March 18, 2010

Boys in jeopardy at school


He is a whirlwind on the school playground, dangling from the jungle gym, barreling headfirst down the slide and vaulting off the swings in midair.

By fourth grade, he has trouble keeping up with the girls in reading and writing.

In high school he slumps in the back of class, the wires of his iPod snaking up from his sweat shirt. If he enrolls in college, he and his male classmates will be a distinct minority.

He is your son, your neighbor, the boy at the bus stop. And he is lagging far behind girls in Maine's classrooms.

By many measures, Maine's boys are struggling compared to girls.

  • They score lower on standardized tests in reading and writing: just 40 percent of 11th-grade boys met or exceeded state standards compared with 57 percent of girls in 2003-2004.

  • Twice as many boys than girls receive special education services.

  • Men earn about 38 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded by Maine's public universities.

  • High school girls outnumber boys by almost a 2-1 ratio in top-10 senior rankings.

    The achievement gap between boys and girls emerges before kindergarten, continues through elementary, middle and high schools, and becomes most acute at the college level.

    It is found in Maine's poorer north and richer south. It affects educated families and households where neither parent has a college degree.

    Nor is the gap limited to Maine. Boys are falling behind girls in schools across America and around the globe, researchers say. Schools are starting to grapple with the problem, but while there are many theories, no one really knows why boys are at risk.

    Do boys suffer from a lack of male role models? Is it uncool for boys to excel in the classroom? Are schools more geared for girls, who tend to sit quietly and listen, than for boys, who are more rambunctious?

    "It's absolutely a concern," said Jeanne Crocker, principal at South Portland High School. "It's a tough problem, and I don't think there are answers yet. Is it that school, as we know it, is not working as well for guys as it is for girls? If so, what are we going to do with it?"

    One thing is clear: The stakes for boys - and men - are high. They risk being left behind in a high-tech global economy that increasingly values some form of college education or specialized training.

    In Maine, the economic impact of this educational imbalance could be even greater. The number of Maine men holding a bachelor's degree or higher lags behind the national average, U.S. Census data show.

    Yet the state is rapidly losing the semi-skilled, high-paying manufacturing jobs that have traditionally supported men without a college education. Maine had about 61,600 manufacturing jobs at the end of 2005, compared with 82,300 a decade earlier, according to the latest federal U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers.

    While girls once were on the losing end of educational achievement, it is now the boys who need help, experts say.

    "Everything has flip-flopped," said Maryjane Stafford, a math teacher at Winslow Middle School. "Now these little boys are endangered."


    Maine's boys appear to be in even greater trouble when compared to other states.

    Nationally, the gap between boys' and girls' achievement is wider among blacks than whites. Maine's public schools are 96 percent white, yet the gender gap in the state's college and graduate school enrollment is larger than in all but five other states.

    In 1972, men made up 55 percent of the nearly 24,000 students enrolled in the University of Maine System. Since then, the percentage of males at Maine's public universities has eroded steadily. This fall, just 38 percent of the more than 34,000 students enrolled were men.

    Men earned two-thirds of advanced degrees in the UMaine system 30 years ago. Today they're awarded about one-third of advanced degrees each year.

    Boys' troubles at school begin even before they learn to read and write. In Maine they are being expelled from preschools at higher rates than girls. A study of 52 state-funded pre-kindergarten systems in 40 states by Walter Gilliam, assistant psychology professor at Yale University, found that in Maine, boys are 4 1/2 times more likely to be expelled than girls.

    "The gender gap starts very early," Gilliam said.

    By fourth grade, boys lag behind girls in reading and writing. Fifty-seven percent of the girls in fourth grade - compared with 45 percent of boys - met or exceeded the state standards in reading on Maine's standardized achievement test, the Maine Educational Assessment, according to state Department of Education data for 2003-2004. That same year just 40 percent of 11th-grade boys met or exceeded standards.

    All this spells a growing crisis for boys, some educators say.

    "The picture, really even globally, is pretty gloomy for the male of this species," said Rob Pfeiffer, a part-time guidance counselor at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro. "The reality is I think we've got to really put some energy to turning schools inside out so boys don't perceive them to be girls' places."

    The achievement gap between girls and boys also cuts across income levels.

    The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram conducted an analysis of Maine high schools, dividing them into two groups - wealthier and poorer - based on the percentage of students who were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in 2004-2005.

    The findings: Maine's poorer high schools reported that 61 percent of 12th-grade boys and 71 percent of 12th-grade girls either planned to go to college or already were enrolled in 2005. Wealthier high schools also showed a gap of 10 percentage points - 65 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls planned to go to college or were enrolled.

    Maine's Department of Education formed a task force in 2004 to study boys' poor academic performances. The task force is expected to issue a report in the coming weeks. But its work has been complicated by the complexity of the issue and by politics.

    Originally called the Task Force on Gender Achievement Differences, the panel changed its name to the Task Force on Gender Equity in Education and spent time on such girls' issues as sexual harassment in schools.

    Indeed, as evidence of the widening gender gap has triggered a wave of national media attention, skeptics have emerged. Some believe the attention on boys is part of a backlash against women. Others question whether it is even useful to analyze educational achievement by gender. Still others point out that men continue to earn more money than similarly qualified women.

    "It is kind of ironic that a couple of years into a disparity between male and female attendance in college it becomes 'Oh my God, we really need to look at this. The world is going to end,' " said Susan Feiner, director of the women's studies program at the University of Southern Maine.


    The achievement gap is obvious to students. Ask a group of middle school-aged boys and girls who does better in school and the overwhelming answer is girls. Ask boys why, and they cite laziness, disinterest and the fear of being branded a nerd.

    "I think girls work harder than boys. Maybe not doing your work is a sign of being cool," said Jack Niveson, a 14-year-old student at Winslow Middle School.

    "Girls mature faster. They see the importance," said Katelyn Reynolds, 13, an eighth-grader at the same school.

    Justin Laverriere, a junior at Biddeford High School, believes girls are more focused on their future than guys are.

    "Girls know what they want to do with life. They know where they're going," Laverriere said. "Guys are in the iffy stage. They're fine with Bs and Cs. You see guys doing homework in lunch just trying to get it done. Girls always have it done the night before because they strive to do the best."

    The gap is evident in girls' bubble handwriting and their filled day-planners, adds Biddeford senior Mark Connelly, who wants to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

    "Girls are a lot more organized," he said. "Every homework I remember to do is because it's still in my head. In contrast, 90 percent of the girls have the neat handwriting, the notebook, the color-tabbed notes. They have a lot better system. Most guys lean toward being more disorganized."

    At Bonny Eagle High School, Liz Waters says girls propel one another to climb the academic ladder.

    "Girls are more competitive with each other within the class rank," said Waters. "In English, it's girls that dominate. I'm in (Advanced Placement) English and there's only five boys in a class of 14. I was surprised there weren't more in there."

    It is only recently that boys' learning has been widely analyzed. Those studies are opening the eyes of Maine educators.


    As the subpar achievement of boys has begun to attract more attention, some leading theories have emerged to explain the phenomenon.

    The first theory is that classrooms are set up to help girls succeed.

    "Boys have some preferred learning styles," said J. Duke Albanese, Maine's former education commissioner. "They want to be active, they want to do, they want to apply."

    Others note that teachers tend to teach the way they learned.

    "We reward people with good visual memories and who are somewhat compliant," said David Galin, curriculum director in the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district.

    Alex Richards, a student at Portland High School, believes teachers in some cases show favoritism to girls. He remembers a math class where the girls were always called on and the boys ignored.

    "I was never called on in geometry," he said. "I raised my hand. But it seemed like they were trying to spotlight the girls and leaving boys out. . . . It needs to be equal."

    Even among people who believe classrooms don't suit boys' needs well, there is disagreement about how teaching should be altered.

    Some believe schools treat boys too much like girls.

    "Efforts to feminize them with dolls, quilts, noncompetitive games, girl-centered books and feelings exercises will fail," writes Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "The War Against Boys," "though they will succeed in making millions of boys unhappy."

    Others believe that teachers concentrate on a narrow definition of literacy that is less appealing to boys. For example, boys may have a harder time relating to novels that seem irrelevant to their lives. Some suggest expanding the curriculum to include nonfiction or even comic books.

    "We see success rates change when teachers teach differently," said Michael W. Smith, co-author of a book on male literacy titled "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys."

    Critiques of schools as inattentive to boys' needs appear to be gaining traction. In January, a 17-year-old Massachusetts boy filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging his high school discriminates against boys by awarding good grades to students, most often girls, who follow orders.


    A second theory is that boys' and girls' brains are different. Some parents believe their young sons play with toy trucks and their daughters prefer dolls only because of social influences. But research suggests that is not true.

    A British study found that boys prefer to play with balls, trains and cars - while girls choose dolls and baby carriages - even at 9 months old. That's before babies have figured out whether they are boys or girls.

    "The failure to recognize and respect sex differences in child development has done substantial harm over the past 30 years," Dr. Leonard Sax writes in "Why Gender Matters," his book about research on gender differences.

    Sax's book has found an audience among educators who have begun paying more attention to boys' needs. It is now required reading for teachers at Wiscasset Middle School, for example, where teachers and administrators are looking for ways to strengthen boys' achievement levels.

    Biological differences may also contribute to the gap in classroom performance. Researchers have found that girls hear better than boys. Some young boys may tune out at school simply because they cannot hear their teacher's voice.

    And boys are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities such as attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder. More than two-thirds of the roughly 37,000 children enrolled in special-edu- cation classes in Maine are boys.

    But some experts disagree with emphasizing brain research. Thomas Newkirk, author of "Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy and Popular Culture," said looking for brain differences promotes stereotypes and underachievement.


    Another theory is that gender stereotypes - shaped by popular culture - are to blame for the widening gap between girls and boys. In music and films, on TV and in video games, tough guys are often heroes and smart kids are wimps and nerds.

    "You know, the smart kid doesn't get the date to the prom. It's the football star," said Bill Yousman, managing director at the Media Education Foundation, which raises awareness about media stereotypes. "Again, that's nothing new. But I think media images reinforce that."

    Boys say being smart is not necessarily uncool. But working hard to get good grades does not bring social rewards.

    "Girls tend to think about the future more and it's more socially accepted," said 17-year-old Giovanni Morabito, who attends Portland High School. "I think girls are pushed harder. They're almost expected to do a little better."

    Boys may be following the code described by William Pollack in the book "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood." According to this theory, young men are pressured to hide their emotions and avoid showing weakness.

    "It's the old joke about men and asking for directions," said Mariah Carver, a freshman at USM. "They get overwhelmed, and they aren't used to asking for help."

    A lack of male role models may also lead to lower academic achievement by boys.

    Across Maine, the ratio of female to male teachers in elementary and middle schools is 4 to 1, and climbing. In more than two dozen Maine school districts, students do not encounter a male teacher until high school, where the mix is almost even, according to Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of state Department of Education data.

    Rick Jensen, whose son Luke is a freshman at Lewiston High School, recalled that his son did not have a male teacher until fifth grade.

    "And he was a little bit bummed out about it," Jensen said. "And then he excelled when he had a male teacher."

    Jensen would like to see Maine elementary schools do more to attract men to teaching. But that's not always easy. In preschool and the elementary grades, male teachers have to contend with suspicions that they might be pedophiles.

    Low teaching salaries may also deter men, who often are still expected to be their family's primary breadwinner, said Jeff Collins, who teaches kindergarten and first grade at the private Waynflete School in Portland.

    Parents also play a crucial role in their kids' education, and boys' performance may be suffering from a lack of positive male role models away from school, researchers say. Nearly one-quarter of Maine's children were raised in single-mother households in 2004, a statistic that was just below the national average, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

    Fathers are getting the subtle message that they are not welcome at some schools, said Stephen Andrew, a Portland social worker who co-founded the Men's Resource Center.

    A few years ago, Andrew said he held focus groups with Portland fathers about their involvement in their children's education. The dads reported that they were often greeted coldly when they visited their kids' schools while their wives were welcomed.

    "There's a message that men are dangerous. This message has been perpetuated in our culture," Andrew said.


    A final theory for why boys are falling behind girls in the classroom is economic: There are better job opportunities for 18-year-old boys than girls.

    Some researchers wonder whether all the attention on the education system is warranted. Perhaps, they say, more girls go to college because they need a degree more than boys do.

    After all, men continue to dominate many of the blue-collar industries - such as fishing and forestry - that don't require a college education and traditionally have paid decent wages. In Maine there are four times more men than women in the manufacturing sector, and men outnumber women 10-1 in construction.

    Consequently, boys may be more likely than their female classmates to start their careers as teenagers.

    Devin Provencal, a plumbing and heating student at Southern Maine Community College, had a male friend in high school who worked at an auto-body shop, and another who worked in construction. By contrast, the girls worked in low-paying jobs such as fast food and baby-sitting.

    "Some guys would feel college is more of an impediment," Provencal said.

    Maine's construction industry has been strong in recent years, which could explain why some boys forgo college. However, the gender gap in college enrollment shows up in parts of the country where the construction industry has not been doing as well, according to Charles Colgan, professor of public policy and management at USM's Muskie School of Public Service.

    More importantly, even if many boys can now earn decent money at age 18, the state's economy is changing. The days when a young man had his choice of manufacturing jobs are gone.

    Over the course of the average man's working life, a bachelor's degree is worth more than $1 million more than a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

    "Want that new car?" said USM education professor Lynne Miller, mimicking a concerned parent. "You're not going to make it, you know, if you don't go to college."

    Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at 282-8226 or at:

    Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

    Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

    Staff researcher Julia McCue contributed to this article

    Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

    Send question/comment to the editors

  • Further Discussion

    Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

    Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
    • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
    • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)