Boys face a large number of challenges to learning early in their lives that make school more difficult than it should be. I will address seven reasons why boys struggle more than girls in elementary school.
I. Few Adult Role Models. If you go to any typical elementary school, you will be struck by how few male teachers (excluding P.E. teachers) there are compared to the proportion of boys in the school population. This imbalance, many schools have no male teachers, sends a powerful message early on to boys that women and girls are successful in school and boys are not. I can tell you from experience that this paucity of male teachers is not exclusively because men don’t get elementary teaching certificates. I have an elementary teaching certificate and yet I have never been employed as an employed as an elementary teacher. There is a strong bias that men teach high school and woman “nurture” in elementary school. Until this preconception in hiring practices is sent to the waste dump of history, it will be one reason boys will continue to struggle in elementary school.
II. Behind Girls in Maturity. On average, boys are about 2-4 years behind girls in social maturity. The net effect of this is that boys are almost inevitably the trouble makers in female-led classrooms. This means that the female teacher’s primary focus with many of her male students is discipline. At the same time, because her girls on average are less of a problem for her in elementary school, teachers can spend more quality time with female students.
III. Social Expectations are Stricter. Boys grow up in a straight jacket of social expectations in which they are quickly pigeon-holed into one of the many sports, into aspiring to be machinists and the like, or into going into one of the traditional male-dominated service professions like police, fire, or the military. Right away, you’ll notice that none of these are particularly academic in character. In fact, boys receive a lot of messages growing up that academic learning will hurt performance if you want to be, say, a professional football player. This creates a built in incentive early on to tune out the female teacher.
Meanwhile, until girls reach puberty, they’re not so much under the social microscope. In elementary school, girls get to experiment and challenge themselves much more than boys do. After puberty, the roles are reversed, but that is another topic.
IV. Peer Pressure Stronger to Consider Schools as Hated Places. If you go onto a playground at a public elementary school during recess, and you ask a group of boys if they like school, inevitably they will all say that they hate it. Male peer groups in school teach their boys early on that school is a jail that you escape from; not learning anything in. School takes away from time that could be better spent on the practice field, the baseball diamond, or the court getting ready for the pros. Never mind that an individual boy’s chances of making the pros in any sport are infinitesimal. At this age boys don’t really have a conception of what a vanishingly small chance is, and the media they watch and listen to make professional sports sound just like Horatio Alger stories of old.
V. Take a Little Longer to Read Proficiently. Through grade four, the best readers in an elementary classroom are almost always girls. Dyslexia and other reading/learning disorders follow the “Y” chromosome much more often than the follow the “X”. A boy afflicted with one or more of these conditions has a near vertical wall of achievement to scale to become proficient readers-and many never make it. With the lack of maturity that the average boy has, comes a short attention span that hinders his powers of concentration essential to mastering the decoding that goes on behind reading. Reading isn’t “cool” and so there is peer pressure to avoid an activity viewed by boys as “girly.” Finally, how often does a little boy see his dad read? Unfortunately in this country, young boys often have no good academic role models at all in their lives.
VI. TV/Video Games. The correlation between reading and academic success is very high by any measure. But reading is an activity that takes time and repetitions. Neither time nor repetitions are available after young boys spend between 4 and 6 hours combined watching TV and playing video games. With the 6 hours he’s already been in school, literally half his day is gone and he’s now ready to eat a lot of fatty food and get some sleep to repeat the cycle again the next day. No time equals no reading equals no academic success.
VII. The Culture of Defeat. If you listened to Rap music day and night, you might stop reading too. First, it’s yet more time taken away from reading since the iPod at maximum volume playing Snoop Dog’s latest siren songs is not conducive to the concentration needed to also read. Second, the very lyrics of these pieces paints a picture of reality for boys that states the following pillars of “truth”: 1) you’ll be dead before you’re thirty; 2) nothing they teach you in school will help you on the streets; 3) school is a prison, and you won’t be a real man until you graduate from a real prison; 4) violence solves all problems quickly and neatly; 5) women and cars are play things with about equal standing in life-they are items to be acquired, driven hard, and disposed of for a new model; and 6) if you want to be really cool and make big money, go to jail and walk out just like me-the big rapper. If you listen to boys on elementary playgrounds today, you will be surprised and shocked by the depth to which boys have internalized these values. Moreover, boys see that these are mainstream pillars of “wisdom” also internalized by all of their sports heroes.
Rather than face up to these realities and change the environment, the culture, and the expectations of boys in elementary school, we almost literally throw them under the bus.