The reasons for it, and what it means, remain open to debate, but that boys have fallen behind girls in schools is a fact. There is much data confirming this. For example, according to Richard Whitmire - in his 2010 book, Why Boys Fail -- nearly twice as many boys as girls have to repeat a grade in school. And according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2007 only 43% of college students were male (put another way, this means that for every 100 males in college, there are 133 females). A quick Google search shows dramatically what educators are well aware of. If you Google the sentence "Why are boys falling behind in school?" and you will get over 4,000 hits, but do the same with the word "girls," and you will get zero.
Also, when in college women tend to do better than men. Many scholars and journalists believe that this large gender difference in education and academic success may not bode well for the viability of marriages. Most women would still like to marry someone who is at least at their level of achievement.
Many reasons have been offered for this no longer so new gender gap. One is possible biological differences, where girls' reading and writing readiness may typically come earlier than it does for boys. (If this is true, it might not have shown up as a problem until an acceleration in education made modern-day kindergarten much like earlier generations' first grade; so we have reading instruction given when 5-year-old girls are ready for it but many 5-year-old boys are not). Other credible causes include absent fathers, addiction to video games, and good grades not being "cool" in the boy world. Yet another possible reason that has been offered up, but is highly controversial, is that as a result of early 1990s critiques of the classroom climate for girls -- e.g., Myra and David Sadker's 1994 book, Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls -- the classroom became less boy-friendly.
Any or all of these elements may be important - and the more I read about how kindergarten has changed, the more I see this as a potentially major problem for boys -- but there may well be something else going on, something that rarely if ever gets mentioned: the "Sixties" father, who vowed that he'd never treat his sons the way his own father had treated him.
My father was a pretty scary guy. As I grew up - in the 1950s - I quickly learned that nothing short of my best possible performance in school would get my dad's approval. To perform below my ability meant a clear expression of disappointment from him, if not stern corrective action. When I failed my first French test in junior high school -- I left out the accent marks, thinking they were optional -- my father grounded me for the weekend and insisted I study French.
It quickly became one of my best subjects and I loved using the language whenever I could.
But that forced French study when I was 11 illustrated a dark side of my relationship to my father: I was afraid of him, literally afraid not to do well. And while my writing and good grades won his approval, another interest of mine -- music and songwriting -- got no attention whatsoever. All that counted was doing well in school.
I have three sons, the first born in 1964. The do-your-own-thing, realize-your-potential feelings that soon pervaded the country were just the backdrop I needed to do what I probably would have done anyway: I vowed that I would never treat my son the way my father had treated me. I would not be scary or tough; I wouldn't impose my desires on him. Rather, I would watch to see the cues to his interests and encourage those. I did exactly this with him and his two brothers, born in 1974 and 1981.
With my oldest son, it was easy. From the age of 10 he loved filmmaking, and it is his passion and work to this day. But his brothers have been less sure of what they wanted to do, and sometimes I regret not pushing them a bit more -- to fulfill their potential in school. They did go to college, but both have experienced a good deal of angst around work and direction.
As boys, we men now in our fifties and sixties wanted to make our fathers proud of us -- even if another motivator was fear that they wouldn't be. And this wasn't all bad. Even though it didn't always match my own natural interests, what made my father proud - my doing well in school -- helped me to find a couple of things I have loved to do, namely, teaching psychology, and writing.
Our fathers wanted to be proud of us. We want to be proud of ourselves -- as fathers. We feel certain we're doing a better job with our sons than our dads - with their set ideas -- did with us. But are we?
Girls have always tended to be better students than boys: more compliant in the classroom, more likely to enjoy reading and writing, less likely to get into trouble. It's easy to see how girls' studious proclivities could be channeled into career aspirations by a women's movement that said, "You can do anything!" But this alone cannot explain why boys have retreated (or, at best, stagnated) as girls have advanced. Sex differences in development may help to explain it, especially now that reading and writing instruction have been moved up to age five. But just as a good sports coach can get the best out of his charges by being tough when he needs to be, so too can a good father help get the best performance from his sons by making it crystal clear that the best grades he is capable of are expected and that a lackadaisical attitude toward school will not be accepted. Our society has been justifiably concerned about absent fathers, so much so perhaps that we haven't noticed that even present fathers aren't much help if they look the other way when their sons underperform.
Incidentally, I have concentrated on fathers because that is my own experience both as a child and a parent. But as many a successful man will attest - and a good example is President Barack Obama -- a mother or grandmother can certainly fill the role of a no-nonsense parent. In fact, I think it is fathers - more than mothers or grandmothers - who are reluctant to "push" their sons.
A friend of mine said that when she was pregnant in the late 1980s, her husband was very hopeful it would be a girl, since he worried that if it were a boy, he would bear down on his son the way his father had done with him. He sensed that if he had a girl, he wouldn't have to; that society and her peers would give her all the encouragement she needed. (My friend did give birth to a daughter, and without a great deal of prodding she went on to graduate from a prestigious college.)
Boys have always needed a push. And they used to get it at home. It's so much easier to blame biology, schools, and feminists than to look at ourselves as parents. But stories of successful young men almost inevitably seem to point to at least one parent (or grandparent) who did push, who did set limits, who realized that the '40s and '50s father wasn't all bad.
A cartoon I saw in a newspaper recently consisted of two panels, and in both a boy is holding a report card with a big F on it, and his parents are yelling "These grades are terrible." In the first panel, labeled 1960, they are yelling these words at their son. In the second, labeled 2010, they are yelling them at his teacher.
As Whitmire points out in his book, schools that are most effective with boys are often strict and demanding. But parents have much more control over what happens at home than they do over what goes on in school, and parents - especially of boys - should not be remiss in their own responsibilities to encourage learning - not with yelling but with clarity and firmness.
Yes, I am happy that my sons were never afraid of me and that we express love to each other in a way my father and I could not. But I have watched my two younger sons struggle with what to do in their work lives, joining millions of other young men, prey to a corporate world just too happy to supply them with endless music, sports, and video games. And so I wonder if, when one of my sons brought home a report card with grades below his abilities, I should have said more than a very gentle "That's okay, but do you think you can do better?"
Girls and young women - excited by possibilities and encouraged by a whole society of achieving women - continue to excel in college (and beyond), and reach ever higher in their aspirations and achievements. All good, yes. But if things continue as they are, these women will have the double concern of worrying about their brothers and wondering if they'll ever find a man with interests, ambition, and education to match their own.
Large portions of this post originally appeared as a 2007 op-ed piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.