Guest Post: School Models That Work for Boys

March 26, 2010

Our latest guest blog post comes from Richard Whitmire, former editorial board writer for USA Today and the blogger behind Why Boys Fail.

When the news broke that Baltimore’s KIPP Ujima Village Academy had reached an agreement allowing extended school hours and Saturday instruction, most followers of education reform probably thought: Good, a few more poor and minority students in Baltimore who will stay on a college readiness track.

Not me. My reaction: A few more boys saved from awful schools.

In researching my recently published book, “Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind,” I searched for school models that work as well for boys as girls. They aren’t easy to find. Most schools are turning out girls far ahead of boys in literacy skills. Boys have not adjusted well to the new and intensified literacy emphasis in the very early grades, and that triggers additional problems because math and science classes have become more literacy-focused (math problems are now expressed as word problems, for example). Those struggles account, in part, for the gender imbalances we see on college campuses.

One model I found that worked well for both genders: charter schools, or at least what I call the “elite” charters – the roughly 300 or so that have demonstrated they can defy the conventional wisdom that poverty, race and family formation – not powerful instruction – determine the fate of students.

The two schools where I tracked a boy’s progress over a school year, KIPP DC: KEY Academy in Washington, DC and Excellence Boys Charter School in New York’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, turn out boys capable of succeeding in high school and beyond. In the case of KIPP, a coed school, the boys arrive far behind the girls in literacy skills, and yet pull even with them after just three years.

Elite charters aren’t the only solution for the “boy troubles.” I also profile a traditional elementary school in Delaware that serves students possibly even more disadvantaged than the ones at the two charter schools, and yet succeeds equally with both boys and girls. The shared formula: infusing literacy skills into all subjects, and refusing to allow the boys to pass from grade to grade without acquiring the reading and writing skills they need.

In short, all three schools rejected the conventional wisdom found in most schools, that boys aren’t to be worried about – they always catch up. Except these days, they aren’t catching up.

Richard Whitmire is a former editorial writer for USA Today who now maintains the Why Boys Fail blog. His first book “Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind,” was published earlier this year. He is the immediate past president of the Education Writers Association and in 2009 he was the Project Journalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education.