Throughout the country, boys are falling behind girls when it comes to academic achievement. Peg Tyre first noticed this while covering the education beat for “Newsweek,” reporting, among other things, that in elementary school, boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and twice as likely to be placed in special-education classes. But this isn’t a problem with boys.
According to Tyre, the problem is with our schools. In “The Trouble With Boys,” now out in paperback, Tyre explores how our education system is failing to address boys’ unique learning styles and explains why it’s imperative for all parents—of sons and daughters alike—to take notice.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I was covering education for about seven years at “Newsweek,” and it wasn’t until I was [spending time] in schools for a couple of years that I started to notice boys were disproportionately represented at the bottom of the class. I went to the data and found it backed up what I saw. I know from my experience as a reporter that that’s an extraordinary reversal. So, I decided to write about what is causing boys to underachieve—and what can we do about it.
You state that boys get expelled at five times the rate of girls in preschool. How do things go wrong at such an early age?
Preschools have changed a great deal in the last 10 to 15 years. There’s been an increasing emphasis on academics and that’s been great for some kids, and it has some advantages. But one of the disadvantages is that it’s created a much more narrow curriculum where there’s fewer opportunities for free play, physical movement, etc.—and that’s particularly bad for boys. When you look at the work I cited by [developmental psychologist] Warren Eaton, you see that boys and girls move around about the same, but the outliers—the ones that move around the most— are invariably boys. I think that when you curtail opportunities for physical movement, I think you really crush a small minority of boys.
What are the other points of disengagement throughout a boy’s academic career?
In kindergarten and first grade when the curriculum depends on accurately holding a pencil, crayon or paintbrush, you are assuming a whole set of fine motor skills that a lot of kids don’t have and a lot of them are going to be boys. They just tend to develop them a little later. Around third grade students go from a point of learning to read to reading to learn and you often see that boys fall out there. A big dropping out point is ninth grade, and that’s because you have pronounced disengagement in middle school when the two things that hang boys up are handwriting and organization. You can’t succeed academically unless you’re organized. Yet when you talk to people who work with kids, they tell you disorganized people are disproportionately boys.
Why are boys lagging behind girls so much in literacy?
One of the reasons boys fall out around reading is that they’re often given books that they perceive to be girly. Boys prefer reading and writing that tend to be funnier and more irreverent. Their writing also tends to be more directed at other kids in the class and not necessarily at the teacher, whereas girls tend to write more for their teacher. Teachers often take [the former] as an affront, and I think we need to look at that.
What are some of the
red flags that a parent should look out for when choosing a school for
their son, particularly a preschool?
If you’re seeing worksheets, most
people will tell you this is not an appropriate preschool task. You
should look at the classroom itself: Is there adequate room for physical
movement? What does the schedule look like? How much recess do they
get? Ask how the teachers feel about the kind of imaginary play that
boys use. Is there no pretend gunplay or no pretend sword fighting? If
that is the prevailing ethic, you have to ask what the reason is,
because it may not be right for your son.
Aggressive play is often shunned. Should we
be worried if our son wants to play cops and robbers?
We are all very
nervous about children and aggression, particularly involving boys. Why
do we feel that when little boys extend a finger and bend a thumb that
they’re potential Columbine shooters? Smart people who study this say
we’re misunderstanding what we’re seeing. Boys are actually playing
around with the big ideas of courage and valor. It doesn’t reflect how
they’re raised or a family’s values. And when we tell them not to play
that way—when we tell them to turn their gun into a wand—what we
communicate to them is school is a place where they cannot be their
single-sex schools the simple answer?
I wanted single-sex education to be
the magic bullet that fixed this problem, but broadly, the data suggests
that girls in general and poor, African-American boys only do well in
single-sex schools. I have certainly been to many single-sex schools
that do a wonderful job with the children, but I don’t see the data to
support that middle class boys do better in single-gender schools.
Why would this issue be
important to, say, a mother of two daughters?
First, if boys are not
engaged in school, there’s going to be behavior problems, and that’s
going to interfere with your daughter’s learning. Second, when you start
applying to colleges—especially at very elite colleges—there are so
many more high-performing girls than high-performing boys that girls get
treated very unfairly in the college admissions process and get passed
over in favor of lesser guys. As a feminist, it bothers me that that
would happen to our best and brightest girls.