Why are boys failing?

Published 7:07 am Monday, August 3, 2009

In Grand Meadow Public Schools this year, 10 of its 13 grades will have a male majority.

And those boys are falling behind.

In a move seldom seen in modern day classrooms, the district is trying to address boys’ underachievement by teaching the way they believe boys should be taught: separate from girls.

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Four seventh and eighth grade classes — art, vocal music, industrial technology and physical education — will be completely gender-segregated this fall.

Why such a dramatic change in how teachers teach?

They are reading a book: “Boys Adrift, The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Men,” by gender education expert Dr. Leonard Sax.

Grade Percentage

K 69.7

1 63.9

2 51.4

3 50

4 65.6

5 42.3

6 46.4

7 60

8 57.9

9 62.9

10 66.7

11 54.2

12 57.1

Source: Grand Meadow Public Schools

“It talks about young men and the changes we have seen in the past 10, 15 years,” said Ward Brossoit, middle school science and math teacher and president of the teachers’ union. Twenty of the district’s 30 teachers have now read the book.

“It talks about the BPA (Bisphenol A) and the toxic bottles and how it affects the brain,” Brossoit said. “It’s pretty interesting.”

Sax addresses five factors contributing to the decline of boys’ performance in school: video games; changing teaching methods; prescription drugs, such as those for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; endocrine disruptors, including chemicals found in plastic bottles that may lower testosterone levels; and devaluation of masculinity.

Brossoit said he has seen the changes in boys in his 22 years of teaching.

“Boys used to be completely different; their drive was to be good at everything they did,” he said.

Today, he believes, “They have this laid back, ‘I don’t care’ attitude. Boys are maturing later than before, and they’ve always been behind.

“I have a son that’s 21, and I’ve seen that happen,” he said.

Joe Brown, superintendent of Grand Meadow, is excited about the potential these changes have in his district, which for unknown reasons — they have ruled out open enrollment or a “males-only” environment — has a disproportionate ratio of boys. And these boys are exhibiting declining test scores frequently below state average and often significantly lower than their female classmates.

“Almost every one of our discipline problems is male; almost all of our special education population is male; almost all of our underperforming students are male,” Brown said.

In Grand Meadow last school year, boys did score proficiently in math over girls by 1 percent, but it was still 9 percent below state average. Proficient girls excelled over boys by 14 percent in reading.

“Science scores (for both genders) need to improve,” Brown said.

Grand Meadow is one of six schools in the state that requires four years of math and four years of science in high school, and students in grades 7-8 have one and a half hours of both math and language arts every day, requirements implemented after Brown began with the district about four years ago. He is hoping the outcome of the curriculum will be seen in years to come.

Brown references Sax’s theory that video games’ “unrealistic” themes lead boys to believe there are no consequences to their actions; you can just start the game over.

“It’s not normal to go around shooting people,” Brown said. “Yet, boys love competition. It’s training boys to think there are no consequences. Girls are more centered in realism.”

He also said boys are maturing at a slower rate than before, although they have always been behind girls.

According to “Boys Adrift,” the widening gap in maturity development could be the cause of the consumption of BPA, a chemical found in plastic bottles. Lax theorizes this causes boys to develop slower mentally, and girls to mature faster physically.

In a July article in the Pioneer Press of St. Paul, the newspaper reports on a Maplewood elementary school piloting gender separation in a first grade class after adopting the “Boys Adrift” theories.

“This is so new, to my knowledge we might be the only other school (in Minnesota addressing gender gaps),” Brown said. “Boys and girls are different and they learn at different rates.

“It’s really coming to a head right now,” he explained. “Just seeing the recent standardized test scores … you’re seeing it across the state. Even though we are a small, rural community it’s not any different than Rochester or Minneapolis.”

Brown, his wife, state Rep. Robin Brown (DFL-Moscow Township), and possibly other staff are attending a National Association for Single Sex Public Education conference in Atlanta in October. Robin Brown, an art teacher in Albert Lea, sits on the Higher Education committee at the capitol and is also a proponent of the gender education.

Joe Brown said he could not give examples as to how teaching will be different in the four junior high classes — he’s leaving that up to his teachers.

He also said he is not concerned the gender separation will raise concerns in the community about political incorrectness. A town meeting to discuss the changes will be scheduled this month.

“Grand Meadow is very open to change and innovation,” Brown said. “When I look at the gap in test scores, I know there is a problem that needs to be addressed.”