Thursday, May 24, 2012

Male Underachievement: What A Shame!

Finding time to write this week has been pretty tough. We're winding down the school year, so I'm frantically meeting with all "my kids" to close for the year. Last week, I had a break from counseling to attend a senior award ceremony at the high school where I work. I love attending these rare occasions where we give the students reinforcement for positive behavior. I usually only know the students that are having problems or are a problem, so it is nice to see the students who are successful.  Even better is when one of “my kids” receives an award or diploma! Moments like those make my job worthwhile.

Aside from the fist-fight that broke out between two parents in the middle of the event, it was really a lovely ceremony, full of pomp and circumstance. (Really, though, who fights in the middle of an awards ceremony?  Get a grip, parents.)  As scholarship after scholarship was awarded to the poor, urban, minority (primarily African-American) seniors, I began to notice a disturbing trend.  Of the 35 scholarships awarded, only 8 where awarded to males.  Less than half (I would guess even less than a third) of the senior class was male.

Male graduation rates are declining worldwide.  The Schott Foundation’s 50 State Report on Black Males & Education found that less than half of African-American males graduate from high school. College graduation rates are even more dismal. This is an alarming trend and one that I am especially disturbed about, as I work primarily with this population and my son is bi-racial. 

After having Jr., I became interested in the research and literature on male achievement.  I have found overwhelming evidence that males of all ethnicities are achieving at lower rates than females.  Peg Tyre tells of the following trends in her book “The Trouble with Boys”:

·        Boys get expelled from preschool 5 times the rate of girls.

·        In elementary, boys are 4 times as likely to be diagnosed with attention or learning problems.

·        Boys are twice as likely to be held back in elementary school.

·        Boys are more likely the victims of violent crime.

·        Boys commit suicide in far greater numbers than females.

·        More girls graduate high school and attend college than males.

·        The gender gap at some universities has become such a problem that some universities are engaging in affirmative action type programs to increase their male population. 

Why this decline in male achievement?  Over the last forty years, we have worked hard to gain equality in education for females.  It is true, education in our country was very biased against females and many times schooling was not even an option for women.  With the rise of feminism in the 1960’s, great steps were made to ensure that females were encouraged to become educated and males were seen as a privileged group that needn’t any special encouragement or training.  This has worked magnificently for females, and I reap the benefits as a highly educated female.  However, in our focus on educating females, our boys may have been ignored and neglected.

Today’s classroom instruction plays to the strengths of females and leaves males frustrated and uninspired.  First, many schools have cut out recess and physical education.  Recess has been shown to actually help children pay attention.  Any parent or teacher that has found success in having their kids “get their wiggles out” knows this to be true.  Boys are naturally more active than girls.  Yet, our schools are set up to value compliance, non-movement (sit in your seat!), quiet concentration, and other behaviors that are much easier for females.  Elementary teachers are overwhelmingly female, and many do not have tolerance for the fidgety, active males in their classes.

Secondly, school curriculums often cater to the biological strengths of females.  Males mature physically and cognitively later than females.  A “Matthew Effect” (the rich get richer, the poor get poorer) in reading develops, where boys who are already behind in reading get farther and farther behind.  By fourth grade (“fourth grade slump”) when students are asked to move from learning to read to reading to learn, boys fall even farther behind.   And, falling behind in reading can have devastating effects on all areas of academic achievement.   A lack of literacy skills, especially writing skills, explains why many males are not going to college, or when they get there they don’t make it to graduation.

African-American males are especially at risk for academic failure.  I’ve seen the statistic that 72% of black children are raised in a single-parent home.  Without positive male role models in the home, behavioral and academic problems are accentuated.  Little boys need to see men around reading.  They also need a man that is close to them sending them the message that being educated is “cool” and honorable.  

Another probable factor lies within the Negro narrative of obfuscation, which teaches that outside circumstances are likely to undermine any positive steps one takes in life.  In a discussion of this topic by YvetteCarnell, she suggests that our culture perpetuates this belief and continually sends Black males the message that they are more likely to end up in prison than to graduate high school.  We teach our Black youth that “failure is not only possible, but probable.”  Carnell suggests we “nurture a grander dream” for our Black men.   Instead of teaching them that the world is out to get them and the cards are stacked against them, we should help foster a new perception, that they have power in making choices and determining their life course. 

All our young men need to hear a similar message.  A message from their community, family, and educators that we don’t just want to see them be successful on the football field, but also in the classroom.  That we aren’t hanging all our hopes for the future in our young women, but we need educated, strong, brave men to excel in this country.  We need our boys to become leaders of our homes, leaders of our institutions, and to stand beside our well-educated women as experts and scholars.  We need to let our young men know that we believe in them and that we’re willing to be patient and foster their academic needs. 

Let’s put our money behind our words.  Wouldn’t a fat check for college send a clear message about the confidence we have in our boys to succeed?  Let’s start by giving them a few scholarships here and there. 


  1. This is disturbing and thought provoking. I'm going to pick up that book when I get a chance.

  2. Dr. Phil recently did a show on this. Very interesting topic. Your blog is great :).


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