What's Happening to Boys?
article in US News and World Report describes how more
and more colleges and universities around the United States are
giving preferential treatment to boys in the admissions process. Why?
Because the girls, on average, are better-qualified. The girls have
better grades and test scores.
Most coed colleges and universities don't want their campuses to
be 70/30 female/male. "It's the College of William and Mary, not
the College of Mary and Mary," said the director of admissions
at the College of William and Mary, defending his college's policy of
admitting less-qualified boys in order to maintain a 50/50 gender
Many American colleges and universities "are maintaining their
gender balance by admitting men and women at sometimes drastically
different rates" according to that article in US News and World
Report. And there's no taper of that trend in sight. As a
result, "that thumb on the boys' side of the admissions scale
will have to press much harder in the coming years" if colleges
and universities are going to maintain a 50/50 female/male balance in
coming years, again quoting from the US News and World Report.
And what happens once boys get to college? As the New York Times
reported in a front-page story, "At
Colleges, Women Are Leaving Men in the Dust." There's a
growing "gender divide" in academic achievement at colleges
and universities, according to the Times. Thirty years ago,
the majority of students who graduated from college with honors were
men. Today, most of the students graduating with honors are women. To
be sure, the fact that more women are going to college, and doing well there, is NOT the problem; on the
contrary, that's cause for celebration. The question is: why can't
their brothers keep pace with them? One young man, who graduated from
a private high school in New Jersey and then went to Dickinson
College, told the Times that "I came here with the
attitudes I'd had in high school, that the big thing, for guys, is to
give the appearance of not doing much work, trying to excel at sports
and shine socially. . . like Bart Simpson. For
men, it's just not cool to study."
Why? What's changed? Why is it no longer cool "for men" to
study? Why do more and more boys and young men regard superior
academic achievement as unmasculine?
And what can you -- as a teacher or a parent -- do about it?
Those are the questions which Dr.
Leonard Sax (director of NASSPE) addresses in his second book, Boys
Adrift: the five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated
boys and underachieving young men. Dr. Sax presents evidence
showing that on a wide number of measures, a growing proportion of
boys just don't have the drive and motivation which their sisters
have. And he shares strategies which have been used by parents and
teachers around the United States and Canada to get their sons back
in gear. One
of those strategies is single-sex education: either boys in boys'
classrooms at a coed school, or an all-boys school. For many boys,
the single-sex format - when done well - can change a boy's attitude
toward school, from sullen resentment and apathy to enthusiasm and
energy. That doesn't happen automatically just by putting all the
boys in one room, of course. Teachers have to know how to take
advantage of the all-boys format. Teachers have to have the right
kind of training. That's what our conferences
are for; that's what our teacher-training
workshops are about.
Question: Why does the all-boys format motivate boys to
In answer to that question, Dr. Sax likes to share a story he heard
from parents after visiting an all-boys school in Dulwich,
England. A particular boy didn't like school. He had always attended
a prestigious coed private school, but he wasn't motivated. Then his
parents transferred him, at age 12, to Dulwich
Prep, an all-boys school. Same class size, same demographics as the
coed school. But the boy's attitude changed almost instantly. The
first week of school, he didn't want to go to bed one night. He
wanted to stay up and keep working on the homework assignment. He'd
never before wanted to stay up late just to do homework.
What was the homework assignment?
The homework assignment was from the creative writing class. "You
are a Roman gladiator. Tomorrow you fight in the arena. How do you
prepare today?" The boy had so many ideas. You would kill a
chicken, and smear the fat over your shield to make it slippery. Then
drink the blood! Then sacrifice to the gods. And on and on. He didn't
want to stop. And he went on to become a prolific and enthusiastic
writer. At coed schools in America and the UK today, we seldom
encourage boys to write such stories. Teachers who lead all-boys
classrooms know that some boys want to write such stories. When they
are discouraged -- when the teacher says "why do you want to
write such violent stories? Why can't you write something nice, like
Melissa wrote?" -- the result is not
that the boy writes a story like Melissa. The result, too often, is that
the boy decides that writing stories is something that girls and
geeks do. Real boys play video games. That's the message which many
coed schools today are unintentionally giving to boys. Teachers in
all-boys schools can send a different message.
Graham Able, of Dulwich College, studied
the performance of girls and boys in 30 single-sex and coeducational
schools throughout England. He found that while both girls and boys
did better in these single-sex schools than they did in the
coeducational schools, the single-sex advantage was greater for the
boys than it was for the girls.
Here's a quotation from Graham Able's
The unsubstantiated mythology of the educational
establishment has been that girls do better in single sex schools
but that boys are "brought on" by the more studious girls
in a co-educational environment. This mythology has never been
supported by any objective evidence, and any policy derived from it
must presumably sacrifice the advantages to one sex in order to
promote the cause of the other. . . [Our] results suggest that
single sex schools give an even greater academic advantage to boys
than for girls. This directly contradicts the popular educational
myth that boys do better in the classroom if girls are present to
set them a good example. One could reasonably conclude from this
study that both boys and girls are academically disadvantaged in
co-educational schools, but that the disadvantage is greater for
You'll sometimes hear critics say, "Maybe boys do better academically
at some boys' schools, but surely boys do better in terms of social
adjustment at coed schools." Maybe not. Educators at a
conference in Sydney, Australia heard several speakers
present evidence that boys who attend single-sex schools may do better
in terms of maturity and social adjustment, than boys who attend coed
schools. Dr. Bruce Cook, principal of the Southport School on the
Gold Coast, told the audience that boys educated in single-sex
schools end up being more confident and more courteous around girls.
"In coed schools, boys tend to adopt a 'masculine' attitude
because girls are there," he said. "They feel they have to
demonstrate their emerging masculinity by gross macho
over-reaction." Boys in single-sex schools "become more
sensitive men," and they're more polite. Dr. Sax presents
similar evidence from boys' schools in America in Boys Adrift.
Historian Steven Millies shared with us how
attending a single-sex high school changed his life. "I began
high school more shy than most adolescents," he recalls.
"But I did take the enormous step of joining the speech team,
and that opened a new world to me. It led me to other activities, and
eventually to writing a column for the school paper. The capstone
came during my senior year when I debated a fiery teacher about the
Vietnam War in front of four history classes. The event drew so much
attention that other people wanted to attend. By the end of the day,
we had been seen by practically everyone in the school. These
experiences were an awakening. I strongly believe that they made
possible the development of interests and skills that led me to
undertake a PhD in history. When I think back on the catalyst --
joining the speech team -- and I consider the fact that forensics in
Illinois is dominated by girls, about 70/30, I cannot imagine that I
would have joined the team in a coed school. Even leaving shyness out
of the question, it would have been a 'girls' thing.' Knowing the
south side of Chicago as I do, I have to believe that any boy who
joined the team would have been making himself a target. I needed the
chance to explore my own potential without worrying about looking
foolish in front of the girls."
Boys at single-sex schools have more diverse role models of their own
sex. Andrew Hunter, a school principal who has taught at both coed
and single-sex schools, says that "there is a subtle pressure
toward gender stereotyping in mixed schools. In boys' schools, boys
feel free to be themselves, to follow their interests and talents in
what might be regarded as non-macho pursuits: music, arts, drama." We've heard from many young men who
have shared how their interest in poetry, or history, etc. only began
after they enrolled in a single-sex school. In the single-sex
environment, they didn't feel any embarrassment in showing an
interest in those "non-macho" activities.
Brian Walsh, who has been a principal at private boys' schools and
private coed schools in New England, made this observation:
"Boys ordinarily do not even try to sing in a coed school,
whereas they love choral singing in a boys' school; in the coed
setting they make fun of French pronunciation, whereas in the
single-sex setting they enjoy becoming fluent in French; in drama,
they muck up or clown around to avoid seeming imperfect in a coed
setting, whereas they excel at drama when by themselves."
A nationwide study by Marcia Gentry and her associates, published in
the Journal of Educational Psychology, confirmed what many
earlier studies had suggested: at every age, boys in coed schools are
less enthusiastic about school than girls are. This finding holds
whether you're looking at urban schools or rural schools, affluent
schools or schools located in low-income communities. And, as boys get
older, the "enthusiasm gap" widens. The older boys get, the
more they tend to perceive doing well in school as "geeky."
Boys perceive the coed school as an institution run largely by women
and run largely according to women's rules: sit still, don't make too
much noise, don't be disruptive. They see
that the majority of the top students are girls, and the
"teacher's pet" is either a girl or a geek. So, many boys
may devalue academic excellence. If you're a boy at a coed school,
being an "A" student does not raise your status with other
boys. At many coed schools, being an "A" student may
actually lower your status with other boys. Source:
Marcia Gentry, Robert Gable, and Mary Rizza,
"Students' perceptions of classroom activities: are there
grade-level and gender differences?" Journal of Educational
Psychology, volume 94, number 3 (September 2002), pages 539-544.
At boys' schools, as Dr. Sax describes in Boys Adrift, it's
common to find that the best football player or the best basketball
soccer player is also the top student. At coed schools, that's rare.
The first task of any teacher who hopes to teach boys is to get the
boys motivated. The great challenge of our era is how to
motivate boys, when the popular culture of Akon and Eminem teaches
boys that academic achievement is unmasculine.
The all-boys format offers the opportunity to construct a different
culture, a culture in which it's cool to be a scholar. As noted
above, this doesn't happen merely by removing girls; teachers and
administrators have to know how to achieve this. That's what our teacher-training
workshops are for.