Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are we failing our boys?

The current presenter of my favourite Sunday morning radio programme, A Point of View, is American journalist Tim Egan. This morning he addressed the thorny subject of boys in secondary education; he has a personal interest, being the father of a 17 year old. The state of our schools and the behaviour of young people is never far from the headlines here, so it was a relief, in a way, to hear that it is not a uniquely British problem.

For fourth grade read Year 4 and for 12th grade read sixth form, and the following could apply equally to English students:

"At fourth grade, the boys are as smart as girls, judging by the inexact measurement of test scores. In maths and science, fourth graders in the US rank near the top of all students in the world. By eighth grade, they're in the middle. And by 12th grade - senior year in high school - American students are near the bottom in maths and science."

The concerns are the same on both sides of the Atlantic:

The average is dragged down for one big reason - the boys. They fall through the floor. And the question is did we fail them, as parents? Or did our system fail them?

Egan's article is not the usual judgemental piece we expect of journalists, critical of teachers, parents and the youngsters themselves. He observes with the insight of a sympathetic parent:

This summer I was strolling through Boston at midnight with friends, when we came upon thousands of people, many of them looking to be about age 12 or 13, in a huge, excited line waiting to get the latest Harry Potter book. The buzz, the energy in the streets was extraordinary. All these kids, jostling and bouncing off each other, talking excitedly about - a book. Waiting for hours... to read.
For a 12-year-old boy, it's cool to be smart. It's cool to read. It's cool to be a nerd. But then what happens? By age 17, the boys, many of them, would never be caught dead around something "sooo yesterday" as a printed page from a bound volume. Sure, they're forced to read, for school, but that's a different matter.
So, then they go off to college, where the girls far outnumber them. Or they drop out. And they never spend another day in school and -- sad to say -- they're doomed, by the law of averages. For students who never go to college will earn only about $25,000 (£12,500) a year - barely above the poverty line for someone trying to support a family.
But look at them now, age 17, senior year. All that confidence, even with the mumbling, the texting, the grunting, the sniffing. So much tomorrow in their faces. Ah, but it's surface, in my experience. They have outside swagger, these boys, but inside - they're unsure of themselves.

Does he offer any answers? He refers to a speech given by Bill Gates to a National Governors Conference about two years ago, in which he advocated a complete rethinking of our attitude to teenagers:

After the Gates speech, a number of governors around the US held town hall meetings on rethinking the teenager, especially in that senior year. A new
school in California, called High Tech High, was cited as a role model. There, boys aged 16 and 17 said it was the only place where they felt that being smart was cool.
Bill Gates says the problem is that high school was designed for 50 years ago. Nobody would use a 50-year-old mainframe computer, he says, in his inevitable metaphor of choice. But forget about 50 years, many educators and child psychologists say our system is dated by a century or more.
For starters, why do high school students get summers off? This is a relic of the old agrarian age, when boys were needed in the fields throughout the summer and into the harvest. A hundred years ago, one in three jobs in the US was still tied to agriculture. But today it's barely 1%.

Egan acknowledges that there are no easy, one-stop solutions. The problems in the States are the same as ours, and probably the same throughout the western world: a combination of changing family values, outmoded education systems and serious underfunding:

Another question: Should they drive? In all but a few of the states, a driver's licence can be had at age 16. What follows is perhaps the most dangerous year in a teenager's life, especially that of a boy. This year about 6,000 teenagers will die in car accidents in the US - that's more than 50% higher than the death toll among American troops in Iraq over the last four years. In most of Europe, the age is older, and the death rate is far lower.

What to do? In 2005, First Lady Laura Bush started an initiative on boys, an attempt to figure out why - and how - we fail them. It was supposed to be a three-year initiative, pulling together all the experts. But it never went anywhere, after some initial meetings. And maybe that's because we cannot rethink the teenager by wishful thinking from the executive branch of government.

Bill Gates is more direct - investing nearly $2bn (£1bn) to encourage new high schools and to reform existing ones. Now I know, watching a teenage boy over the course of say, a single hour, that it is very difficult for them to stay focused on any one task. Our son has his driver's license. I tell him no texting, no mobile phone conversations, no distractions while driving a 2,000lb vehicle through the
streets. And certainly, no drinking. Sure dad, he says. I'll behave. Just like you did. And here's where parents - mostly baby boomer parents - trip up. We tell the boys to do as I say, not as I did. We know from experience, but it's painful experience, and it can make us look like hypocrites. When I was 17, I lost my two best friends - two guys I had known since grade school - to car accidents. One was driving home late on a Saturday night after drinking a couple beers. The other fell asleep at the wheel. It haunts me still, those deaths.

That popular book, The Dangerous Book for Boys, has become quite the draw for people asking these questions. There is nothing really dangerous about the book, despite the
title. It is a compendium of all the adventurous things that boys like to do. The authors say that boys are naturally drawn to risk. They portray the kind of risk that seems so retro, so harmless - playing in trees, chasing each other on bikes,Tom Sawyer stuff. That world is gone for boys now in their last year
of high school. Their minds may still be Tom Sawyer, but their bodies are men. We used to have rituals for passing on the baton of life, from one stage to the other. Manhood rituals. Knighthood. Bar Mitzvahs. They were formalised in warrior cultures, and then in the military, or church, or in a tribal circle. Now, for the modern urban
family, the choices are limited. Give them the car keys and sigh? Take them to the mountains for a weekend of bonding around a campfire? It's not enough. Perhaps rethinking the teen, in the end, is just that - with considerable anxiety.

You hope their minds, their souls, their hearts catch up to that newly deep voice. You hope.

No solutions then, but an intelligent and thoughtful approach to the subject for a change. Read the full article here.


  1. I think the obvious answer to the question is that between 12 and 17 puberty occurs and the kids, boys and girls, who are popular in high school are usually those who experienced puberty at younger age, but that success doesn't always translate to success as an adult. A fact borne home when the younger son went to a high school reunion and found the BMOC (big man on campus) was a balding fat guy who pumped gas at the local garage.

    We solved the driving question by giving our kids a pretty spiffy car to use as their own with a credit card for gas with only one proviso and that was no drinking period, no showing off period and the first infraction would be the last. They knew we meant it.

    Driving that little red car around was so intoxicating there never was a problem and we slept better knowing that our kid was at the wheel of a well maintained safe car rather than the victim of some kid who abused the privilege of driving.

    I'm of the school that maintains that our kids are our responsibility, so if the schools, the teachers, the curriculum doesn't suit, it's up to us to make up the gap. The public schools here in the U.S. are dreadful because they are fiefdoms of the teachers unions and are run for their own benefit, the students be damned.

  2. I agree with you that our children are our responsibility but, having taught in both the private and public sectors, I know that not all youngsters, regardless of their background, get the support from home that they need and deserve.

    Teachers' unions here have no power and very little influence any more; it is misguided government interference that disrupts the schools nowadays. I put my children through private school to ensure they had a decent, uninterrupted education.

    At what age did your children start to drive? The Tim Egan article suggests that they would be younger than European kids. We didn't give ours their own cars, we had a third 'family' car for their use. It was a beautiful vintage model, needing loving care so they were never tempted to become boy or girl racers!

  3. All the kids drove at 16. We didn't buy them each a car, but we provided a car for their use. Luckily there was five years between the middle kid and the youngest, so the older two were up and out by the time he started driving. Even so at one time we had, a big Ford Country Squire station wagon (mine), a Chevy Malibu sedan (his), three VW Beetles (theirs), and an MG (mostly in a state of disrepair). We weren't exactly popular with the other parents, but it worked for us.

    My youngest was born in 1964, so we were able to send them all to public schools before they disintegrated. The track system was still in effect, so their classes were taught be very competent teachers and they were able to take college level courses while still in high school.

    I know that most kids don't have the benefit of parents who care, but since we had great public schools and allowed them to deteriorate, I can't waste whatever brain cells I have left to worry about it.

    My grandchildren are all in private schools and if I had kids now and couldn't afford the confiscatory fees at private schools, I'd home school.

    I had to stop volunteering at the schools here because I feared for my sanity. The first time I walked into a classroom, it looked like the room was evacuated because of a disaster. I later learned that this was the norm.

  4. This, as you say, is a perplexing problem and I believe that all manner of factors are at work here. Tackling one factor but not others will offer only a partial solution.

    Having worked with educators (particularly at 16+) for many years, I have been staggered by the amount of energy, time (and money) that is invested in re-engaging disaffected boys (and girls). That said, there are some very successful programmes running, especially in the inner cities, and no doubt we need more of the same. But at what price?

    I took my daughter out of the state system (for the sake of her physical safety as well as her academic progress) when she was 13 and that was 18 years ago. At that time, in her comprehensive school, all the teaching, the set books, and the lessons were geared to the abilities of the lowest achievers; bright children were left to fend for themselves. We have no regrets about the choice we made and my daughter went on to gain a good degree and a master's. But I still resent the fact that the state system could not provide the education she needed and deserved as a teenager.

  5. 60goingon16,
    I did a few years as a classroom teacher before going into specialist (deaf) and then advisory work. I found that teachers had to choose between focusing on the brightest or the weakest pupils, so at some stage through school the extremes would get extra attention; the middle sets were neglected all of the time.
    The Warnock report led to legislation which was supposed to give children with special needs an equal chance, in fact because funding was not new but diverted it gave an unfair advantage to anyone who could acquire a 'statement.' Even more money was diverted to train and employ unlimited educational psychologists to service the new law. I worked in that specialist sector for many years and could see the injustice - not that I would take anything away from them but bring the rest up to the same investment level.
    Like you, I didn't want my children to go through the state system and had to pay to give them the equivalent of what my husband and I had, free of charge, through the old grammar school system.
    The mess could be sorted if only people would get to the root of the problems instead of throwing cosmetic solutions at the symptoms. I'm on my soapbox!

  6. No solutions now, no solutions ever. Surely by now the question is not "Are we failing our boys (or teens)?, but rather "Why can we think of nothing to do about it but hold another workshop or write wistful articles?"

    This is related to what we were discussing here. Today we project a dreamy image of ourselves onto teens. The dream isn't working out all that well for adults, but it is a clear disaster for many kids. We insist they are essentially good, inately talented, yearning for freedom and psychologically and ethically self-contained. All problems stem from some warping caused by forces around them and if we just did our job right, we would find a painless, loving way to release them from their psychic prisons and draw out the talent and goodness that lies hidden within. As long as we keep believing this fairy tale, we are going to see the situation deteriorate no matter how many clever "initiatives" we come up with.

    I'm not sure the problem is just with boys. Studies on schools do seem to show the girls are outperforming academically, but many studies on the mental health of teens tell a different story. But let's stick with boys. Here and here are two movies that left audiences cheering and crying with their tales of triumph and maturing. They spoke a truth we all sense but now deny about what it takes to give boys a sense of purpose, accomplishment and moral compass. Yet we barely notice that both films put their thugish and/or spoiled young protaganists through physical and psychological tortures that would be criminal in any other context. It works, but if a parent, neighbour, priest, cop, teacher or mentor of any kind did that in the real world, he would be behind bars. So why do we cheer? Because we are getting in touch with our inner sadists?

    Sadly, anyone who thinks this way is dismissed quickly as just getting off on smacking young folks around. The physical is just a very small part of it. They will all deny it, but what teens crave are adults who know who they are and who demand they be respected and followed until adulthood, and they are in short supply these days.

    Also, we are really not being honest about the priority we say we give to all this. How many articles have you read that talk about the absent father? How many serious proposals to restrict divorce or separation flow from them?

    Teens are teens and we won't get anywhere if we keep pretending they are 30 year olds. Here is a very small example. I coach hockey for 12-14 year old boys. It's a great age full of raging new hormones, fiece competitiveness and youthful fun and hijinks. But hardly any of them have a sportsmanship bone in their bodies. That comes later. At the end of each game, they must shake hands with the other team. They all hate it and many try to get out of it. Now, I could hold a three day workshop to teach them all about the importance of this and try to draw out their inner good sports. But I don't, I just tell them to get their little butts out there and shake hands or they won't play anymore. Oh, the cruelty. Works every time, though.

  7. I agree with you entirely, Peter. We don't need to explain why our families work - we set our standards and enforce them. We also know that kids like us to do that, even if they moan about it. Your hockey team works, my summer camps work. But our professional lives show a very different picture of family life. There are thousands of people out there who have no idea of what parenting entails or, if they do, are not prepared to put in the necessary self-sacrifice and hard work.

    I used to run parenting classes as part of my job but I found that no-one was ever willing to change the way they behaved in order to establish routine, order and discipline in their children's lives. I found that people can be really fickle: they say they want things to change but turn against you when you tell them the only way is for them to accept responsibility. The drop-out rate was very high!

    Every time there is a reported incidence of violence or vandalism there is a public outcry for zero tolerance but when that happens there is an equally vociferous cry of 'injustice!' We have had two incidents in recent weeks. In the first, a student was travelling on a train and she put her feet up on the seat opposite to her. Responding to public complaints, the train company had placed large notices on the station platforms and on the trains, stating that anyone putting their feet on seats would be prosecuted. They also had a recorded announcement played after each train stop. The student was sitting facing one of the notices. The conductor asked her to take her feet off the seat, which she did but he went on to take her details and warned her she would be prosecuted. Her middle class parents called in the press and there was a national campaign to stop the prosecution; she was, after all, not a yob or chav but a student who had done voluntary work with needy children etc. She got away with it.

    Today we have a case of two young men sentenced to 12 and 15 months in prison for defacing public buildings and trains with graffiti, causing damage of around £12,000. The tariff for damage to property above £5,000 can be 5 to 10 years, so I think they got off lightly. The public, who want zero tolerance until it comes to the crunch, want them to go free.

    I think that, so long as we are not willing to grasp the nettle and enforce standards, we will just have more and more wistful articles.


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