Schools Fail Boys

Before you read, understand that this might be offensive or considered sexist, but I feel a need to share some thoughts I have had recently in regards to boys in our schools. We are failing them. I base my argument on the basis that yes, I am a boy myself, as well as the fact that I grew up with two brothers and have two sons of my own. With that in mind, I feel as though I have a fair amount of experience with boys in schools.

The first area in which I feel we are failing our boy students is the lack of male teachers in the classrooms. This is more prevalent in the primary grades where a child may go through their entire elementary experience without a single male classroom teacher. While I am certainly not saying there is something wrong with female teachers, I do see the importance of a strong male role model in boy’s lives. This is especially true of boys that come from divorced homes where they live with their mothers. Again, I am not saying single mothers can’t raise boys well, but boys need a positive male figure in their lives. I see a fair share of boys that lack a male role model at home and it is obvious in the way they conduct themselves in a classroom and with peers. While this may be cliché, boys need that male figure to help them grow up and “be a man”.

Another place in which I see us falling short with boys is the overall structure of our schools. Boys are inherently rambunctious, active and often loud. Yet, we ask them to sit in nice rows, be quiet, keep their hands to themselves and stay out of the dirt. If they fail to do this, we discipline them and if that doesn’t work we label and medicate them…all for just being boys. How can we create more boy friendly learning environments that support and encourage those naturally boy-like characteristics?

My final concern for boys in our schools is our post-Columbine obsession with zero tolerance policies in schools. Yes, I fully support the need for safety in our schools and bullying should not have a place among our kids. We should do everything in our power as teachers and parents to ensure every child comes to school and feels safe. However, have we gone too far with the zero tolerance policies? As a child I spent many days shooting my brothers and various other objects with a variety of Nerf, BB or pretend guns. Personally, I probably told my buddies or brothers that I was going to “kill them” numerous times. It was something all the boys I know did and none of us grew up to commit heinous crimes or end up behind bars. Yet, if a kindergartner is overheard playing “gun games” on the playground, he will be in the principal’s office and his parents will have a meeting with the social worker. If you doubt that, don’t. This happened to someone close to me this fall. Again, I realize the need for all kids to feel safe and go to school feeling secure, but at what expense? Millions of boys across this country play shooting games, gun games, and pretend “killing” and will grow up to live happy and successful lives.

I don’t want to sound like I am making excuses for boys because I am not. However, it seems as though schools are setting up boys for failure from the moment they walk in until they either comply or get through to graduation.

For some additional thoughts on this subject I encourage you to take a look at this TED Talk from Ali Carr-Chellman. 


Anonymous said...

Have you seen some of the work from There's a lot of research there to support what you're saying. I found it last year when I started noticing the middle school boys were falling behind in language arts. Funny how when they misbehaved, their recess was taken away, giving them little to no outlet for their activeness.

jsb16 said...

By forcing everyone to sit quietly in rows, rewarding obedience and compliance more than energy and enthusiasm, we're harming all kids, not just boys. The idea that boys are more X and girls are more Y is inextricably cultural. We (as a culture) treat the same babies differently based on whether we're told they're boys or girls from before birth onwards. And then we tell the boys that they're not supposed to be good at sitting still, and the girls that being quiet is the mark of a "good girl" and then we wonder why boys don't do well when asked to sit still and girls do. (Most girls, at least. I have girls who are being medicated for not being able to concentrate on something they're not already interested in, too.)

Go back a hundred, two hundred, years, back to when girls were expected to drop out of education as soon as they got their Mrs. You'll find people claiming that girls aren't strong enough to concentrate for long periods of time, that boys' strength and intelligence is needed for academic pursuits, and that girls will injure themselves if they spend too much time with books and not enough time outdoors in the sunshine.

Even now, no one suggests that boys' rambunctious nature makes them less suited to the discipline of military life than girls are, or that boys' need to move means only female police officers should go on stakeouts.

The truth is that people need movement and exercise and quiet and kindness. Splitting those needs up by gender does no one any good, and harms the people who don't fit the arbitrary gender norms.

Anonymous said...

Here here! Great post. I have kept quiet out of fear I would be labeled a sexist but I so agree with you. Schooling to a large part has been "feminized". Girls are generally more compliant and enjoy the structure of school. Most boys are the opposite of what we expect in school--quiet, sitting in a chair for long periods of time, reading to oneself, reading fiction, conferencing and revising writing, listen to someone talk, responding verbally, etc. Why wouldn't schools be structured for girls since 85% of teachers are female. This is no ones fault and no one is to blame...just a fact. What can male teachers in a school do to help?

Stephanie said...

I tend to take the view that we socialize our girls to be compliant with authority which might them easy to teach but we as educators need to be mindful that compliance is not the same thing as engagement.

The thing that bothers me about the 'boys need male role models' line (which I'm not disagreeing with) is that we perpetuate this idea that males being part of the education system is primarily about schooling boys to be men when we there is so much more to it than that.

For me more males in education should be sold as teaching being worthy in and of itself or we are going to keep having these same conversations.

Bryan Menegoni said...

Great conversation starter. In every high school I have worked in, the bottom 10% of students in every graduating class has been virtually all boys. Yet, when you look at something like SAT scores, the boys are doing as well as the girls. The data is not the point. Rather, what is it about the school environment that seems to push boys towards the bottom?

Mrs Ripp aka @pernilleripp said...

I am still mulling over this post and do agree with a lot in it, however, as a female teacher I am sick of being told that we in general fail boys. I do not have a quiet classroom, none of my students are expected to sit in rows and be compliant, and in fact, my girls are as active as the boys. So if you want to talk about failure in school I think we should discuss how ill-suited traditional classrooms are for learning for both sexes. As a female I am also sick of hearing how we fit better into schools because we are naturally more quiet, this is not true. Girls are more quiet because that is what society expects of them and thus the indoctrination of them starts young.
Great topic but in your explanation you ended up doing quite a disservice to the education of girls.

Josh Stumpenhorst said...

Thanks for the comments and discussion all...I knew I was going to spark some debate on both sides. Pernille, I know you and your work and I would claim that you are far from a traditional classroom and I would love for my boys to be in your classroom as students. However, I think you would have to agree that you are in the minority. Yes, you are correct that many girls are taught to act a certain way based on perceived societal norms. Yet, when I look at my own experiences, it appears that boys suffer the most in traditional settings. That might be a product of girls being better "trained" at an early age based on those expectations. I would also agree with you that we do need to be better for ALL of our students regardless of gender.

Jsb16-I think you bring up some good points that maybe the problem is not school but the cultural expectations placed on boys and girls. Regardless what causes it, it is still a problem. Yes, there are certainly boys and girls that don't fit into those gender norms. I have a girl in class right now that can't sit still and is not what our culture would define as a "good girl". So, yes I hear your thoughts and agree with much of them. My goal was to spark debate around the topic and I feel as though I have.

My comments were primarily based on my own personal experiences and things I see every day. As many of the comments have said, we need to do better for all kids...

William Chamberlain said...

I think that there has to be a pedagogical mind shift to accomplish a change in the classroom dynamic. When the students, who have been trained since kindergarten, move away from a highly structured classroom they have a difficult time adjusting to the freedom. In effect, they equate freedom with free time where they simply quit focusing on learning.

As I transitioned from a structured (very poorly structured since I was never very good at it) classroom to a less structured classroom I had all sorts of problems. I discovered that requiring students to do the same thing in an open environment such as reading quietly, doing worksheets, practicing math problems, etc. did not work very well. I had to learn to change my lessons so they became more relevant and more interesting. Basically, I had to make them worthy of the intrinsic motivation to learn that our students have.

I suspect many teachers would have trouble with this aspect, they don't know how to go beyond the programs and canned workbooks they have been forced for years to use. This is why I have moved away from promoting technology in my school to promoting better pedagogy. Interestingly enough I believe I am making more rapid (and more lasting) progress than I did in the last five years of advocating tech.

Marty said...

This resonates with me as a Parent and as an Elementary School Counselor.

I am a parent of 6 year old boy/girl twins. So I get to see a lot of boy/girl stuff. At this age, I think, girls are developmentally more mature than boys. My daughter has better fine motor control which may be a factoras to why she can sit to do school work much easier than my son. She learned to ride her bike sooner, too.

My son has not taken to sports at this point. I think it is a maturity/coordination thing. At recess, he is all about imaginary play right now. Everything from Super Heroes to Star Wars. This has gotten him in 'trouble' because 'its all fun and games until someone gets hurt'. He's had to sit out at recess and have a visit with the principal. (This could be a whole other post as I take issue with this as a parent and as an educator).

With twins, I am lucky to have my daughter play with her brother doing what others would call 'boy things'. And my son plays with his sister doing what others would call 'girl things'. They explore without the lenses which stereotype these gender roles. Sadly, school is beginning to take that away from them.

Here is an example of another cultural thing: My son came home with a football registration form. My daughter came home with a cheerleaders registration form.

You ask, "How can we create more boy friendly learning environments that support and encourage those naturally boy-like characteristics?" First off, we write a letter to the Teacher/Principal each year at grouping-time. In the letter we clearly state the type of learning environment in which our kids will thrive. I like to think this helps to place my son and daughter in a class that will promote a good-fit teacher/class structure/climate for my kids. By the way, neither of my kids are the sit-in-neat-rows, be quiet types. Also, we could probably use some exploration of this issue at venues like Educon!

Here are some books that explore this topic: Reviving Ophelia, Raising Cain, and Mother-Daughter Wisdom:Creating a Legacy of Physical and Emotional Health.

I am with you on Zero Tolerance. It is wrong-headed. In my role as School Counselor, I am faced with kids using the word 'kill' as a result of being angry. I try to work with them to use a different word then 'kill' as a better way to describe and express their emotions. I like to call that Positive Emotional Expression.

I remember roaming the neighborhood as a kid playing army. We all had toy guns. We had teams. We played dead. It is just the way it was. It was play. Back then we called it fun. Now I would call it learning how to play together and developing social skills without adult interference. This was before computer games like Halo. I assume I grew up to be a somewhat well-adjusted adult. I cannot even imagine playing that sort of activity in my neighborhood today without someone calling 911.

Those are just some of my thoughts. Thanks for the post.

Hyddyr said...

Here's my thought: have schools always failed boys even when boys were the only ones allowed to attend?

Melani vd Merwe said...

Thanks for the article. We have noticed a marked difference in our Grade 9 (14 year-old) boys and girls' results in the English classroom, and decided to take the plunge and split the classes. I can tell you that teaching two classes of only boys can be challenging at times, and it is early days yet, will have to wait and see if we have any real results. That said, this is the first time in 15 years of teaching that I have boys running to get to my class! They sit on gym balls rather than chairs, play with tennis balls during the lesson, and can walk around as their hearts please. I would love to hear from other teachers who have tried a similar tack for teaching teenage boys.

jsb16 said...


Are you giving your girls the freedom to sit on gym balls rather than chairs, play with tennis balls, and walk around during class, too? Or are you telling them (explicitly or implicitly) that they are still expected to sit quietly in rows?

Because of social conditioning, single sex classes can help some kids, but please do remember that not everyone fits neatly into the boxes. Non-heterosexual students aren't free of the possibility of distraction-by-sexual-attraction, transgender students may be placed in the wrong group or may not fit into either group, and active girls and quiet boys may be uncomfortable when surrounded by those who fit society's arbitrary definitions better than they do.

Melani vd Merwe said...

Sorry Jsb, my comment was very short and probably not too clear. In my mixed-gender classes everybody has the same options- gym balls, playing with tennis balls, walking around, sitting on the floor. It does seem, however, that the girls do not make use of these opportunities as much as the boys do. I don't think it is because of my influence (I frequently use a gym ball myself, for instance). The boys just seem to enjoy bouncing and playing while learning more than the girls do. This is a very general trend, there are a few exceptions. I would not want to stick any of the teens I teach into litle boxes, in fact, what we should be doing is to try and find ways to let them escape as many little boxes as possible.

Whathas become clear from the verybfirst is that the boys are enjoying coming to English far more than they have in the past. Good start, yes?

jsb16 said...

Glad to hear it, Melani. (Just out of curiosity, are there girls-only classes, too, or is it just boys-only and mixed?)

Another teacher's perspective on gender-based behavior and social role enforcement:

Josh Stumpenhorst said...

Wow, thanks for all the comments and discussion. I am glad to see the dialogue and open comments here. I did receive some push back on this post which I always appreciate because it causes me to think. In hindsight, I could have written this post without "boys" being identified and left it as kids in general. However, I still believe that boys seem to be hit the hardest in our schools...that may be because of our cultural expectations and norms, but the fact still remains boys struggle in a traditional school setting. That is not to say girls don't as well, but it does not appear to be as prevalent. I think the answer is to have more open classrooms as some of you've described in the comments, where it is ok to sit and be quiet, but also just fine to be rambunctious and loud. Can we have both?

Melani vd Merwe said...

Hi Jsb
It is only in the Grade 9 year that we have split the boys and girls, and only for their English classes. For everything else it is very much business as
usual. Please excuse typos in previous post. I have a head-cold and our water has just been cut here in the southern tip of Africa!

Jonah Salsich said...

You certainly succeeded in providing a thought provoking post.

I'm a male third grade teacher, and I agree that schools are failing boys. Yes, there are plenty of arguments that schools are failing children in general, but I think it is especially true of boys.

I think the biggest problem is the way that most classrooms stifle movement and physical learning while emphasizing reading, writing, and listening.

The idea that boys and girls are not significantly different, and that norms of "girls being quiet" and "boys being rambunctious" is mostly cultural is just not true. Of course the genders are inherently different. Yes, cultural expectations and indoctrination play a big role, but my culture didn't make my beard grow or my head bald. Obviously there are physiological differences between genders, why would we assume that there aren't also inherent cognitive and behavioral differences? Culture plays a huge role, but it doesn't trump millions of years of evolution that have created significant differences in how gender effects the way we think, communicate, and behave.

There is quite a bit of brain research that supports the idea that boys and girls learn differently. here are a few, all originally published by Educational Leadership: With Boys and Girls in Mind and Teaching to The Minds of Boys and finally, Gender-Friendly Schools

The articles overlap quite a bit in their ideas, and they share much of the same research, but the third one (right at the end) really sums up the differences in the ways boys and girls learn.

Here is an excerpt about one of the differences for girls: Frontal lobe development. A girl’s prefrontal cortex is generally more active than a boy’s of the same age, and her frontal lobe generally develops earlier. These are the decision-making areas of the brain, as well as the reading/writing/word production areas (Baron-Cohen, 2003; Brizendine, 2010; Halpern et al., 2007).

And here is a very telling difference about boys' neural rest states: Boys’ brains tend to go into a more notable rest state than girls’ brains do. Because the brain’s first priority is survival, it scans its environment for information that would alert it to any threat, challenge, or information crucial to its survival (D. Amen, personal interview with M. Gurian, July 15, 2008). If the classroom is not providing any stimuli that the brain perceives as important, the male brain tends to more quickly slip into a rest state (which manifests itself as boredom, or “zoning out”). In the classroom, boys often try to avoid these natural male rest states by engaging in activities like tapping their pencils or poking at classmates (de Munck et al., 2008).

So how do we address these differences to help all students get instruction that best fits their needs? Hmm, short of completely revolutionizing education I think many of the suggestions in the previous comments are a good start; increasing the options for movement, choice, building (constructing projects rather than always writing them), allowing doodling, providing fidget tools, etc.

Of course, having a balance of male and female teachers would go a long way as well, not so much as role models but so they can relate to the ways (most) boys learn. I agree with Stephanie that one way to attract more males to the profession is to sell teaching as being a worthy profession in and of itself, but I also think teaching needs to change so that it is more appealing to males. After all, if they and their friends were bored in school and scolded for fidgeting, and their sons are now bored and scolded, why would they want to go back to that?

Amber B. said...

Interesting debate! I, myself, am an educator & the mother of a 5 year old son who was identified as gifted at age 3. I think the previous comments relating the problem to society as a whole are on point. My son is a HUGE sports enthusiast - he loves any and every sport, but he is also a HUGE fan of reading. He really loves to read for enjoyment. So many times people comment, "Wow, boys don't usually like to read", and unfortunately, that is most often the truth. But the question is, why?? Do we, as society, not EXPECT our boys to enjoy reading as much as girls? Maybe subconsciously we have all pushed little gender-restricted nuances from birth??

For the past two years, I taught the "over-aged" 4th grade student population at a Title I school. I'm talking the UNDER under-achievers (according to tests). In the middle of my first year doing so, a fellow teacher complimented me for being able to have one partincular male student remain in his seat. I was like, "Really? Eight hours of the day, and you only expect him to stay in his seat?" Meaning - the focus was never fully on developing his skill set, just confining his body to a chair.

So overall, I think that society (including many teachers) generally has come to EXPECT boys to not do well with "school things", and well, they only tend to rise as high as the expectations we have set for them...

TS Bray said...

A great book on this topic is Raising Cain. It is writing by two doctors with years of experience working with boys in school.

Edward said...

I appreciate that your post title is "school fails boys".

It is interesting to note that a number of the female posters essentially either 1) objected to this title post explicitly or implicitly 2) wanted to highlight that girls have problems too 3) tried to make the erroneous case that there are no innate gender differences (only culture) and/or 4) wanted to confirm that teachers that were trying to address this very real issue with boys were also doing things to help the girls too.

How often are discussions around girl's issues met with such resistance from the minority of educators who are men?

While I am glad that educators are concerned for the educational outcomes and welfare of all of their students, boys and girls alike, it also strikes me that part of the problem is that it is either controversial to talk about boys issues and/or when such a discussion is raised many female educators (who represent the vast majority of educators) want to divert the attention to girls issues or take a gender neutral stance.

Thank you for entitling your post "school fail boys." The statistic that the bottom 10% of performers are mostly boys, and other test related statistics support the position you take in your post.

I hope you will continue to foster discussion in this area and not feel any need to apologize for bringing up and trying to find ways to address this important and very real issue.

jsb16 said...

Edward, you ask, "How often are discussions around girl's issues met with such resistance from the minority of educators who are men?"

First, men do not make up a minority of educators, except at the elementary and middle school level. Men are still the majority at the high school, college, and university levels.

Second, every time someone objects to sexism in the classroom, they're told to "lighten up" because "it was only a joke" and "boys will be boys". The fact that you don't recognize those comments as "resistance" says more about you than about the state of sexism.

Third, I have yet to see a large, controlled study of gender differences in which the spread of traits within a gender is smaller than the alleged gap between genders.

Edward said...


Please leave personal attacks on other posters out of a substantive discussion.

You say, "The fact that you don't recognize those comments as "resistance" says more about you than about the state of sexism."

Attacks like these have no place. Ironically they reinforce the points made in my post, which is a tendency for a meaningful portion of women to resist discussion and in this case attack those who want to talk about and/or applaud others for talking about "boy's issues" in education, which is a valid subject that demands attention.

Once I again I applaud our blogger for entitling his post "Schools Fail Boys".

In a constructive dialogue around education, we could have a discussion called "Schools Fail Boys", a discussion called "Schools Fail Girls." and a discussion called "Schools Fail Children." All of these statements are true in different ways, and there is room within the educational community to have all of these discussions and work to address all of these issues... provided, of course, that people are willing to make space for each of these important discussions and engage in them civilly without

1) challenging the importance of the discussion itself

2) trying to change the discussion about boys into a discussion about girls (there can be another discussion for that) or

3) attacking other participants, which has no place in any such discussion.

I hope there can be more productive discussions about addressing boys issues in education and that many open minded women will participate.

Nobody wins when there is sexism and gender wars.



jsb16 said...

Edward, your response is a classical example of sexism: any woman who points out hidden sexism is accused of making personal attacks (while the substance of their comments is ignored), while men who call women's comments "erroneous" without providing evidence are considered the height of rational and friendly discussion.

None of the men complaining about how boys are treated have come up with any explanation for why schools are *now* failing boys (in particular) by making them sit still, while this wasn't a problem at all in the 1950s. (The only schools today that even come close to mimicking the rigidity of 1940s and 50s schools are the KIPP schools.)

Edward said...


Saying an argument is erroneous is not the same as making a derogatory statement about another poster. You can disagree with a position without attacking the person taking that position.

Your post further devolves this discussion from constructive dialogue towards destructive name calling - again exactly my point in my original post. Why are women so upset talking about 'boys issues in education'?

In your most recent post you are essentially calling me sexist. Please refrain from further personal attacks. I have not attacked you in any way, and I, like all other people, deserve to be able to participate in a discussion without being subject to personal attacks.

I did not address your position because I felt that the larger issue was the personal attack, not because I am sexist. Further, your position does not substantively refute my position, so there was no substantive debate to be made. I will address your points:

1) The conversation is focused on boys, mostly in elementary school, where female educators far out number male educators. Most of the examples in the posts were about young children in elementary school. Implicitly my comment about the female majority was about elementary and middle school teachers who teach 'boys'. You and I agree on the numbers here; you were changing the scope of my comment, ostensibly to find something to disagree with without actually addressing the central point of what I was saying in my post.

2) "Every time someone objects to sexism there is xyz response". Statements like this are by definition untrue, cannot ever be verified, and are an example of someone projecting a personal experience or belief they have onto the whole of humanity. Statements like this are themselves sexist stereotypes.

3) Do you agree there is a gender wage gap in the United States? Many economic studies have concluded this to be true beyond a doubt. Women on average get paid between 70% and 80% of what men are paid for the same exact work. In my opinion that's not fair. This wage gap exists in spite of the fact the 'the spread of traits within a gender is (not) smaller than the alleged gap between genders'. I.e. the within group differential is larger than the between group differential; the highest paid men make 1,000+ times more than the lowest paid men, which is a much bigger difference than the 20%-30% inter-gender gap. By your logic we should then ignore the wage gap because the in-group differential is bigger than the inter-group differential? This point makes no sense and does not in any way undermine the statistics others have cited in this discussion that support the poster's thesis statement that 'Schools Fail Boys'.

It appears to me that you were offended by my comment and you chose to try to create things to disagree about, attack me, make stereotypical sexist comments, and then try to support your position by citing statistics in a way that doesn't make any sense.

Please stop the personal attacks and implicit name calling.

I would please ask the moderator to not allow further posts that are attacks on individuals or groups of individuals (not OK), as opposed to challenging one's position (very OK).

I again applaud the moderator for entitling his post "Schools Fail Boys." This is an important topic that demands further attention and discussion.

Thank you.


P.S. Another poster had already pointed out the erroneous nature of the argument that there are no gender differences. He cited publications in support of the position, and there is wide-spread consensus among both male and female biologists and psychologists that there are biologically based gender differences. I did not feel the need to reiterate other peoples' cited evidence. The 'no gender differences' argument is outdated and is not adhered to by any serious researchers that I know of. It is an erroneous viewpoint not informed by facts or science.