graduated in 1963 from a small high school in New Jersey. Those eons ago, there might have been one female class officer (if you are guessing the secretary, you are correct) and most of the scholarships went to males.


Of course, this was a time when the career opportunities for young women were limited to teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. And for some, college was completely out-of-reach, but not for financial reasons. It was because, as in the case of my Uncle Tom, who had three girls, “They were only going to get married and have kids anyway, so why waste your money?”

The Digest of Education Statistics reports that in 1963, 52.3 percent of males were enrolled in college versus only 39 percent of females. By 2006, the ratio had flipped — not a big difference in terms of today, but a huge gain for women over time.

Objectively, that’s a good thing, but the trend is not. In 2014-15, females earned 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. What’s behind this phenomenon?

It begins early. Claudia Buchmann, Ohio State professor of sociology, writes, “Girls enter kindergarten more prepared than boys, and derive more satisfaction from pleasing parents and teachers than boys do.”

Our elementary schools are really designed for girls who tend to adapt better to classroom regimens than do boys. We have a grandson who is plenty bright but also rambunctious, and the havoc his lack of self-discipline causes has been cited by teachers for the last six years.

Richard Whitmire, author of “Why Boys Fail,” thinks the problem with boys’ performance begins with their teachers who are almost all female. He believes that they become “annoyed as hell by all the boys in their classrooms who aggressively wave their arms in the air when a question is asked.” Some teachers think this intimidates the shyer girls who are then called on more frequently to encourage them.

In one of her studies, Buchmann discovered that by the time students reached eighth grade, 62 percent of the girls believed good grades were “very important,” compared to only 50 percent of boys. That’s because girls “have more of the social and behavioral skills” important to success. Over time, these differences influence some boys to believe it more masculine to blow-off school and just leave it to the girls. This is especially true among lower-income or working-class families.

Whitmire also indicts school administrations who, under the constant burden to improve student test scores, are told to seek progress along racial and socioeconomic lines and not gender.

Parents don’t help the situation, according to Whitmire, because they buy into educators telling them that “boys are just slow starters.” Be patient, they counsel, “he’ll catch up.”

Even the STEM program isn’t spared by him. Schools are now encouraged to get more girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math. This has happened at the expense of boys and has become a zero-sum game.

Alana Semuels, writing for The Atlantic in 2017, suggests that the growing gender gap in college will have a negative impact on society. A high school diploma is no longer good enough to land a job in our high-tech world, and we may find ourselves in a situation where, in some regions, women become the bread-winners while men are left to fill the ranks of the unemployed or become substance abusers.

There’s no sense in wondering why all of the above is happening now and girl/boy equity wasn’t considered a problem 50 years ago. The bottom line is that schools have to change to accommodate girls and boys equally.

Perhaps boys would benefit from a different approach to classroom atmosphere and management, and direct instruction in budgeting time and learning study habits — traits that appear to be more common among girls. Regardless, a crisis is brewing and society has some homework to do.