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The war on boys: Young men losing ground in education, emotional health and jobs

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Updated: Wednesday, Dec. 10 2014 1:30 p.m. MST

"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.

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