© 2024 University of Missouri - KBIA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dads Weigh In On Why Boys Fall Behind


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner every week. We check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Now, we are continuing our conversation about the so-called achievement gap with boys.

We're asking why is it that boys are falling behind girls on some key measures like grades, participation in advanced classes and graduation rates. Still with us is Christina Hoff Sommers. She's been writing about this for years and she recently wrote the commentary, "The Boys at the Back," for the New York Times. She's author of the book, "The War Against Boys."

Also joining us now is Pedro Noguera. He is an education professor at New York University and he has written extensively about a number of achievement gaps, and he's also the father of five, including three boys. Glenn Ivey is back with us. He's an attorney in private practice. He's the former State's Attorney for Prince George's County, which is in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

He's one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable and he is the father of six, including five boys. And Bob Pianta is dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the psychology of teaching and he's also a dad of three, including two boys, and I thank you all so much for joining us and staying with us.


GLENN IVEY: Hello, Michel.


MARTIN: And I realize we're just going to scratch the surface, so I apologize for that in advance, but you all have professional experience with this as well as personal experience, so I'm just going to start by asking each of you in turn, and Glenn, I'll start with you. Have you seen this yourself? Do you feel that there's kind of a structured bias in a system that favors girls and it disadvantages boys?

IVEY: Well yeah. I think it pops up in a number of different ways, but certainly schools are the places where we care about it early and a lot of its behavioral driven, you know, sort of being super active and, quote, unquote, "acting out." It frequently gets punished. I mean, we had a case in Northern Virginia, just a couple of weeks ago. I'm in the private practice now, but you know, a kid brought a toy gun to school and not only was he, like, expelled, he was arrested.

The police came and got him and took him out.

MARTIN: And he was something like 10 years old.

IVEY: He was 10 years old. Ten years old and apparently it looked like a toy gun because it had like an orange tip to it or something like that. And I know we're nervous about everything in the wake of Newtown and Aurora and other places, but that just struck me as an extremely heavy-handed approach. And, you know, when you come down on a kid with the hammer for something like that, you can have a real damaging impact for that kid going forward, so.

MARTIN: I want to talk more about that because something - people are talking a lot these days about what they call the school to prison pipeline and since you've been a prosecutor I want to talk to you a little bit about that, but I want to go to Professor Noguera now. You've done an enormous amount of research into this issue as well and we've talked about this new research in the Journal of Human Resources that describes that behavior plays a bigger role in evaluating grades and setting grades than I think many teachers and educators might have suspected.

Can I just get your reaction to this, particularly as it relates to boys of color?

NOGUERA: Well, I think that Christine Sommers work and the article she wrote is drawing attention to a bias that's there that does have, not just disproportionate impact on boys, but particularly boys of color, black and Latino boys, and something that we should be aware of. At the same time, I want to complicate the issue some and recognize and point out that men still dominate our society.

Men dominate politics, they are the leaders of our corporations and churches for the most part, and so we're still living in a patriarchy. So we have to ask ourselves, what's going on that boys would be at risk? And I would say that while there may be biases in schools, it is also clear that traditional forms of masculinity have outlived their purpose. We have lots of boys who at an early age start to think of education as being not masculine enough.

And this is a part of the problem that we also need to be attentive to. Boys develop literacy skills at a later stage than many girls do, and so while I think the biases that she's drawing our attention to are important, it's equally important to point out the ways in which masculinity, as we've come to understand it, has also become a problem for many boys in our country.

MARTIN: Dean Pianta, why don't you complicate the issue further too, because your research has shown that teachers' own expectations and beliefs to affect the classroom dynamic. Do you think that this is contributing or how do you think this might contribute to how boys are doing in school?

PIANTA: Sure. Well, you know, I think it should come as no surprise that teachers factor children's behavior into the grades that they assign them and that there is a discrepancy between grades and test scores. You know, the classroom environment, you know, advantages, compliance and performance - those are the kinds of things that are valued there, and a teacher has to manage, you know, 25 or 30 kids. And in that context, particularly with a, you know, increasing pressure on test scores and accountability types of performance of rote and kind of factual skills, these are not particularly interesting environments for a lot of kids, whether they're boys or girls.

NOGUERA: And we also do a fairly poor job of supporting teachers to engage kids effectively in the ways that they interact with them. And so you put that combination of things together - a set of cultural expectations and beliefs about what we value in kids and in schools. We send messages that boys tend to be more aggressive or more active. We make attributions of those behaviors as being problematic in a particular environment and you set this kind of trap for kids whose behavior deviates from, you know, kind of accepted norms of compliance and conformance. And whether they're boys or girls or Latino or black or young or old, they tend to get excluded and dealt with harshly.

MARTIN: Well, Dean, can I just ask you about that, though? If the expectation is that boys are more aggressive why wouldn't there be a bias in favor of their being aggressive? I mean if the expectation of teachers - if you kind of walk in with let's say 2,000 years of social history that tells you that oh, boys are more aggressive, if a boy acts up wouldn't you give, wouldn't you sort of think that a teacher would give the boy more slack, when the research suggests that it's actually going the other way?

PIANTA: No. I think what they do is they, most teachers - and this happens with parents too, you know, we interpret kids' activity as aggression. So a child who behaves toward me as a teacher in a way that might be, you know, somewhat active and one teacher might attribute that to exuberance and interpret it as exuberance and enthusiasm, another one might interpret it as aggression or hyperactivity. And to the degree that those interpretations about aggression and hyperactivity in the context of a really demanding classroom environment are present, then what's likely to happen is a cascade of events that lead to that child being somehow excluded from the resources of the classroom and the teacher. So it's a matter of interpretation of behavior that is generally ambiguous. And when the interpretation heads in a particular direction and it's driven by things like zero tolerance or other kinds of biases that might exist in the system, then we see kids heading in the directions that we see them.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, this is such a complicated topic that we're only going to scratch the surface. So in the time we have left I'd like to talk with each of you about what you think we should do about this? Christina Hoff Sommers, you want to start?

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: Well, I think we first have to admit that on average girls and boys are different and to pretend that they're identical and to structure the classroom around an ideal child, which for many teachers would be a girl, is going to fail our male students terribly. And there are some wonderful innovations, including single-sex classrooms, trying to get more male teachers and more male mentors in our school, to bring back sort of high-level vocational education where kids get college preparatory courses, but they also can spend half the day preparing for careers. These boys are thriving in schools like Aviation High - and girls are too, but more boys in aviation and technology schools in Massachusetts. This is an excellent model and it's being used throughout Europe and we should be doing that. And ultimately, I think just acknowledging that we are doing a better job educating our daughters than our sons.

MARTIN: Pedro Noguera, what do you think?

NOGUERA: I think that single-sex education is an option that we should make available and that there is some evidence that, in the right settings, that boys can be quite successful when teachers are aware of their biases and allow the classroom to be more interactive and active learning to be a part of the learning experience. I would say girls benefit from that too. And so we should avoid the tendency to think boys and girls are so different that girls benefit from being able to be physically active and develop their voice in the classroom as well.

However, boys especially need to develop social and emotional intelligence. They need to learn how to work cooperatively. They need to learn how to listen. They need to know how to develop and articulate themselves. If boys don't develop these skills early, they find that they are at a huge disadvantage.

I would also remind us that boys are much more likely than girls to engage in violence. And that violence as a problem in our society is a male problem. And it concerns me a bit that we frame this as boys as victims and not understand the ways in which masculinity also results in women being victimized and boys victimizing each other. And I think that if we don't understand how masculinity contributes to this problem that we will I think simplify it and just call it a war on boys and not recognize the way in which men perpetuate this problem in many ways.

MARTIN: You know, Glenn Ivey, it's helpful that you're here because you kind of have your fingers in all of these dilemmas as the parent of five boys who are all very different. I mean you have one, you know, one who is very interested in sports and one who is very interested in art and one who is very interested in acting. You've kind of run the gamut of interest with them.

IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: And yet, you are a part of the criminal justice system. And so I'm going to ask you just as a former prosecutor to see do you feel that there's kind of a bias built in, or do you agree with Pedro Noguera that really, that we have to train ways to behave differently, we still have a long way to go in training boys and getting them to buy into different behaviors?

IVEY: Well, I think both of those things are right. I agreed with what he said. But also I think, you know, young boys who end up becoming violent frequently, you have sort of two things that are driving it: A, there's violence in the home or they are personally experiencing violence. And so dealing with that piece isn't necessarily simply a school factor but it's something that also needs to be addressed. But also frequently, the kids that are grow up to be adults who are in jail, especially for very serious crimes, if you trace it back, usually they weren't good students, usually they started struggling extremely early in school, have low reading levels, a lot of them have a lot of truancy.

We had a kid, for example, who killed his mother at age 14. He'd had like 120 truant days in kindergarten. So missing those kinds of flags I think is a big problem and we have to figure out ways to address that early. But I don't think that is, you know, the big group of kids that are coming through and you've got, especially in the African-American community, I think there are challenges with that. But I want to be real careful about suggesting yeah, we've got kids and they fight and that sort of thing. But those aren't the, you know, the majority of them are not growing up and becoming violent criminals. And I want to make sure that they don't think that's the case either because their mindset is critical and what they think they can become is frequently what they become.

MARTIN: Christina Hoff Sommers wants to respond to that briefly...

SOMMERS: I just want to say...

MARTIN: Before I go to Bob Pianta.

SOMMERS: Just quickly, I want to agree with part of what Professor Noguera said. But I don't think we should indict masculinity because sociologists make a critical difference between healthy masculinity and protest masculinity. And boys that are captive to protest masculinity, they are destructive, they prey on weaker people. Healthy masculinity is exactly the opposite. Boys who are in a healthy masculine mode create, they don't destroy, they protect, they don't prey upon and that's what we have to encourage in young men.

MARTIN: Bob Pianta, what do you have to add to this?

PIANTA: Well I - you know, I think what we're seeing is in some sense the kind of squeezing and narrowly of the educational design space over the last 20 years. We don't do a very good job of teaching social and emotional skills to any children. Boys are particularly important in this regard. How we foster their capacity for relationships with others that are effective where they can feel that they're getting their social and emotional needs met, they're mastering needs met. These are things that are just not part of the regular school curriculum anymore.

We find, and I think this is an example of, you find these examples of success in same school, same-sex education, you find it in good public school classrooms where teachers are effective at engaging kids around their own motivations, the kid's motivations, the kid's capacities, the kid's social skills and drawing them to a different level in the way that they can engage one another and they can engage challenging tasks. And that's the task for us, is to find ways of helping cultivate those kinds of environments on a very, very large level of scale. And it's - to my way of thinking, it's much more of a challenge of the human capital development of the teachers that are in these environments and the other adults that are in schools than it is a problem with boys or black boys, or Latino boys or other kids that we define as kind of outlier groups in some way.

MARTIN: Dean Pianta, do you think that this issue is now being surfaced? I mean as - there's a lot of attention to it in academic circles, and I know a certain amount of parents talk about it. But more broadly...

PIANTA: Oh, I think we hear this in a lot of spaces, not in as widespread a nature as I think we need to. I think as we think about sort of at the larger policy level, as discussions move forward about, for example the, you know, the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind, an important thing to think about is - or pay attention to is the degree to which there is going to be a focus on social, emotional learning and curriculum and standards in what we are going to be looking at from schools from an accountability perspective. Those things send signals.

MARTIN: We only have two minutes left, so I'm going to give the final word to Pedro Noguera and Christina Hoff Sommers because the two of you seem to have kind of the sharpest disagreements. Are you - I want to ask each of you, are you optimistic or pessimistic that both of you have written about this. You come at it, you know, slightly differently, but do you feel at least that we as a country are talking about helping everybody to achieve in a way that is healthy for them and for the country? Pedro Noguera, I'll start with you, and then Christina Hoff Sommers, I'll give you the last word.

NOGUERA: Well, actually I don't think we're that far apart. And I want to just again say I think that's what Christina Sommers is doing in this work is drawing attention to an important issue that has been ignored. I want to echo the point that Bob Pianta just made at the end, which is that we need to get schools much more focused on the developmental needs of children. The last few years we've focused only on achievement, as though test scores really are what determine success in life, completely ignoring the kinds of attributes that our children need to cultivate and the awareness of the developmental needs of our children that teachers need to have in order for our kids to grow and be successful in life. And I think that by understanding how gender plays into academic and life success, that our teachers can become better able to respond the needs of all children, boys and girls.

MARTIN: Christina Hoff Sommers, final thought?

SOMMERS: Yes. Well, I would second that. And I'll just conclude by drawing people's attention to a fantastic program in Chicago called Becoming A Man, The Sports Edition. This is a program, a kind of intervention, for boys so at risk for every negative outcome, and they bring these boys together and they use sports and also they sort of engage them and work with their anger management and they have turned things around for these boys. But they haven't - it's not a discuss your feelings, it's not trying to get them to be exactly like girls, it's treating them as young men and trying to cultivate a mature masculinity.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for all discussing your feelings. We appreciate that.

SOMMERS: Thank you.


IVEY: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Christina Hoff Sommers is author of the book "The War Against Boys," and a recent opinion piece in The New York Times. Glenn Ivey is an attorney in private practice, the father of six, including five boys. Bob Pianta is a father of three, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. And Pedro Noguera is an education professor at the New York University, and he was with us from member station WLRN in Miami.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

SOMMERS: Thank you very much.

IVEY: Thank you.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.