Back-seat boys

Walk the halls of most American schools and you can easily spot them.

Members of their ranks are the most likely to drop out - and to excel in important areas. Increasingly, they're targeted as troublemakers at the same time that many are tapped as leaders. They're likely to be first to shout out a response to a teacher's question - even as they're recommended more frequently for special education or treatment to address disruptive behavior. They own the top echelons of SAT math scores - but are less likely to go on to college.

They're boys.

To look casually at boys' performance in school at the turn of the century is to wonder if this is the same group girls were struggling to gain equal footing with just a decade-plus ago. The push to help girls "catch up" - spurred by a 1992 report that said schools were shortchanging girls - spotlighted everything from how often teachers call on girls to a need to engage them more in math and science classes.

Since then, girls have made strides in a number of areas. But the growing awareness of gender issues in the classroom - in addition to Columbine and a spate of other violent actions by boys - has turned more attention to the male side of the classroom. And academic struggles there are prompting questions about whether schools are meeting the needs of boys - as well as calls for a new sense of gender equity that focuses equally on boys and girls.

"We developed an increased consciousness of how girls learn, but didn't believe boys needed that," says William Pollack, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "No one thought there was a problem with boys. We weren't seeing that boys beneath the top level were starting to drop slowly," says Dr. Pollack, who recently published "Real Boys' Voices."

Boys need more attention?

The subject has sparked heated battles between those who say the focus on girls was needed to address longstanding imbalances and others who argue that such initiatives have come at boys' expense.

"In the current environment, boys aren't seen as needing help," says Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and author of the new book "The War on Boys." "We have had 15 years of efforts to help girls academically. That was based on a distorted picture that underestimated the problems of boys. We need to do for boys what we have done for girls."

Regardless of where they stand on which gender has the better deal, most observers agree that certain evidence points to trouble among the crowd long assumed to have the upper hand. Boys generally get lower grades, though they still outpace girls in areas where they have traditionally held a lead.

Seventeen-year-old males, for example, scored five points ahead in math and eight points ahead in science on a 1996 national assessment, according to the United States Education Department.

But while girls are catching up in math and science, the same is not true for boys in the key skills of reading and writing, where girls have led for a number of years.

In 1996, 17-year-old girls bested boys by 14 points in reading assessments and 17 points in writing. The average 11th-grade boy was writing with the proficiency of the average eighth-grade girl.

Boys are also twice as likely to be tagged "learning disabled" and are "substantially" more likely to be suspended or drop out, according to Pollack. They also far outnumber girls in being diagnosed for such things as attention-deficit disorder.

Time to reassess old assumptions

To some observers, such facts are reason enough to reassess what's happening in the classroom. "Many aspects of American schools are not sympathetic to boys," says Eli Newberger, who wrote "The Men They Will Become" and is a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. "Their robust behavior, physicality, and translation of anxiety into inattention is frequently pathologized and demonized."

Behavior is a big part of the current debate. Teachers tend to hold up girls as models in the classroom because many girls do teacher-pleasing things like finishing their homework on time, sitting still, doing neater work. Perhaps equally important, they are rarely seen as threatening to a teacher.

School days that are tightly scheduled from start to finish also cast a negative light on restlessness and rambunctiousness that tend to accompany boys. And traditional outlets that help active students let off steam, such as physical education and recess, have long been on the decline in schools.

High energy levels

To Richard Melvoin, head of Belmont Hill School, a boys school in Belmont, Mass., removing daily time for activity "is almost criminal.... It's ignoring who boys are."

Mr. Melvoin says that it's important to be alert to relatively minor adjustments that can be effective in helping boys succeed in school.

He cites a math teacher at Belmont Hill who has "walk around" quizzes, requiring boys to move to different parts of the classroom to complete their work. Students also get morning breaks and participate in a strong athletic program.

"In middle school, boys have a different energy level," he says. "We need to be mindful of that, and accept it. It's not evil. In the elementary level, if kids are told they're supposed to sit and be quiet, boys can't do that. If we can work with it, we do a lot better."

Diane Hulse, who heads the middle school at all-boys Collegiate School in New York and has done comparative research on single-sex and co-ed schooling, concurs. She says that teachers at Collegiate have developed a distinct structure for classes, though they draw on techniques that have become popular for both boys and girls, such as group learning.

"Boys can be very competitive with each other, and we want them to develop alternative learning strategies where they're mutually supportive," she says.

To keep groups focused, teachers will assign group members individual tasks: to take notes, to keep everyone on track, to present results to the class. Teachers offer minilessons within the regular class period to keep the pace up, and give boys opportunities to move around or to build things as part of the learning process.

Hulse notes that successfully running such classes demands well-trained and skillful teachers. And, she says, it is crucial that those teachers set a high standard for boys' performance.

At Project Boys, a summer program for inner-city boys that Collegiate runs in cooperation with New York's Fresh Air Fund, Hulse says seventh-graders who had rarely seen themselves as academic material became engaged by Shakespeare's "Othello," their interest piqued by the characters and language.

"Boys often don't have the bar set high for them, and boys respond well to high expectations. We're not stressing them, but saying 'You can do this, you can think it through,' " she says, noting that boys in the program come back for a second year talking about the difference it made in their attitude toward school. "The most important part of that is giving them support and coaching to get there."

The need may be particularly acute with minority boys. Indeed, a new study by the National Urban League indicates that black males are often the victim of low expectations, and show up more often in special education and less often in advanced-placement classes.

Boys may get less respect

Carole Shmurak, a former high school teacher and now professor of education at Central Connecticut State College in New Britain, is in the midst of studying an urban middle school in Connecticut that is testing all-girl and all-boy classes. The intent was to boost girls' performance, but the ones who benefited in terms of test scores were boys.

In suburban schools she has observed, Dr. Shmurak has more often seen the behavior that has long concerned advocates for girls: boys getting called on frequently and dominating the computers. But the different treatment of boys and girls in schools she has observed in urban schools in Connecticut left her amazed. "If I am going to an urban school, I'm much better off being a girl," she says. "Teachers treat me with more respect, and are less likely to yell."

Moving away from either/or

To some extent, Shmurak says, her research has moved her away from centering the issue around gender. Indeed, a number of experts say the best outcome of the current discussion about boys would be to move the focus away from what benefits boys or girls toward what is best for all students.

"If you're talking about education, the best is one that provides the greatest flexibility for both boys and girls," says Susan Bailey, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts and a contributor to the 1992 report on girls.

What shifted Shmurak's focus was looking at the experiences of 50 girls from ninth grade till they graduated from college. Half the group attended single-sex high schools, and half co-ed schools.

"The more I got to know the girls, that focus [on single-sex or co-ed schooling] became less relevant," Shmurak says. "I concluded that what's important is going to a small school with dedicated faculty and small class sizes."

*E-mail newcomba@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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