The Trouble with Boys

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February 18, 2009
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Peg Tyre (Crown Publishing, 2008, 320 pp, $24.95)
Reviewed by Max Klau

If you are a parent, educator, clergy, or youth worker, you’ve almost certainly been wondering lately about boys. The anecdotal stories are everywhere: while the honor roll is 70 percent girls, the kids in detention are 70 percent boys; vast numbers of boys are diagnosed with ADHD or behavioral problems; far more girls than boys are signing up for youth groups, and applying to college (undergrad and beyond). Are boys really having trouble?  If so, why? And what should we do about it?

In The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do, former Newsweek journalist Peg Tyre offers an insightful and provocative introduction to this important — and politically explosive — issue. The book is clear, well-researched, and chock full of stories and insights that are sure to leave you challenged, pensive, alarmed, and inspired. 

Tyre begins with the facts. Her overview of relevant research eliminates any doubts about  anecdotal stories. Boys are achieving less than girls in all subjects and in every grade level across the spectrum of socioeconomic status; and the gap is significant and growing.

Tyre does a great job of alternating between macrolevel statistics and microlevel tales from the front lines. She presents data describing the considerable gap between the literacy levels of boys and girls in elementary school, and then describes a classroom where a teacher is constantly chastising boys for being too fidgety and unfocused. She describes college attendance rates that are approaching 60 percent female/ 40 percent male, and then introduces us to a young man admitted into a particular college as part of a special program designed to even out the gender ratio. Is it fair that this underachiever got in when women with better grades were rejected? These are the questions that make any exploration of the trouble with boys so controversial.

Tyre offers a compelling explanation of the history that informs the heated debate.  Not so long ago, girls achieved less than boys particularly in math and science. A generation of feminist scholars and activists fought long and hard to unravel systems of instruction and funding that privileged boys over girls. Although the data suggest that feminists have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams at transforming schools into places that support female achievement, many remain committed to a stance that appears to be growing outdated.

Tyre repeatedly argues against a feminist notion that current efforts to address how schools fail boys represents an attempt to dismantle the hard-won gains made by girls. She believes that gender achievement is not a zero-sum game, in which every gain made by boys results in an equal loss by girls (and vice versa). Rather, she urges us to imagine win/win educational environments that support the success of all students. 

Tyre does an impressive job of honoring the complexity of the issue. She explores recent findings from neurology, psychology, intriguing educational interventions like all-boy schools and all-boy classes in coed schools, and surprising cases of literacy and math instructional methods that have proven to work particularly well with boys. By debunking some popular trends (you may want to rethink Michael Gurian’s work on the “minds of boys” after reading this) and highlighting promising practices (check out the Scottish septuagenarian’s innovative literacy approach), Tyre brings much-needed clarity to a complicated debate.

Tyre notes that despite the overwhelming evidence that boys are falling behind, there is remarkably little research focused on rigorously exploring the problem — perhaps because of the controversial nature of the subject. Given the magnitude of the problem presented here, this status quo is clearly not acceptable.

Ultimately, however, Tyre is an optimist. In the past 30 years, feminists successfully transformed American education by insisting upon viewing educational practices through the lens of gender. No one can doubt that norms, values, funding patterns, and best practices in the world of education can be changed to more effectively ensure the academic achievement of an underperforming gender. The time has come to take on a new gender challenge; this work begins with a thoughtful, energetic, and informed national dialogue. With this important and insightful book, Peg Tyre has kick-started that discussion in a powerful way.

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Dr. Max Klau is director of leadership development at City Year, Inc. A developmental psychologist, he consults with an array of organizations on youth leadership education and gender and moral development.

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