Readers discuss why young men aren't making the grade

Our Jan. 30 issue on boys' learning problems drew more than 200 letters from parents, educators, young people and others struggling to figure out why boys are falling behind at such alarming rates. A headmaster suggested we cannot ignore the educational and emotional needs of boys: "Males will not ask for directions to their stores or to their lives; we need to give all our young people the directions, whether they ask for them or not." Another reader said that by blaming recent reforms that help girls, we all stand to lose. "This leaves us in a zero-sum scramble for educational support and resources, a boys-against-girls game of dodgeball where just about everybody ends up nursing bruises."

It is fitting that I read your cover story on my son's 16th birthday. "The Boy Crisis" describes his educational journey to a T. I have spent the last 10 years searching for answers to his many behavioral issues, all of which are outlined in this story. I've pursued experts who have helped with whatever label of the moment was assigned to him--he had ADD, poor sensory development, a misfire from brain to hand (which makes written expression difficult) and undeveloped social skills; he was a brilliant underachiever and organizationally dysfunctional. What a relief to read what I have known deep down for all these frustrating years: he is not so abnormal. As a sophomore in high school, and with the help of a gifted school counselor who "gets" him, my son now has a wide circle of friends and an improved grade-point average (from 1.67 in freshman year to nearly 4.0 this semester), and talks about applying to Stanford to major in math. His teachers all tell me he is a terrific student and a positive influence in the classroom. Even with all the help and coaching, I have often wondered if simple maturity might be the ultimate answer. I know I can't relax just yet, but reading your story was a wonderful, affirming birthday present.

Susan M. Grossman Norman, Okla.

Your otherwise remarkable article on boys missed some key points. Many scientists, rather than assuming that "hard-wiring" of the "boy brain" leads to distractibility, point to socialization as the cause rather than the effect. Is it a boy's hard-wired brain that leads him to be good at videogames, or the proliferation of violent videogames that leads to boys' distractibility? Feminist scholars like Carol Gilligan (" 'Mommy, I Know You' ") have long pointed out what we men have been reluctant to admit: we are crammed into stifling boxes of traditional, often violent masculinity, and socialize our boys to do the same. Rather than accuse our schools of favoring girls, perhaps boys and men should look to strong, smart women in our lives to be our role models. Perhaps it's time for us guys to listen to women for a change.

Ben Atherton-Zeman Acton, Mass.

As a high-school teacher, the only thing I see as a school-centered problem is the trend toward less recess and lunchtime for all grades. While I think less activity time is detrimental to all students, it affects boys more. But break time aside, I do not see the current emphasis on students' sitting down and being quiet to be any different from what schools required 150 years ago. Today, most children aren't taught to sit patiently and quietly. From a young age, children are given things to occupy every moment of their time, from extracurricular activities to handheld videogames. Many boys come home from school and sit down in front of video or computer games or TV rather than go outside and play. Parents need to teach their children patience, and they need to unplug their children from the various electronic devices to which the children spend their days hooked. Schools, in turn, need to bring back breaks at all grades, even if it means lengthening the school day as a result.

Kari Bluff King City, Calif.

Far too many of our boys are suffering from profound levels of humiliation, lost identity, academic failure and social isolation. I, like so many others, have witnessed just how easy it is to make a positive difference in the life of a boy, and I am hopeful that your article will inspire others to do the same. This is a crisis that, if ignored, can threaten our national security and erode our collective will. Every boy deserves the right to become a fully actualized man, and it is essential that we recognize that the men we become are, in fact, the boys we once were.

Brad Zervas, Executive DirectorThe Boys' Club of New York New York, N.Y.

Having taught in coed and single-gender classrooms, I see very clearly why boys are falling behind girls in education: the behavioral norm in schools is feminine. When the biologically natural aggression of males is focused into competitive performance, males thrive. When it is repressed, they are depressed. Single-gender classrooms and schools are a step in the right direction. If you train a Clydesdale to race with Arabians, he will be a little faster but will be very miserable. The same thing happens when you train an Arabian to pull with Clydesdales.

Jon Duringer Stevenson, Wash.

What about the male children of U.S. immigrants? The academic achievements of Indian and other Asian boys in particular are well documented. It seems they have no trouble staying focused, finishing homework or planning for college. Are you saying their brains are wired differently from those of their American-born counterparts? Do they need special treatment in class to help them keep up with girls? I don't think so. Obviously, their families and their cultural values play an enormous role in setting expectations and fostering a healthy respect for education. American parents should do the same, instead of whining about different brain chemistry.

Dianna O'Neill Atlanta, Ga.

Yes, boys are in crisis, and American parents are justifiably worried about the men their sons will become. But I wonder what mothers like Lance Armstrong's make of such statements as "An adolescent boy without a father figure is like an explorer without a map." The assumption that "masculine" qualities can be imparted only by men undermines the success of millions of mothers who are fully capable of raising thriving, emotionally healthy, masculine sons without a man around. Linda Armstrong raised Lance on her own and did quite well, as did the women who singlehandedly raised such successful men as Alan Greenspan, Bill Clinton, Rickey Henderson, Ed Bradley and Jamie Foxx. Armstrong calls his mother his main role model, saying she gave him determination, strength to overcome adversity and the capacity to succeed. These qualities are not exclusively masculine. They are human qualities that mothers can and do engender in their sons.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Psychology in PsychiatryWeill Medical College of Cornell University New York, N.Y.

Boys in a "crisis"? in my grandmother's day, only men could vote. When I was a girl, only boys could play sports. In the Roman Catholic Church, only men can be priests. In certain societies today and throughout history, girls can't attend school, and women can't work or show their faces in public. In China, girl babies are discarded because boys are favored. In America, glass ceilings block females from access to power, money and leadership. On playgrounds, a common taunt among boys falls along these lines: "You cry/ act/talk/throw like a girl." So for the fraction of a nanosecond in human history that boys are perceived to be on the short end of the stick compared with girls, you call this a "crisis"? C'mon, guys. You take a turn at second-class status for once.

Sandra J. Anderson Columbus, Ohio

I am a home-schooling mom with a seventh-grade daughter and a sixth-grade son. I was greatly comforted and encouraged by your article. I have often wondered how my well-organized, quiet, efficient, orderly daughter who does well in most subjects could possibly be related to my intelligent but noisy, busy, totally disorganized son who would do school with his head on the floor and feet on the table if he could--or better yet, not do school at all. The contrast between the two has often bewildered and confused me as I have tried to understand and adapt to their differences. I am glad to know that my son is only doing what he was created to do: be a boy. Classroom teachers who have a dozen boys like my son in their class have my tremendous respect and admiration.

Manda Patterson Des Lacs, N.D.

Peg Tyre should be praised for highlighting the virtue of mentorship. High-school dropouts are growing at an alarming rate--nearly 3,000 kids drop out every school day. These dizzying statistics speak to the larger number of boys and young men who amble through life without direction, example or leadership. I am deeply involved with at-risk youth and see firsthand the devastating effects that a lack of mentorship has on kids. The National Guard Youth Challenge Program is a community-based program for at-risk youth that gives young people the education, life-coping skills and job skills necessary to succeed as positive and productive adults. A critical component of Youth Challenge is the yearlong mentoring phase. This phase has proved so effective that in 2002 the National Mentoring Partnership recognized Youth Challenge as one of the top two mentoring programs in the country. Strong mentor figures are priceless resources, and their efforts make our country strong by demonstrating the amazing influence one person's commitment and kindness can have on a young life.

Lt. Gen. John B. Conaway, USAF (Ret.) Chairman, National Guard Youth Foundation Board of Directors Alexandria, Va.

As the authors of "Raising and Educating Healthy Boys: A Report on the Growing Crisis in Boys' Education," we applaud you for laying out how the high-stakes testing atmosphere in schools works against boys. No matter which data are used, however, African-American and Latino boys are most at risk, whether it is for being expelled from preschool, designated for special education, dropping out of high school or ending up with the fewest job opportunities. Compounding the situation are stereotyped images of manhood that make reading "uncool" and "a girl thing." If boys are turned off to education in their early years, the consequences to them and to society are severe. We agree with Carol Gilligan that we can learn from the transformation that has taken place in the lives of girls over the past 20 years. With a clear understanding of both boys' and girls' developmental needs, we can address the needs of each individual child without the limitations of preconceived notions about how they are supposed to be.

Merle Froschl and Barbara Sprung Codirectors, Educational Equity Center at the Academy for Educational Development New York, N.Y.

As the sister of Brian Johns, one of the boys profiled in your article, I was infuriated. You seem to imply that American boys are in a state of crisis chiefly because feminism and Title IX have disenfranchised them. Peg Tyre points to some experts who lament the feminization of the American education system, and she notes that one young man got a D in English when his teacher assigned "two girls' favorites," "The Secret Life of Bees" and "Memoirs of a Geisha" (written by a man). From elementary school through college, I had to read "boy" books such as "Moby Dick" and "The Great Gatsby," but no one implied that the American education system was masculine. When girls are in crisis, it is because they aren't boys; when boys are in crisis, it is national news.

Nicole Johns Minneapolis, Minn.

Is the deficit in learning among boys a new phenomenon, and if so, why? Why is the difference more pronounced now than in the past? It is not the law, the cultural milieu or testosterone levels that account for the vast majority of change. Rather, it is our physical environment that has changed, and it has changed our biochemistry, physiology and physical as well as mental health. Mounting evidence strongly implicates mercury exposure as playing a role in the increasing rates of learning disabilities found today in our children. Exposure to mercury is prevalent in our environment, and recent research has shown that infants and children are vulnerable to exposure levels far lower than once believed. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that approximately one in every six women of childbearing age had mercury levels that were high enough to cause adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes in their unborn children. Studies into the toxicity of mercury have consistently reported that at low exposure levels, boys are much more susceptible to mercury's toxic effects on brain development than girls are. We must focus with urgency and concert-ed scientific research on the physiological damage mercury has wrought disproportionately on boys. Ultimately, we must work aggressively to decrease exposure to mercury, in the air we breathe, the food we eat or the flu vaccine prescribed by our doctor.

Lyn Redwood, R.N., M.S.N., President Robert J. Krakow, Board of DirectorsSensible Action for Ending Mercury-InducedNeurological Disorders (SafeMinds) Tyrone, Ga.

Corrections In the Feb. 6 article "Cut, Thrust and Christ," we misquoted Jerry Falwell as using the words "assault ministry." In fact, Falwell was referring to "a salt ministry," a reference to Matthew 5:13 where Jesus says "ye are the salt of the earth."

In "The Trouble with boys" (Jan. 30), we misattributed the photos of Eagle Academy in the Bronx that appear on pages 51 and 52. They were taken by Jesse Chehak, not Matt Gunther. NEWSWEEK regrets the errors.