Our Boy Problem


Maybe it’s just my idiosyncratic Internet surfing, but I’ve come across a few stories on the Web lately that take up the subject of why boys in the United States are falling behind in school. To find out more, I did some Googling on the subject. According to many observers, boys and young men nowadays are more likely to be held back a grade or drop out of school, and less likely to garner high scores on achievement tests and attend college than women. And they’re twice as prone to be diagnosed with a learning disability.!@!

(The troubling figures extend beyond education, though these are undoubtedly related to it. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 15- to 24-year-old young men are five times as likely to commit suicide as women of those ages, and Department of Justice statistics show that 95 percent of all state and federal prisoners under the age of 25 are men.)

There are some who dispute the conclusions drawn from these findings — that boys’ academic accomplishments are on a steady decline — and try to explain the problem away with claims that girls’ achievement in school has improved in relation to boys’ (thus making it seem like boys are on the wane), or that exceptionally poor performances by African-American, Latino and low-income boys skew the numbers downward.

Both of these may have something to do with it (and the latter point is another problem that must be addressed, and soon), but they still don’t fully explain the overall decline in the aggregate performance of boys in the past decade. Nor does the explanation that public education — in terms of both curricula and institutional policies — favors girls, although credible arguments to this effect exist.

Having been a boy myself once, I thought back to the days when I was in school. Some remember their time in middle and high school as glory days. Not me. What I recall is the pointless busywork. The hours spent studying subjects I knew would be irrelevant to my life. The pabulum I listened to in droning, dull lectures. This led to feelings of constant frustration, of being “trapped” in a hopeless situation. And I went to a good school!

Of course, I adapted. I often would forgo homework assignments and perform well enough on major tests to earn a solid “B” in classes I wasn’t too interested in. And I was able to find a few classes, usually taught by enthusiastic teachers in my favorite subjects (history and English, mainly), in which I earned top grades. But I learned the most in Study Hall, or even after school, when I voraciously read stacks of books, newspapers and magazines on my own.

Based on my own experience, I believe so many boys turn in middling (or worse) performances in school precisely because they care about learning, and the people who devise the curricula and instructional formats apparently don’t. Boys are incredibly curious about the world around them, but public education administration policies seem to emphasize behavioral conformity and mandated, check-the-box, test-oriented learning — exactly the kind of stuff that will quickly turn a mind from curiosity to despair. It should come as no surprise that boys will act out or tune out in such circumstances.

(Note: I also remember female classmates complaining about these issues, but for whatever reason, they seemed to be able to cope better in this environment. Still, grades and test scores notwithstanding, they often didn’t truly learn — that is, retain and understand — the material any better than the boys did.)

I’d like to close with a couple of points: The first is that if we overlook the continued decline of boys at this early, crucial stage in their development, we are putting approximately half our workforce at risk at a time when we can’t afford to cede any talent.

The second is that as we emphasize the importance of innovation in business, we are allowing our public school system to stifle critical and creative thinking and meaningful learning through bad educational practices. As learning leaders, we need to do whatever we can to encourage fresh approaches to education. Otherwise, this won’t be just a “boy problem” anymore.

Thoughts? Questions? Feel free to share them with us.