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Harnessing boys’ strengths and passions to improve academic achievement

May 7, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
Increasingly, boys appear to be falling behind girls academically. Test statistics, grades and college degrees are part of the story, but experts are also concerned about the messages young men get about masculinity. Gwen Ifill talks with Michael Thompson, author of "Raising Cain," Ever Forward Club founder Ashanti Branch and Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "The War Against Boys."

GWEN IFILL: Next, we turn to the latest in our series Parenting Now.

Last night, we focused on concerns about raising girls and the ways our culture shapes their identity.

Tonight, we turn to questions about that challenge of raising boys.

In the classroom, it has long been a given that girls perform better than boys, but that academic achievement gap has now widened beyond elementary school level, to high school and college, where experts are increasingly concerned that boys are falling behind.

When it comes to test scores, girls have essentially closed the math gap with boys. But boys have not closed the reading gap with girls. Reading scores show girls seven points ahead by fourth grade, a difference that grows to 10 points by eighth grade, and remains there through high school.

Boys also lag when it comes to grade point averages, and in every state, they drop out of school at a slightly higher rate. By the time they get to college, 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees are being awarded to women.

For boys who are poor and of color, the situation can be profoundly worse. Black boys in public schools score almost 30 points lower on reading and math than white boys by fourth grade. They account for one-fifth of all school expulsions. And dropout rates for Latino and African-American boys are substantially worse.

T’Roya Jackson, who dropped out of high school in Washington, D.C., is raising a 2-year-old son. She says she realizes that education must be a higher priority for her child.

T’ROYA JACKSON: I’m very concerned for him, especially in this day and age, especially for him being an African-American male, and just today, period. It’s crazy.

GWEN IFILL: Statistics are only part of the story. Educators, psychologists and child welfare experts are also concerned about the messages that boys get about masculinity.

MAN: Stop crying.

MAN: Stop with the tears.

MAN: Don’t cry.

GWEN IFILL: That’s the focus of an upcoming documentary called “The Mask You Live In.” Its trailer was a viral hit.

MAN: In good times, guys are like really close to each other. But when things get a little bit worse, you’re on your own.

MAN: From middle school, I had four really close friends. But once I kind of went into high school, I struggled finding people I could talk to, because I feel like I’m not supposed to get help.

GWEN IFILL: As government-sponsored programs like the White House initiative My Brother’s Keeper begin to shed a light on what is happening to boys, parents are on the hunt for solutions.

So do these issues make it harder for parents to raise boys?

For that and more, I am joined by Michael Thompson, author of “It’s a Boy” and “Raising Cain.” He is a psychologist specializing in the emotional health of boys. Christina Hoff Sommers, author of “The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men,” she is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. And Ashanti Branch, vice principal at Montera Middle School in California and founder of the Ever Forward Club, an after-school program that helps minority boys succeed academically.

Christina Hoff Sommers, in a world that is ruled by men, why are we worried about boys?

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS, Author, “The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men”: Well, it may be ruled by men, but boys are not in charge in school. And they’re falling seriously behind girls, with no end in sight.

GWEN IFILL: Why do you think that is?

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: I think it’s complicated.

It turns out that the broken families have just a far worse effect on a young man’s educational prospects. We didn’t know that. We’re now learning it. Secondly, I think that our schools have become very accommodating to girls, almost places where, I think, as Michael Thompson has said, the girls are the gold standard and boys are treated sort of as defective males.

And we have to meet boys halfway. There are different — we have to acknowledge that boys and girls are different, they have somewhat different needs. And I think we’re doing a fairly good job meeting the needs of girls, and boys have been left behind.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Thompson, let me ask you about that gold standard comment. Is it true that girls are the gold standard? And, if so, what are the obstacles that are being placed in the way of boys?

MICHAEL THOMPSON, Author, “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys”: Look, by school age, three-quarters of boys are more physically active and more impulsive than any girls in the class.

It’s very hard for teachers not to wish that the boys were a little bit more like girls and they could sit longer, especially when teachers are under pressure to produce results in high-stakes testing.

And so the inclination is to more seat time, more pressure, less recess. And so they punish boys by taking recess away. They don’t let them move. And then, all of a sudden, we have an epidemic of ADHD, with boys who are feeling like school is jail and that they’re constantly in trouble.

GWEN IFILL: Ashanti Branch, let me give a real-time check. You are dealing with boys every day. You’re in the classroom, have been for more than a decade. How much of this issue is academic and how much of it is emotional and — or are they the same thing?

ASHANTI BRANCH, Founder, Ever Forward Club: You know, I worked high school teaching math for 10 years. And I realized that there was something happening.

I never really knew why the men seem to have such a challenge with the spatial issue, with the sitting still and focusing. But I realized — I went through a training called “Boys and Girls Learn Differently.”

And from there, learning how the brain differences are happening between boys and girls helped me really become clearer about that worked. Doing the work, after-school program, and doing the mentoring, that is a different type of style. So, we always do fun first. We do fun so they can get all the energy out. Then we can sit down and talk about things.

But, as a math teacher, it was a very different interest. Right now at a middle school, the boys are getting in trouble a lot more often. They are definitely having a lot more challenge with focusing and disturbing others and bothering each other. So, there’s a lot more challenges for them.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Branch, I’m curious whether part of this is that boys are rewarded for — among each other for literally being too cool for school, for not being that invested or thinking there’s much reward in academic achievement.

ASHANTI BRANCH: You know, when I started the program, it was for that reason.

I had smart boys in my class who were failing. And I said, why are you all failing my class? Like, I’m here for you to be successful. And they — they said, well, you don’t get respect walking around with a big heavy backpack. That’s not cool. Right? So, if you are going to be cool, you have got to act certain ways and you can’t be too smart.

And so we began to try and figure out strategies for them to be able to not only be successful, but also feel like they were being cool to who they were trying to impress, which, for most times, the girls.

GWEN IFILL: Christina Hoff Sommers, in your book, or your article about this, in your writing about this, you have said feminism is to blame. What do you mean?

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: Oh, yes. That was a bit of a misunderstanding, because I said how misguided feminist policies have harmed our young mean. I didn’t mean to impugn feminism. And I think people thought that is what I was saying.

GWEN IFILL: Well, tell me what you did mean.

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: What I did mean is that there — that women’s groups organized, and they rallied around girls in areas where girls genuinely needed help, math and science.

And a lot of what they did was very good. But, at the same time, they carried a message that, oh, boys aren’t in trouble. The patriarchy has their back, they are fine.

They weren’t fine. And so boys were neglected. And so it was a misguided application of feminism, not feminism itself — misguided. And the idea that almost — sometimes there are some women’s groups that gave the idea that, oh, well, there are two teams, the men’s teams and the women’s team, and we have got to root for the women.

Well, I think that we’re all in this together.

GWEN IFILL: Who was doing the neglecting? You say boys were neglected. Was it being done in a classroom? Was it being done at home?

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: I think it was groups. There were certain groups, the American Association of University Women. I don’t want to impugn them, because they did a lot to help girls.

But they sort of covered up the problems with boys. I think when we first discovered how salient gender is in education, we did a good job addressing the girls’ issues and neglected the boys.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Thompson, let’s talk about that, because this series is about parenting. And I do wonder what parents’ role is in this underachievement we have been talking about.

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Gwen, parents tell me all the time that they hadn’t understood how hard it was for boys in school until they had a boy.

Moms are telling me this. Boys often feel that school is set against them. And by second or third grade, they have taken their soul out of school. And it’s with their town team, the thing that their father comes to watch.

And they think, all right, I can be a boy and a man outside of school, but school is going to pin me down and make me feel bad. I had an educator tell me, boys in 1,000 years would never have invented school. But what goes on in the subject matter is always interesting to them.

So, we have to find a way to use teamwork, movement, competition, a public product. We have to get boys up and energized. There are too many teachers who worship the quiet solo learner who puts a nice border around the paper and hands it in and wants to please the teacher. Boys are often pleasing themselves, that is, pleasing their group.

And so if you can get boys to work as a team, if you can get them to compete, they are more energized and they will do better academically. People say, well, boys don’t like to write. But they will write a screenplay and film it and show it. They will do that with great enthusiasm.

GWEN IFILL: Ashanti Branch, is that your experience as well?

ASHANTI BRANCH: Yes, absolutely.

I think what’s happening in a lot of the classrooms is that students are — the young men, they are fidgeting and they’re moving and they’re making noise because their desk is crickety. And so, therefore, the teacher is feeling like, why are you disturbing the rest of the class?

And they’re just — their bodies just don’t want to sit still. And I think that one of the challenges is that teachers say, be still, and their brain is saying, I need to move. And that’s a hard battle right there. That’s a battle. As an educator, when I’m in a meeting for longer than an hour, I need to move.

So, for students, for these young ones who are — their brains are moving, developing very fast, their bodies are ready for a lot of energy, and to be sedentary is driving them up the wall, and which is definitely creating a challenge with the teachers. And then they come to my office and I’m like, well, what happened? And they say, well, I fell out of my seat, right?

And so it’s like, all these things that are happening with them is things that we got to find way of supporting them in the way they learn.

GWEN IFILL: How much of this is exacerbated, Christina Hoff Sommers, by the growth in single-parent families, by absence of fathers in this?


An excellent study by a think tank, Third Way, it’s conservative and liberal researchers coming together to find solutions. And what they found was that, in a family with a single mom, for some reason, the girl is inspired. The mother is her role model.

Now, boys love their moms, but the mom is not the role model. And so he tends to turns away and withdraw. And what happens is, we have a large — a growing number of boys who are alienated from education. They don’t have male role models to emulate. They tend to go with their peers. And so they — that is just another dimension of the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Thompson, I am a single mother or a married mother trying to raise a boy, what are the tips you give to try to get around some of these pitfalls?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Well, first, you have to trust boy development.

Boy development is slower than girl development. Girls are ahead, obviously, in early adolescence. And boys are taking longer to catch up. But if you can ignite their enthusiasm and their passion, they will do work for you. If you constantly discipline them, suspend them, expel them — and we have a lot of evidence that the zero-tolerance policies fell very heavily on boys, and they didn’t help.

So, we have to get more teachers who are good with boys. And that can be women, but it would be helpful if we had more men in school. It would be helpful if we had more programs for fathers to come into school.

But we also have to teach people that boy development, their activity and the kind of stories that they love, the kind of adventure and science fiction and superpowers that they love are not dangerous, not leading to violence. There are too many people who think that everything boys seem to love is dangerous.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Thompson, Christina Hoff Sommers, Ashanti Branch, thank you all very much for an interesting conversation.



GWEN IFILL: There’s more from Michael Thompson online. He and author Marie Rocker-Jones put together 10 tips for helping boys achieve their academic potential.