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The Boy Crisis—Fact or Myth?

by Rosalind C. Barnett & Caryl Rivers - October 02, 2006

In this commentary, the authors argue that the media has overplayed the questionable idea of a Boy Crisis in education.

It's been on the cover of Newsweek, featured in People magazine and examined by a PBS documentary. It's also the central issue in a suit filed by a high school student in Massachusetts saying that schools discriminate against boys. The idea of a “Boy crisis”—with American boys in academic free fall—has become a favorite theme of the media.

Boys, these reports lament, are falling behind in academic achievement, graduating from high school at lower rates than girls, occupying fewer seats in college classrooms, displaying poorer verbal skills.

This time, experts are calling for a complete overhaul of American education based on gender, saying that boys are wired differently from girls, learn in different ways and may just need their own schools. Boys, they say, are at a disadvantage in the many classrooms headed by female teachers, who are supposedly hostile to their sex. A Massachusetts student states flatly that his school is biased against males.

But the alarming statistics on which the notion of a crisis is based are rarely broken out by race or class. When they are, the whole picture changes. It becomes clear that if there is a crisis, it's among inner-city and rural boys. White suburban boys, overall, are not in crisis. On average, they are not dropping out of school, avoiding college or lacking in verbal skills. Although we have been hearing that boys are virtually disappearing from college classrooms, in Ivy League colleges, men still outnumber women.

In June 2006, the Washington-based think tank Education Sector reported that, over the past three decades, boys' test scores are mostly up, more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor's degrees (Mead, 2006).

The report, titled, “The Truth About Boys and Girls,” labeled the “boy crisis“ as greatly overstated. "The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse," the report says, "It's good news about girls doing better.” Focusing on gender differences, the report cautions, could sidetrack efforts to put more resources into inner-city and rural schools, where both boys and girls desperately need better schools (Mead, 2006, p.3).  A new breakdown by gender of the graduation rates of U.S. high schools, from a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, tells a disturbing story. While it is true that among whites, girls are more likely to graduate than boys, the gap is relatively small, only five percent. Among Asians, the gap is even smaller, some three percent. The gap between the sexes for Blacks is 11 percent and for Hispanics, nine percent. While 59 percent of Black females got their high-school diplomas, the same was true for only 48 percent of Black males. Among Hispanics, 58 percent of females graduated, compared to 49 percent of males (Greene & Forster, 2003).

The students most at risk of dropping out attend public high schools in the largest urban centers. Each of the nation’s ten largest public school districts fails to graduate more than 60 percent of students--New York, Los Angeles Chicago, Greater Miami and Houston among others. Within this dismal picture, girls are doing only slightly better overall than boys, as we noted.

But our national concern about all boys seems pervasive, no matter what the statistics say. We fret because there are more girls filling college classrooms and they seem to be studying harder than the guys. Pundits worry whether boys are serious enough, whether they will falter in a new globalized world, and whether they are spending too much time playing video games and not enough on serious pursuits.   

Truth be told, anxiety over men and boys is as American as apple pie. We’re been worrying for a long time.  In the mid-19th century--which we tend to view as some golden age of patriarchy--the closing of the frontier was bemoaned as signaling the end of manhood.  "By mid-century," writes sociologist Michael Kimmel (1987) of SUNY Stonybrook, "masculinity was increasingly threatened by the twin forces of industrialization and the spread of political democracy” (p.138). With the end of the frontier, critics worried, went the ideal of the free, unfettered American man, able to push west, to cut down trees and plow the prairies, and then just pull up stakes and move again.  Urbanization was changing the landscape and altering men's relations to their work. Before the Civil War, 88 percent of American males were small farmers or independent artisans or small businessmen. But by 1910, less than one-third of all men were self-employed.

Americans worried that manhood was vanishing as men became mere cogs in machines, no longer having control over their labor; that city life was making men weak and cities represented "civilization, confinement and female efforts to domesticate the world," as one critic put it (Kimmel, 1987, p.145). And no less a sage than novelist Henry James muttered in The Bostonians: "The whole generation is womanized. The masculine tone is passing out of the world. It’s a feminine, nervous, hysterical, chattering canting age..." (James in Kimmel, 1987, p.146).

Cities and culture were equated with femininity to the point that intellectual achievement was seen to be unmasculine, prompting Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge to counsel boys to "avoid books, and in fact avoid all artificial learning, for the forefathers put America on the right path by learning completely from natural experience" (Beveridge in Kimmel, 1987, p.147). The Boy scouts were founded in 1910 in large degree because of a worry about the "feminization" of young boys who spent their days in the female world of school.

It was against this backdrop that Teddy Roosevelt's hyper-masculinity strode onto the world stage. It wasn't secure manhood that the Rough Rider represented, but the anxiety of the time about what men and boys were, or ought to be. World War I represented another crisis for the male image; Americans were shocked when nearly half the recruits were physically or mentally disqualified for military service. "In these and other ways, writes psychologist Joseph Pleck (1987), a leading authority on men's lives, "American men in the nineteenth and early 20th centuries were having trouble meeting male demands" (p.22).

The result was a cult of anti-modernism in which men looked to the past for male warrior role models—to medieval knights and to the Oriental warrior cult. Just as today's boys and men flock to video games and action movies for the comfort of certainty in an uncertain time, our ancestors looked backwards to a time when men were men.

In the Nineteen Fifties, Father Knew Best and women were safe at home raising the kids. Still, men and boys weren’t secure. Harry Brod (1987), the editor of The Making of Masculinities, writes, “the nostalgic male eye that looks longingly back to the 1950s, ostensibly the last time when men were men and everyone knew what that meant, forgets that this was a period of pervasive fear among the white middle class that men were being emasculated and turned into robotized organization men in indistinguishable grey flannel suits" (p. 46). William Whyte's best-seller The Organization Man presented men as powerless automatons doing the bidding of their corporate bosses. Social critics like Philip Wylie (1942)—who coined the term "Momism"—wrote that too much mothering was making American men soft and unmasculine. It was alleged, in fact, that an overdose of mothering was what caused American servicemen to crack under brainwashing in Korea.

The underlying message of the recurrent “boy crisis” has often been women. In the past, we asked whether female teachers, or later “moms,” were turning boys weak and wimpy. Today, some people ask whether feminist teachers are declaring war on boys, favoring girls while putting down boys, making them read books about “girl” stuff, and telling them to sit still and shut up.

Out of this crucible, a peculiar image of the "typical" boy has emerged today in many media reports: He's unable to focus, can't sit still, hates to read, acts up in class, loves sports and video games, gets in trouble a lot. Indeed, such boys exist—it has long been established that boys suffer more from attention deficit disorder than girls do—and they need all the help they can get. But research shows this is not the typical boy. Boys, in fact, are as different from one another as they are from girls.

Nonetheless, some are advocating boys-only classrooms in which boys would be taught in boot-camp fashion. In a recent Newsweek cover story, Houston neurologist Bruce Perry described today's co-ed classes as a "biologically disrespectful model of education" (Perry in Tyre, p.2006). In the New Republic, Richard Whitmire (2006) wrote of a "verbally drenched curriculum" that is "leaving boys in the dust" (p.2). New York Times columnist David Brooks (2006) suggested that boys ought to be given books about combat, to hold their interest. (Forget Julius Caesar, give them GI Joe?)

There's actually not much evidence that most boys lack verbal skills. In 2005, University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde (2005) synthesized data from 165 studies on verbal ability and gender. They revealed a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless. And psychologist Diane Halpern (2000) of Claremont McKenna College looked at many studies of verbal and math abilities and found that, overall, the gender differences were remarkably small. In fact, according to the Education Sector report, reading achievement by 9-year-old boys increased 15 points on a 500-point scale between 1971 and 2004, and girls that age increased seven points, remaining five points ahead of boys. Reading achievement for 13-year-olds improved four points for boys and three points for girls, with girls 10 points ahead. Among 17-year-olds, there was almost no change in reading achievement, with girls up one point, boys down one point and girls 14 points ahead (Mead, 2006).

Many of us remember a time when boys had to read Shakespeare, Hardy, Longfellow and other classics as early as 8th grade, when boys were the majority of valedictorians, dominated the debate teams, and edited the school newspapers. Have boys’ brains changed over the years? No. Maybe one thing that’s changed is our expectations. If we don’t believe that boys have good verbal skills, they’ll believe it too.

All this research casts doubt on the idea, championed by author Michael Gurian and others, that boys' and girls' brains are so different that they must be taught in very different ways (Gurian & Henley, 2001).  Although there are indeed some structural differences in the brains of men and women, we don't know what they mean. Perhaps very little. In the 19th century, scientists thought that the greater size of the male brain meant that men were a lot smarter. We now know how off the mark that was.

The Massachusetts student who has brought the discrimination suit against his high school wants boys to be given credit for sports and to be excused from the school's community service requirement. But might that not send the message to boys that they are inherently too dumb to get academic credit and too insensitive to be concerned about community issues?

Many, perhaps most, boys would be bored to tears in the kind of classroom that is now being described as "boy-friendly"—a classroom that would de-emphasize reading and verbal skills and would rely on rote learning and discipline—because it is really a remedial program in disguise. That may be needed for boys who have real problems in learning, but most boys, especially those in affluent suburban schools, don't have such problems. One group of studies found that although poor and working-class boys lag behind girls in reading when they get to middle school, boys in the wealthiest schools do not fall behind, either in middle school or in high school. University of Michigan education professor Valerie Lee reports that gender differences in academic performance are "small to moderate" (Lee et al., 1993).

Still, as Newsweek reported, educators "are reviving an old idea: separate the girls from the boys" (Tyre, 2006). We may see a rush to single-sex classrooms that won't really be good educational policy. California tried such classrooms in the 1990s under Gov. Pete Wilson, but they did not succeed in boosting academic achievement. The schools also presented very traditional gender scripts. A Ford Foundation report noted that boys tended to be taught in a regimented and traditional fashion that failed to guarantee academic achievement. In fact, Ford noted, the academic success of both girls and boys is influenced more by small classes, strong curricula and qualified teachers than by single-sex settings (Datnow, Hubbard & Woody, 2001).


Other studies also question whether sex-segregated schools are a magic bullet for improving kids’ academic performance and if there might be other downsides to segregated education. Michigan’s Lee found sexism in all single-sex schools, but it was the most severe in the all-boys’ schools. She suggests that without daily interactions between the sexes to contradict the messages being sent by the media, boys have little chance to learn non-sexist behavior. Boys could well be at a disadvantage in the modern world if they have trouble learning and working with girls (Lee et al., 1993).

However, a subtext of the boy crisis stories seems to be a fear of girls’ success. Too often, the fact that girls are succeeding academically touches a well of psychic fear in some people. A 2003 Business Week cover asking whether boys were becoming the “Second Sex” featured a huge, smiling girl looming over a tiny, puzzled-looking boy (Conlin, 2003). In some quarters, there is a peculiar fear that girls' success equals boys' failure. This is one of the main themes of the popular book by Christina Hoff Sommers (2000), The War Against Boys. Lacking much data, she managed to spin a Jeremiad about evil feminist teachers harming boys from a few anecdotes.

But where is the evidence of women taking over the world beyond school? Females earn considerably less than males and are under-represented in high-level jobs. As Jacqueline King, a director at the American Council on Education, told the Seattle Times, "Do I think it's doomsday for the male gender? No. I look around the world, and it seems to me that men are still in charge" (King in Barnett & Rivers, 2006).

The Education Sector report charges that the whole idea of a boy crisis has been used by conservative authors who accuse "misguided feminists" (Mead, 2006, p.17) of lavishing resources on female students at the expense of males and by liberals who say schools are "forcing all children into a teacher-led pedagogical box that is particularly ill-suited to boys' interests and learning styles” (Mead, 2006, p.14).

There is, says the report,  a “free market for theories about why boys are underperforming girls in school, with parents, educators, media, and the public choosing to give credence to the explanations that are the best marketed and that most appeal to their pre-existing preferences” (Mead, 2006, p.17).

Obsessing about a boy crisis or thinking that American teachers are waging a war on boys won't help kids. What will help is recognizing that students are individuals, with many different skills and abilities, and there is no one-size-fits all-solution for boys or girls.  

And we must also understand that there is indeed a huge crisis among poor inner city and rural students, who are slipping further and further behind, a fact that has dire portents for our entire society.


Barnett, R.C. & Rivers, C. (2006, March 15). 'Boy crisis' in education is nothing but hype. Women’s eNews. Retrieved October 2, 2006 from, http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2671

Brod, H. (1987).The case for men’s studies. In H. Brod (Ed.), The making of masculinities: The new men’s studies. Boston: Allen & Unwin.  

Brooks, D. (2006, June 11). The gender gap at school. The New York Times.

Conlin, M. (2003, May 23). The new gender gap. BuinessWeek Online. Retrieved on September 25, 2006, from http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/03_21/b3834001_mz001.htm

Datnow, A., Hubbard, L., & Woody, E. (2001, May 21). Is single gender schooling viable in the public sector? Lessons from California’s pilot program. Ford Foundation. Retrieved October 2, 2006, from http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/tps/adatnow/final.pdf#search=%22from%20www.oise.utoronto.ca%2Fdepts%2Ftps%2Fadatnow%2Ffinal.pdf%22

Gurian, M. & Henley, P. (2001). Boys and girls learn differently: A guide for teachers and parents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Greene, J.P. & Forster, G. (2003, September). Education working paper: Public high school graduation and college readiness rates in the United States. Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Retrieved September 27, 2006, from http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ewp_03.htm

Halpern, D. (2000). Sex differences in cognitive abilities. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Hyde, J.S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(6), 581-592.

Kimmel, M.l. (1987). The contemporary crisis of masculinity. In H. Brod (Ed.), The making of masculinities: The new men’s studies. Boston: Allen & Unwin.  

Lee, V. et al. (1993). The culture of sexual harassment in secondary schools. American Education Research Journal, 33, 385-418.

Mead, S. (2006, June). The truth about boys and girls. Education Sector. Retrieved September 25, 2006, from http://www.educationsector.org/analysis/analysis_show.htm?doc_id=378705#pdf

Pleck, J. (1987). The theory of male sex role identity. In H. Brod (Ed.), The making of masculinities: The new men’s studies. Boston: Allen & Unwin.  

Sommers, C.H. (2000). The war against boys: How misguided feminism is harming our young men. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Tyre, P. (2006, January 30). The trouble with boys. Newsweek. Retrieved September 25, 2006, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10965522/site/newsweek/

Whitmire, R. (2006, January 18). Boys and books: Boy trouble. The New Republic. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20060123&s=whitmire012306&c=2

Wylie, P. (1942). Generation of vipers. New York: Farrar and Rinehart.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 02, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12750, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:15:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Rosalind Barnett
    Brandeis University
    ROSALIND CHAIT BARNETT is a senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. She is the author of “Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs.”
  • Caryl Rivers
    Boston University
    CARYL RIVERS is a professor of journalism at Boston University. She is the author of “Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs.”
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