The Lost Boys

Part I

The Gender Gap


Nick’s bored.

He’s had a thousand-yard stare for much of the preparation for the upcoming standardized tests. Occasionally, he tunes in long enough to get the answer and then he’s off again in his own mind.

He wears a traditional ponytail and a shirt that says, “Native 24-7.” It has the colors of the medicine wheel and four personas: The Warrior, The Healer, The Teacher and The Visionary. He smiles often, helps his fellow classmates, he excels on the basketball court and he performs adequately in school with mostly B’s and a couple C’s. And adequate, makes him the top-performing boy in his class. He also served in-school suspension last week for fighting, and he regularly needs to be reminded to stay on task, to stay focused, and to get to work.

Two other boys in class, Adrian and Matt, are consistently disengaged, and in terms of performance, they are far below Nick. Adrian, a sixth-grader, reads at a second-grade level. I pull him out of class and work with him individually for a half-hour a day. Matt admits he’s just not motivated to do well in school.

According to the latest science and data, boys like Nick, Adrian and Matt are quite common today; increasingly trapped in a cycle of poor performance, low motivation, and are often disengaged during school. Not just here on Rosebud, but also in Rapid City, New York, London, England, and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Many young men are in no shape to succeed in a job market that requires increasing skill levels.

Last Wednesday, The New York Times published the latest report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development regarding gender inequality in education. While boys are still outperforming girls in math, young males are behind young females in everything else. Around the world, more boys are failing to meet minimum standards in proficiency.

Here are a few startling findings from the report:

-“The most perilous statistic in the O.E.C.D.’s report is about the dismal performance of less educated boys, who are falling far behind girls. Across the board, girls tend to score higher than boys in reading, which the O.E.C.D. considers the most important skill, essential for future learning.”

-“At the bottom, the gap is enormous: The worst-performing American girls — who did worse in reading tests than 94 out of every 100 of their peers — scored 49 points more than bottom-ranked boys, a 15 percent gap.”
In the classroom, I’m watching it play out in real time. Unfortunately, the numbers correlate here. In math, all of the boys are below benchmark, and there is little chance, even with major improvement, they’ll reach year-end goals set by both the Todd County School District and the U.S. Department of Education.

Of the four eighth-grade boys, two are testing in math at a second-grade level, one sits at a third-grade level, and one at sixth-grade level. All of them are expected to go to high school next year. By comparison, the top-performing girl is performing at a sophomore level, and the lowest-performing girl is at a fifth-grade level. But probably the most telling stat is this: Of the proficient or advanced students in both math and reading, only one boy in this class is proficient in both- Nick.

That morning, Nick and the boys spent working hard on their biography projects. In many respects, they’ve overachieved. They created timelines that are organized and clear. They’ve highlighted relevant sections of sources with different colors. They stay to task, without any teacher progging, for an hour an half. But all of that is about to come to a screeching halt.

The boys switch classrooms to across the hall, from writing to science. During the break, they push each other and laugh. They run and jump like they’re dunking a basketball. They shadow box each other. They bump into girls.

“Hands to yourself. Hands to yourself.” The teacher reminds them.

Midway through the period, the boys have done little to no work. They are undeterred by both incentives and warnings from the staff. One boy is sent to the office. The other boys change their behavior, for about ten minutes, and then find a different way to be disruptive.

Finally, the teacher switches gears and introduces an activity. She pulls out rocks, minerals and gemstones, and suddenly, magically, all four boys in the class are engaged. It gives them an opportunity to get out of their seats for only time in the a.m. They touch the rocks, examine, compare them, and pick up another. They talk to each other about the different types. After lunch and recess, the boys return and for the next hour they work on their science fair projects for more than an hour without interruption. Again, they are up moving around, using their hands.

What does this tell us about how boys learn? What if the boys were outside more? What if science class were hiking, finding and examining rocks from the area? What if the ranch next to the school became the classroom two days a week?

Impractical? It’s starting to happen more and more as new science, specifically evolutionary biology, offers important evidence specifying how boys learn. I recently chanced on a book called, “Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences.”

The book provides solid evidence that at least some of the differences between how boys and girls learn are biologically programmed. One important assertion of evolutionary biology is that if you find a behavior that is maintained across many different species within an order (in this case, the primate order), then that behavior likely serves some biologically useful purpose. For example, female primates prefer to take care of babies, male primates prefer to hunt and kill.

“Ever watch kids playing on a playground? Psychologist Janet Lever spent a whole year at elementary school playgrounds, watching girls and boys play. Boys fight a lot, she noticed: about twenty times as often as girls do. To her surprise, though, she found that boys who fight each other usually end up being better friends after the fight. They are more likely to play together in the days after the fight than they were in the days before. Girls seldom fight, but when they doa��often with words rather than fists’the bad feelings last.”

The reports in the book are similar to what scientists have found with chimpanzees.

“Male chimpanzees are about twenty times as likely to fight as females are, but the fights don’t last more than a few minutes and rarely result in major injury. Two male chimps who fight each other this morning may be grooming each other this afternoon.”

So what evolutionary purpose is served when young males chase each other and wrestle, sometimes for hours on end? Primatologists believe:

“Wrestling and fighting with other males teaches them the rules of the game. If young male primates are deprived of the opportunity to fight with other males, those males grow up to be more violent as adults, not less.They’ve never learned how to get along with other males in a playful, aggressive way. The rage seems to get bottled up inside until it explodes. And if it’s true for our cousins, it may be true for us.”

So if evolutionary biology can provide a better understanding of how boys learn, what can administrators, teachers and parents do to utilize these findings?

Check out The Lost Boys Part II, next week.

By Jake Nordbye, Guest Blogger