Boys at School: A National Crisis

Family Education

Dr. William Pollack is a Harvard Medical School psychologist and director for the Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School.

Q: You have alerted the entire country to a "national crisis of boyhood." From the evidence in your book Real Boys, we also have a "national crisis of boys' education." What are the facts behind this crisis?

A: The statistics about boys' education are startling. Eighth-grade boys are 50 percent more likely to be held back a grade than girls. By high school, 67 percent of all special-education students are boys. Boys receive 71 percent of all school suspensions and are up to 10 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder.

A recent University of Chicago study, which combined results of six major surveys on educational achievement spanning 30 years and involving thousands of children, shows that there is a new "gender gap" in education -- with boys falling to the bottom of the heap.

As the study reveals, girls, due to our special efforts, have made steady gains in math and science while outperforming boys in reading and writing. The study found such large differences in boys' and girls' writing that it concluded that males are at a major disadvantage in what is a basic skill. That is a disparaging conclusion, to say the least.

"The Condition of Education," issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 1997, says much of the same. For the last 13 years, females have significantly outscored males in reading and writing. Boys have fallen behind.

The "Boy Code"

Q: The "boy code," or the myths and expectations we have about boys' behavior, is central to your work. How does the "boy code" affect the way we educate boys?

A: In my experience with my research and as a psychologist, when we observe boys' emotional worlds more closely, we discover much quiet suffering under their outward bravado. We bring boys up according to a "code" that teaches them not to express vulnerable emotions, and shames them if they do. In my "Listening to Boys' Voices" study at Harvard, even very young boys reported that they felt they must, to quote a few, "keep a stiff upper lip," "not show their feelings," "act real tough," "not act too nice," and "just laugh and brush it off when someone punches you." These boys were not referring to subtle suggestions about how they "might" comport themselves. Rather, they were invoking strict rules they had absorbed about how they "must" behave, rules that most of them seemed to genuinely fear breaking.

Boys learn the "boy code" in sandboxes, playgrounds, schoolrooms, camps, churches, and hangouts, and are taught by peers, coaches, teachers, and just about everybody else. Boys feel the pressure of the "boy code" in the classroom as much as anywhere else, and it is very detrimental to their education, from the way boys are often labeled as "troublemakers" and as "hyperactive" to their fear of expressing themselves in the classroom.

Moreover, this "boy code," as much a part of school life as it is, has created a "national crisis of boyhood": our boys are four times more likely to commit suicide than girls, and have a higher incidence of depression and a skyrocketing rate of diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder.

Where Are We Going Wrong?

Q: Where are schools going wrong with boys?

A: To the distress of teachers, administrators, parents, and boys alike, coeducational public schools are some of the least comfortable, least friendly and least productive environments in boys' lives. Teaching styles and disciplinary habits are simply not suited for the average boy, and often lock him into a terrible cycle of punishment and bad behavior.

But schools are not failing for lack of trying. Many of the schools I visit are trying hard to do well. Many teachers and administrators care greatly about boys. But, in general, our schools are failing boys in several ways. First, teachers simply do not appear to be doing a good job noticing the problems many boys have in certain academic subjects, namely reading and writing. Second, schools and teachers tend to be poorly versed in boys' specific emotional and social needs, and so they often handle these needs inappropriately or inadequately.

In learning environments biased against their strengths, boys may get turned off or begin to become frustrated, attempting now to get their needs met by seeking negative attention--or, we might say, through unwitting protest against this educational gender straitjacket that hems them in. This last-ditch rebellion completes the circle of failure, because now these boys are labeled as "troublemakers" or diagnosed with "hyperactivity." Because the myth that "boys will be boys" is deeply entrenched, teachers and school administrators are often permitted to become punitive toward boys --- thus pushing our sons even further toward academic failure, low self-esteem, conduct disorders, and other emotional and behavioral problems.

When boys feel in conflict with their schools and do not do well there, it deeply affects their self-esteem. By middle school, their self-esteem as learners is lower than girls'. While adolescent boys continue to show apparently average levels of self-regard, their scores on a measure called the "lie" scale --- that is, their fabricated self-esteem or false bravado --- skyrockets with age. Such lowered self-view, driven home by the education system, does more than lead to school failure. It creates a pathway to drugs, violence, depression, and suicide.

"Guy-ifying" Schools

Q: In Real Boys, you refer to "guy-ifying" schools. How do boys learn differently from girls, and what can schools do to make the classroom a more comfortable and effective place for boys to learn?

A: I firmly believe that – depending on how curricula are structured, how classrooms are run and what attitudes about boys prevail – a school can either shape boys positively or confuse them and lead them terribly astray. By addressing who a boy really is and what he really needs, a school can make a difference in helping him do well academically, feel positive about himself and develop a healthy sense of masculinity. A positive school experience, in short, can bolster a boy's self-esteem.

Boys have a unique learning style that is different from that of girls. Research suggests that, whereas many girls may prefer to learn by watching or listening, boys generally prefer to learn by doing, by engaging in some action-oriented task. I've observed boys who are so resistant to reading books in class that they'll literally toss them aside to pursue more hands-on activities. Yet some of these same boys have been motivated to read on a computer, which allows them to have fun scrolling through the pages using a keyboard or mouse. I've also seen boys who, though identified as "lazy readers," became active, proficient readers when given material on subjects that interested them, such as sports, adventure stories and murder mysteries. Most critically, I believe we must make absolutely sure that for every boy there is a "good fit" between what makes him thrive as an individual and what his school actually provides for him.

For instance, if a boy learns best by reading quietly by himself for a certain length of time – say, half an hour – and then taking breaks in which he engages in vigorous physical activity, such as running or playing a sport, ideally his school will not require him to attend four hours of classes in which he is given no time to read by himself and no time for motor activities. If another boy learns best by working in small groups in which the students teach one another through shared lessons and activities and where no student is ever put on the spot to come up with the right answers, ideally the boy is not placed in classrooms with huge numbers of students and then grilled by the teacher.

The more warmly a boy feels toward his school – connected, understood and treated fairly – the less likely he is to become suicidal, to abuse drugs and alcohol or to engage in impulsive sexual activities. A boy does best when he feels his teachers care, understand him and have high hopes for him academically.

How Can We Change?

Q: Taking these examples and advice into account, where do parents and educators go from here?

A: Ten years ago girls lifted their heads and raised their voices that schools needed to address the ways in which they learn. Naysayers said at the time that there couldn't be change. In 1999, girls have all but caught up with boys in the critical areas of math and science where for so long they lagged behind.

It is completely possible in the here and now to make positive change for boys, and we can start by doing for boys what we have done for girls. We can teach teachers about boys' learning styles and help them adapt their teaching methods and curricula accordingly. We can help parents and teachers learn to connect with boys. Boys communicate and express in their own ways. The more we understand this, the smaller a unit is in which a boy participates, the better he is known in his group, the more clear the connection he has with his peers and his teachers, the more likely a boy is to be successful in school and in life.