The war on boys: Young men losing ground in education, emotional health and jobs | Deseret News National
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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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The war on boys: Young men losing ground in education, emotional health and jobs

This is part one in a two-part series.

This is Jared just days before his 15th birthday: He has mostly B's and C's on his report card, but the lone F is a parent-enraging reminder that math's not his thing. He doesn't get it and he's not receiving a lot of help. He likes basketball, video games and a girl named Libby, because she's "hot," though he can't tell you much about her or how she feels about things, including him. At school he is alternately bored and lost. He'd rather play God of War than study and it was that video game his parents used as a reward to get him to bring up his grades last semester, though he couldn't get the math mark to budge.

In eighth grade, he figured he'd go to college. By ninth grade, he was leaning more toward a technical school. And midway through 10th grade in his northern Utah high school, he shrugs and says he doesn't know. Maybe he'll get a job or join the military.

His mother doesn't understand his struggle. She thinks he needs something that he's not getting, but what?

Experts in child development say she's right. He's a boy — and boys across America are losing ground. It's a situation so dire that three dozen national experts have formed a bipartisan commission to bolster their proposal that President Obama establish a White House Council on Boys and Men. There's already one for females, focused on education, health and career.

The proposal and the research backing it say boys are at a crisis point in education, in physical and emotional health, in employment and in the lack of dads participating in their lives. Boys are losing ground in schools geared to how girls learn and too many are growing up without male mentors in either homes or classrooms. Name a daunting number — higher suicide rates, how many drop out of high school or graduate from college or even take medication for attention deficit — and girls fare better than boys.

It is not deliberate, but society seems to have declared a war on boys.

The slip-and-fall

"Boys are not performing at the level of girls any more kind of across the board," says Karen Rayne, a consultant and teacher in Texas who wrote "Unhushed, a book about adolescent sexuality." "There has been a big push to get girls into math and science. There's no similar push to get boys into social sciences or language. I'm delighted the focus on girls happened, but we really need to look at boys' needs as a gender-specific dynamic."

David Brooks, a youth development professional at the Midvale Boys and Girls Club, puts it simply: "They're losing their vision, their drive to succeed."

In "Why Boys Fail," Richard Whitmire notes multiple — and growing — disparities. The graduation rates for U.S. males is 50.1 percent, while for girls it's 56.4 percent. Look at bachelor's degrees or higher and females significantly outpace men on college campuses, notes Whitmire, a past board president of the National Education Writers Association.

Men retain their advantage in income based on how much schooling they've had, but that's changing. In 2007, men made significantly more than women at every level of educational attainment. Advanced degrees led to average earnings of $100,333 for men, only $58,707 for women.

But boys are losing actual ground in the classroom. It's not just girls catching up because herculean efforts to improve their education have worked. Boys are actively sliding down the mountain of educational achievement.

"It is the first time in U.S. history that sons have less education than their fathers," says Warren Farrell, author of "Why Men Are the Way They Are" and "Father-Child Reunion." He was a driving force behind formation of the commission to push for the boy/men council. "Whenever you have children with less education, then you have children that are dropping out, children that are not getting jobs, children that can't compete in the global economy." It also leads to national security vulnerability, he says.

Boon or bomb?

Boys are like nuclear energy — "either your most constructive force or your most destructive force," he says.

Here's what happens: Boys start to "disengage" from education in middle school. By age 12, they are twice as apt as girls to have repeated a grade. From there, it gets rougher. Boys are twice as likely to be suspended, three times as likely to be expelled. At age 16, they start dropping out. A smaller percentage of them graduate from high school than girls. They will be outpaced by girls in college attendance and completion, according to the commission's report, which included hundreds of studies from sources like the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education, to build its case for why a gender-specific council for males is needed. The commission has gathered all its research together online at whitehouseboysmen.org.

For every 100 women who earn a bachelor's degree, only 73 men earn one. Women outnumber men obtaining master's degrees by more than 30 percent.

Whitmire's "suspects" for why boys have lost so much ground in schools includes video games, homework, male angst, feminization of the classroom, disappearing male role models including teachers and failure to practice brain-based teaching.

Boys and girls learn differently. Boys learn best when the teaching is interactive, physically active, project oriented and includes some competition. Testing boys should reflect that.

Child psychologist Michael Thompson is a nationally renowned expert on mental and emotional development of boys. In 1999, he and Dan Kindlon co-authored "Raising Cain," a landmark work that highlights several acute psychological needs of boys that girls don't face.

"I think there's a greater awareness today about the ways in which boys struggle in our culture," Thompson told the Deseret News, but he said it's not enough. Still, when he talks to teachers, they at least no longer look at him blankly. The response now is "We know. What should we be doing and what can we be doing more?"

Wired that way

Kindlon notes that even brain development gives girls an edge in school. Their brains reach various stages of maturity earlier than do the brains of boys. For example, in 2007, the scientific journal NeuroImage used MRI scans to show that the female brain achieves its largest cerebral volume at age 10.5, while for boys it's 14.5 years. Thus, in elementary school, boys consistently face an uphill battle because they are in class with girls, whose brains are developing faster.

"Early on, there are pretty big maturational differences between boys and girls," Kindlon says. "First grade isn't really a fair place to compare boys and girls. Some people are fairly concerned about the fact that a lot of boys who aren't ready for school just kind of give up early or think they're dumb. When (boys) do start to catch up intellectually, sometimes it's too late because their self-esteem is already bad and they've fallen behind."

Trying to overcome

Reading is an area of particular concern with boys. National education statistics say by eighth grade, only 20-25 percent are proficient at reading and writing, something different programs are trying to change. The "A Guy Reads" program in Alaska has men reading funny, boy-friendly books to fourth grade boys at lunch. Research collected by the White House Council commission says that, as a result, "boys otherwise known for behavior problems were writing their own children's books and competing to read them and bragging about them." Some schools use interactive video games that require reading skills for the boy to move forward. And more than 500 public schools use single-sex classrooms to teach science, math and language arts, while other classes are gender-integrated. The results have been improvements for girls in math and science and boys in terms of behavior and core classes.

Even with all the efforts, though, Thompson sees a wide swath of misperception wreaking havoc on educational outcomes for boys.

"The teachers in school sometimes start to treat the boys as if they're always failing the standard — and the standard is the way the girls act," he says. "I talk about this as the girls being the gold standard and the boys always being seen as being defective girls. ...

"We can't still keep thinking that it's always girls who get the short end of the stick. Girls passed boys academically in 1982 and pulled even in math and science in 2003," says Thompson, who is one of the experts pushing for the White House Council on Boys and Men. He is annoyed that the president set up a council for girls and women "and it never occurred to him to do one on men. "I'm in favor of more specific attention to boy underachievement in schools, the problems of male unemployment in this country and a whole number of health issues."

Reverse discrimination

Boys are being given one advantage when it comes to an education system essentially designed for girls: They are held to a lower threshold of college readiness than their female counterparts for admission to the same universities, author Kindlon says. It's an interesting and unintended consequence of educational disparities. He suggests affirmative action practices are already being used to make sure the 60/40 ratio of college degrees for women and men, respectively, don't skew even further toward females.

Bring dad back home

Change always needs a starting point. Putting dads back into families is where experts like Farrell, the author and one of the commission's founders, would start.

Men are essential to the development of healthy boys. A lack of male role models, mentors and fathers is devastating to child development. But more than 24 million children — 1 in 3 — live in homes without fathers. And almost 40 percent of American children are now born out of wedlock, according to National Vital Statistics Reports. That nearly always means little or no father involvement.

Dad is important for a lot of reasons. The proposal sent to President Obama notes that infants whose dad lived at home were as much as six months ahead in personal and social development. Premature babies go home sooner when dad visits the hospital regularly. Time with dad more than anything else predicts empathy in adulthood. His involvement reduces the likelihood that a child will need ADHD medication or professional help for behavioral or emotional problems or depression. His presence improves school performance; his absence increases the likelihood a child will drop out. Most gang members come from homes without dads. No dad around increases the likelihood of criminal activity and dad is the single-biggest factor in preventing drug abuse.

"Dads tend to encourage children to solve problems on their own. A new longitudinal study of children from infancy to age 3 discovers that this approach increases children's ability to focus, be attentive and achieve goals. It also helps with impulse control and memory and enhances a child's ability to respond effectively to new or ambiguous situations, for boys and girls," says Farrell.

He would enforce hard rules to govern what happens to children when their parents' marriage or relationship founders. Unless there's abuse or molestation, children should always be involved with both parents. No moving away to start over if it means depriving kids of their father. Start over where you are.

In a divorce, a child needs three things to have "almost as good a chance as an intact family": About equal time with mom and with dad. They should stay geographically close enough to each other that the children don't have to give up friends or activities to see the other parent. And parents must not bad mouth each other, including rolling the eyes, being defensive or other signs of disrespect.

The report is careful to note that "None of this implies that men are better as dads than women are as moms." Both are essential.

Just visiting doesn't have the same beneficial impact on kids. Dads have to be a real, regular, interactive factor in their children's lives.

Tomorrow: Boys and sex, media, violence

Watch: Bruce Lindsay Sunday edition looks at the War on Boys

Email: lois@desnews.com, jaskar@desnews.com