The Problem With Boys

written by Todd Beach

What are little boys made of?
Slugs and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.[1]


In 1998, Harvard researcher and clinical psychologist William Pollack published the New York Times bestselling book, Real Boys, which revealed his research on what he called this generation’s “silent crisis” concerning the raising of boys in our society.  In his book, Pollack challenges our traditional ideas surrounding masculinity and male identity and how the traditional paradigm fails to address the needs of boys in our changing society.

I found the book to be incredibly interesting and I was especially intrigued by the chapter titled, ‘Schools, The Blackboard Jumble’ where Pollack argues that schools are failing boys as students at record levels and describes a new gender gap in education where boys are over represented in the bottom of their class and in a number of other categories such as dropout rates, special education services, and truancies.  With these findings I anticipated more studies by researchers to help identify how schools could better serve boys and specifically understand how teachers could better engage boys in the classroom, but sadly there are relatively few studies with this aim.

My interest in this topic has been constant in my teaching practice but it is especially peaked each September when I see enrollment numbers for my 9th grade Honors American Government & Citizenship course and my AP European History course.  Traditionally more girls than boys have registered for these challenging courses but this year the numbers are especially skewed with girls outnumbering boys more than 2 to 1.

What are the long term consequences of this continuing phenomenon?  When you consider the emergence of the new knowledge economy, the high number of boys who drop out of school and the outsourcing of semi-skilled labor to developing countries what does this mean for their future and what can schools and teachers do to help curb or reverse the trend?

I think it’s important to state that this article is about the underachievement of boys.  Throughout the industrialized world, girls have made dramatic gains in educational attainment, while boys’ underperformance and their tendency to disrupt the learning process have sparked intense academic and public debates about the causes of what many now call the “problem with boys.”[2]

Some scholars and pundits blame schools for fostering a learning environment where boys are set up to fail but frankly there is very little literature which supports this assertion, indeed the need for further research in this area is obvious.  It isn’t that we aren’t sure if boys are underperforming, they are; but how do we fix this?

In a recent article published in the American Sociological Review, the authors assert that “the findings broaden our understanding of boys’ notorious underperformance and the results point at an important mechanism connected to how school and class environments shape boys’ and girls’ learning orientations.”[3]  The authors offer some hopeful hypotheses for schools to address the issue but further study of these strategies and models of implementation are needed.  The article also discusses the role of family as well as their socio-economic status as having a more significant role in developing boys’ positive identity as scholars.

In the more immediate case of twice as many girls than boys registering for Honors courses where I teach, I have often wondered about boys’ perceptions of themselves as learners through their middle school years in comparison to the perceptions which girls carry.  Considering temperament traits in school settings, researchers have found boys to be less persistent and flexible and more active and distractible than girls, who in turn have been found to be less hyperactive and more sensitive.[4]  Teachers’ ability to navigate the differences in temperament while skillfully and positively teaching both boys and girls may produce better results and efficacy for boys’ perceptions of themselves as scholars and in turn affect their choices during registration.  And while this may or may not have an effect on their overall identity as scholars and/or young men, we can reasonably agree that this is at least one step toward reversing their trend of underperformance.

Finally, male teachers in Minnesota represent approximately 25% of all licensed teaching faculty and of this number, more than half of those teachers work in a high school setting.  Does the fact that there are few male role models for boys in school affect their perceptions about who they are as learners?  Furthermore, with the number of single parent homes on the rise as well as the number of fathers who are absent or part-time parents, it is easy to see the need for further study about how schools and teachers can best address the “problem with boys.”

[1] A popular nursery rhyme; a variation of the original English poem by Robert Southey (1774-1843)

[2] Joscha Legewie and Thomas A. DiPrete. 2012. “School Context and the Gender Gap in Educational Achievement.” American Sociological Review 77:463-485

[3] Ibid., p.480

[4] Mullola, et. al. 2012. “Gender differences in teachers’ perceptions of students’ temperament, educational competence, and teachability.”  British Journal of Educational Psychology, 82:185-206


4 thoughts on “The Problem With Boys

  1. Nice work, Beach. From a recent David Brooks column on this issue, along with <>:

    “The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. <> People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling……Far from all, but many of the people who don’t fit in are boys…..

    “Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things. After all, boys are falling behind not just in the U.S., but in all 35 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    “But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.

    ***** “Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp. ***** <>

    “The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don’t fit the ethos get left out.

    “Little Prince Hal has a lot going on inside. He’s not the unfeeling, uncommunicative, testosterone-driven cretin of common boy stereotype. He’s just inspired by a different honor code. He doesn’t find much inspiration in school, but he should.

  2. We must also consider the boys who are at the top of their class, not necessarily in class rank, but at least perceived intelligence by classmates. As a graduate of this past year, I would go as far to say that 80 percent of the true intellectuals of our class (those who went far, far above and beyond with their scholarship, both innate and work driven) were males.

    I think its just the fact that boys mature later, and don’t necessarily realize the advantages of upper level thinking at an early age. Teach them how much of a difference it can make, and some will be bound to face the challenge.

    Then again, I have no research to back up my aimless conjecture. Just ideas.

  3. Todd, I usually don’t read many of your articles but this one intrigued me. I especially enjoyed Bailey’s comments from David Brooks column. I have read many books and articles on the importance of a Father in a girls life but also a Father in a son’s life. This would be a good topic to engage many adults and boys in a conversation. some comments from different sources:
    I have talked to many men my age who are still desperate for the approval of their fathers. And I know that is true for women as well. Jim Valvano, the now deceased coach, said “My father gave me the greatest gift that anyone could give another person, he believed in me.”

    The biggest lesson you taught me was to believe in my ability to accomplish things I never thought possible. From the kid who got C’s in 8th grade math to going to graduate school at a great university. I could never have accomplished this without parents, and a father, that believed in me.

    Hopefully, more adult and adolescents will comment on the topic. Thank again for the article and those who commented. Roger Maupin

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