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The Trouble With Boys (thoughts)

December 27, 2008

troublewithboysI’m always interested in books about America’s education system (I’m not sure why…they just fascinate me), so when I was asked if I wanted a review copy of Peg Tyre’s The Trouble With Boys, I jumped at it. The subtitle summarises the book quite nicely: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do.

Tyre was a journalist at Newsweek, and this book grew out of a report she did for the magazine. There’s definitely enough material here to fill a book, though-it doesn’t seem padded. The book is set up to first explore the problems boys are having in school-this takes up more than half of the total book. I liked the mix of personal stories (Tyre herself has two boys, and she talked to many other parents with school-age sons) and statistics/research-based analysis. That being said, when the book turned to possible solutions, I thought it became weaker, and I sometimes I found myself thinking “Well, maybe the boys just need to suck it up and sit still through high school like the rest of us. Isn’t that what they’ll have to do in their jobs?” I’m aware this might not be the nicest, or most charitable, thought (especially since I’m a girl, and I’ve never had problems sitting still for long periods of time), but Tyre really didn’t address if implementing boy-friendly changes in the education system would affect their work-ability later on. (It might not at all, but since I consistently found myself wondering about it, I wish it had been brought up.) Nevertheless, if you’re curious about America’s education, or if you have young sons, this book is worth your time! :)

So, many parts of the book intrigued me, and I thought I’d briefly discuss them here. First off, Tyre addresses the battles women had to face in order to achieve equality in education. What ended up changing things was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibited gender discrimination in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” It was ‘slipped into’ the legislation, but it ended up having a huge effect. Most universities and colleges immediately started accepting more women, and both national and state legislation followed to create new programs in support of girls. As Tyre says,

Today it’s hard to comprehend how fast the education prospects for girls changed. …Suddenly, there was a willingness to engage girls more thoroughly in school, and there were well-funded, well-organized programs and materials with which to do it. Teachers ensured that the new societal order, one that viewed girls as worthy equals of boys, was reinforced at every opportunity. In elementary schools, they discarded reading primers that pictured girls as stewardesses and boys as pilots and replaced them with books that encouraged both John and Jane to be pilots. Before Title IX, it was common practice for high school guidance counselors to hand out vocational worksheets color-coded by gender. On the pink version, the choices for girls included model and actress but not veterinarian and psychiatrist. After Title IX, teachers raised a fuss, and soon, girls and boys were getting the same sheet.

I think it’s very important for girls (women?) of my generation to remember everything feminists had to fight for!

Tyre also looks at the shift in how we treat our preschool-aged children.

Before the early 1970s, 60 percent of all mothers with school age children stayed at home. Despite the physical presence of a parent back then, children and adults inhabited separate spheres. The first five years of a child’s life were devoted to free play-pretend games, toys, and board games on rainy days, and endless ball games, building tree forts, bike riding, and maybe swimming on sunny ones. Siblings, cousins, and neighborhood kids formed a de facto peer group. Kindergarten was a child’s inauguration into formal learning, and plenty of kids had their very first classroom experiences in first grade.

But then for awhile it seemed that very young children might be the best at learning, and perhaps in order to be successful later in life, toddlers and preschoolers should begin more formal education instead of just playing. Some preschools now introduce math and reading worksheets to prepare the children for kindergarten.

The strategy may backfire for rich and poor kids alike. Researchers have found that children who attend preschools that emphasize direct instruction experience more stress at school. At ages five and six, children from academic-type preschools knew more letters and numbers than their peers who attended nonacademic preschools, but by first grade those advantages have disappeared. Researchers have also found that children from academically oriented preschools are less creative and less enthusiastic about learning than their peers who attended nonacademic preschools.

The next passage comes from a chapter that I think is near and dear to many of our hearts-“Boys and Literacy.” I think it speaks for itself:

Three years ago, Principal Theresa Bollinger decided that the boys of Ridge Central Elementary, a public school outside Chicago, needed some positive macho role models for reading. Now, every day, one male officer from the local police department enters the school in full uniform complete with holster, peaked cap, and shiny badge. He walks into the classroom, settles himself on a small chair, and pulls a children’s book out from under his arm. For forty minutes, that officer reads to the children. The police rotate the duty every day. The kids love it. And boys-who, for the most part, live in a world of simple sexual stereotypes-get to see a man with a gun in his holster and a book in his hand.

Tyre also addresses the dangers of pseudo-scientific sexual stereotyping. While the whole chapter is spot on, I loved reading about this experiment:

In 2005, two psychologists from the University of British Colombia gave four groups of women a peculiarly designed test. It consisted of two sets of math questions separated by one of four essay questions. Three of the essay topics contained information-some bogus-about women and math. The topics: (1) that there is no difference in math ability between boys and girls, (2) that gender stereotyping and different experiences affect how girls score in math, (3) that there are genetic reasons why girls aren’t good in math, and a fourth about women and art. All the women scored about the same in the first math section. Differences in performance were evident in the second math section. After reading and responding to the essay question, women who had read in the essay question that boys and girls scored the same in math did well. Those who had read that gender stereotypes accounted for females’ poor performance in math did slightly less well. Women who had read females were genetically predisposed not to do well in math did worse than the other two.

Ok, so I just realised that none of these passages were about boys’ particular problems. But I promise Tyre talks about them a lot! However, her analyses can’t really be boiled down into a passage or two, which is probably a good thing. It definitely challenges the prevailing view that girls are the ones who need more support in school, which I believe was Tyre’s main goal. And it does so in an intelligent, thoughtful manner.

Have you read any books lately that challenged conventional wisdom? Did they change your mind about anything?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2008 8:40 am

    I’ve been very worried about boys in schools. I bought Trouble with Boys at the Texas Book Festival and I heard the author speak about her book. I thought, like you, the book was strongest in examining the problem and weakest in proposed solutions; that always seems to be the case with books of this sort, in my experience.

  2. December 27, 2008 8:54 am

    I just did read a parenting book — review on Monday — and it was completely unconventional. Like, don’t praise your kids because it’s bad in the long run. But he had some interesting insights. This sounds very interesting to me since I have a boy that will be going to schools (albeit not for 4 more years…).

  3. December 27, 2008 9:18 am

    Sounds like an interesting read. As a teacher, I’m always looking for books about education. I’ll have to check this one out. :)

  4. December 27, 2008 10:19 am

    Interesting review as always. This has been a popular topic lately. I’ve been in education over 20 years most all of it with middle school children. I’ve seen quite a few trends come and go.

    In the end, the kids are alright, like the song says. People in America love to talk about what’s wrong with our schools. Almost everyone I’ve ever met feels qualified to give me advice about how to do my job, and usually does.

    This makes me sound like a cynic, true. My main problem with books like this is that they only look at American schools, usually just a few, and then make generalizations about all boys, for example. What about the rest of the world. The school systems that are currently being held up as the best, China’s for instance, are just the type of system we currently see as bad for boys, lots of sitting still in desks all day long.

    I think a useful study about how boys do in school, for example, needs to take in most of the world at this point in history. How do they do in Finland, or in England, or in India, or in China, or in Japan? That’s a study I’d like to read about.

    But, please keep on writing here. I do love your blog.

  5. December 27, 2008 11:07 am

    I just read Pamela Paul’s Parenting, Inc. which sounds a bit like this book in terms of its writing and some of its conclusions (though the focus is on parenting rather than on education or gender issues). But she definitely talks a lot about things like pre-K education, classes for one- and two-year-olds, and what does and doesn’t actually benefit the child in the long run. It’s a good read; you might be interested in that as well.

  6. December 27, 2008 11:28 am

    It’s about time this information hit public attention. Homeschooling parents (I was one of them) have been aware of it for a couple of decades. The information that early learning promotes burn-out more than excellence is not news; it was in the books I bought twenty years ago. Ditto the feminization of the school system.

    I do applaud the efforts made to give girls greater opportunity, mind you. I took advantage of some of it myself, and rather enjoyed growing up in the first generation that took it for granted that girls could excel also.

    As for your comment on boys sitting still because they’ll have to do it in the workplace, it’s not entirely fair. They will be men in the workplace, and the problem is not with men sitting still, but with boys sitting still. We should perhaps look to the old British system for a model on how to mix classroom and outdoor time, so that boys have an outlet for their testosterone.

    I love the idea of having policemen read to the boys. Nice to see a principal being proactive. I bet it’s working too. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to slip in the occasional policewoman…

  7. December 27, 2008 1:00 pm

    You raise some really interesting points here. Would really like to read this book. Have to agree with CB James’ points though. Working in education, trends come and go but the reality (to me at least) is that the education obstacles being addressed in this work refer to American school children predominantly. We still live with very gender specific roles, and education is still a stereotypically female occupation. We do not address the needs of SOME boys as women have forged an academic environment that is in fact often gender specific as viewed by Americans – relies upon a classroom dynamic not always developmentally suitable for all boys, assigns reading material with an emotional content/sensibility that does not appeal to many boys, etc.

    But again, how much of this is nature and how much is nurture? I run a Guys Read based book club for 2-4th grade boys that has been a great experience for all but the assumptions we challenge with boys may be sociological as much as anything in the low income, African American community with a general deficit of male role models and predominant homophobia.

  8. December 27, 2008 2:42 pm

    This would be an interesting read for me. I think that I might have to snatch this one.

  9. December 27, 2008 2:58 pm

    This sounds excellent! I like books like this…another good one on adolescents and psychiatric issues is What it Takes to Pull me Through…I think you’d like that one. Onto the wishlist this one goes!

  10. December 27, 2008 8:21 pm

    Interesting-sounding book. I always enjoy a book that brings up the gender controversy…. all children are born the same, our gender differences are from different upbringing… no we’re inherently different from birth…

    Anyhow, I think that boys do sometimes get overlooked in the scramble to accommodate girls. But sometimes it has more to do with overworked teachers who can’t devote enough time to each student and schooling that is overly focused on passing tests.

  11. December 28, 2008 8:22 am

    Merry Chrismas Eva! It sounds like you’re having a very nice holiday.

    I enjoyed your review here very much and found the excerpts about preschool interesting. I think there is a happy medium to be had. I don’t think it adversely affected my daughter, in fact in helped her, that she did a few worksheets/week in preschool. She is very enthusiastic about learning. I do think little kids are just sponges, they can learn anything, and not that mine is learning violin or foreign languages, but this is seriously the time to fill their brains with good information.

  12. December 28, 2008 10:43 am

    Debbie, I’m glad you agree with me. :)

    Rebecca, that does sound like a very unconventional parenting book. I’ll be looking forward to your review!

    Jessi, I’ll be interested on your thoughts. :)

    CB, that would be a useful study. The book is definitely focused on America, but I think it’s aimed more at what parents should do than teachers. I can understand how tiresome it would be to always hear how to do your job though! :)

    Christine, that does sound interesting! Thanks for the rec. :)

    Janet, that’s a good point about my comment on boys sitting still-I was talking about high school boys vs. little boys, but still. I don’t think that I’m RIGHT, I just brought it up as a point I wish she had addressed in the book. And I completely agree re: the occasional policewoman! ;)

    Frances, those are some important points. The book addresses all of the issues you raised in your last sentence; I can’t quite tell whether you’re saying those issues are important or not.

    Jessica, can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

    Chris, I’ll have to check that book out-thanks for the rec!

    Kim, yep-I read Tested earlier this year on tests. This book isn’t really anti-teachers.

    Tara, thanks! Tyre says that worksheets go down better with girls than boys. :)

  13. December 28, 2008 3:53 pm

    The many non fiction books and now this will bespeak a year of reading NF for me. This seems very interesting, especially not too long ago in one of the weekly prompt I discussed why boys don’t read as much.

  14. December 29, 2008 4:56 pm

    Matt, I remember that post of yours-it was interesting. :)

  15. February 26, 2009 11:56 am

    Hello Eva,

    My name is Chris Cannon, I’m the author of “Diagnosing the Destruction of Young Men”. I really appreciated your honest feedback on the positives and negatives of “The Trouble with Boys”. However, I’d like to provide you access to “Winning Back our Boys:The Ultimate Game Plan for parents and teachers”, a book scheduled to be released, the end of April.

    It addresses the issues that “The Trouble with Boys” speaks to, in additional to an array of other concerns parents and teachers have. However, it’s more solutions oriented. As an author, it pains me to continually read what the problems are, in book after book, without an action plan to address them (This is not an attempt to under mind The trouble with Boys, it was a good book overall in my opinion). This is why I became an author, because the books I desired to read and learn from, didn’t exist.

    Much of the information gathered in this book, came from research as well as, my experience and what I’ve witnessed from traveling the world as a speaker/presenter. If you could provide your information where I could submit this writing for review, I’d be happy to do so. My contact information is Look forward to hearing from you and thanks for providing others with useful information that enhances their efforts.

    Chris Cannon

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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