I wait for my son as he stands in line after school to get his daily behavior report. The first grade students are fidgety in the line, which is probably why they are the "bad kids" who need the behavior reports to begin with. All 10 of these children have one thing in common--they're all boys.
Soon the little boys will wear the same sad faces that are on their behavior reports, next to the teacher's angry exclamation points. They will trudge home and await punishment, knowing, of course, that punishment is what they deserve. Maybe it will be an angry scolding, or a "now your friend can't come over this afternoon." Maybe it will be yard work, or loss of their new toy. There will be tears and wails, but after a while the tears and wails will stop as the boys resign themselves to their fate.
It's good that these little boys learn this lesson about themselves and school early, because, for many of them, school will never be any different. Boys at all levels are far more likely than girls to be disciplined, suspended, held back, or expelled. By high school the typical boy is a year and a half behind the typical girl in reading and writing, and is less likely to graduate high school, go to college, or graduate college than a typical girl. Boys are three times as likely to receive a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as girls, four times as likely to commit suicide, and far more likely to fall victim to teen drug or alcohol abuse.
By every index, our schools are failing our boys. Yet little is being done about it, in part because of the societal misconception that schools favor boys, a misconception created by the American Association of University Women's (AAUW) 1992 report "How Schools Shortchange Girls." The report's claim of a "girl crisis" was widely publicized, the Ms. Foundation declared "Take Our Daughters to Work Day," and Congress passed the $360 million Gender Equity in Education Act.
According to Diane Ravitch, author and former US Department of Education official, "The AAUW report was completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area ... it was like calling a wedding a funeral.... There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys."
Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys, notes that "The research commonly cited to support claims of male privilege [in schools]...is riddled with errors. Almost none of it has been published in peer-reviewed professional journals, and some of the data has mysteriously disappeared."
There are many dissidents within the educational establishment who saw through the illusory "girl crisis" and who have called attention to the plight of boys. Educational Consultant Joe Manthey, who filed a highly publicized gender discrimination lawsuit over "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" earlier this year, says:
"If there's anybody who needed special programs and special funding from Congress, it's boys, not girls. We need more programs for students with learning disabilities, and for retarded, emotionally disturbed, and schizophrenic students--most of whom are boys."
Michelle Ventimiglia, director of a Los Angeles day care center, says "our schools simply aren't made for boys. I see this every September when my students go into elementary school. Our schools are made for children who can sit still with their hands folded, who aren't distracted by a bug on the wall, who keep quiet and do what you tell them to do even if it is boring. Most girls do fine in this environment, but many boys don't.
"Children need physically connected activities, particularly boys. They learn best by doing. An early elementary school student can learn a ton of math and geometry skills, as well as problem solving and social skills, from LEGOs, building blocks, and wood working projects. Cooking projects are also very useful.
"Boys love these types of hands-on lessons and activities, but too often teachers find it easier to simply give them worksheets instead. And now, with so much time being devoted to testing and preparing for testing, teachers' repertoires are even more limited, which is bad for children, particularly boys."
Of course, as parents we suffer along with our children, and as our boys are punished we are punished, too. Every day as I pick my son up from school I hope for a good behavior report that can be celebrated with ice cream or a trip to the park. More often I face what I call the "boy parent dilemma"--when my son is "bad" do I punish him because he can't fit into a structure that clearly isn't suited to little boys? Or do I withhold punishment or censure and in so doing undercut the teacher's authority?
I've agonized over this question again and again, but I always decide that it is my duty to support the teacher. But I'll never forget the sadness of my little son in the back seat after school because I scolded him for his bad behavior report. Why did I scold him? Because I simply couldn't think of anything else to do.
This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal and San Francisco Daily Journal (4/15/02).