Celebrate boys’ boyness – and work with it

Celebrate boys’ boyness – and work with it writes Margaret Wente in Canada’s Globe and Mail.

I sat down with several people who think about this question every day – Jim Power, the principal of Upper Canada College; his colleagues Scott Cowie and Mary Gauthier; and Brad Adams, executive director of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition.

Our culture is deeply uncertain about the value of masculinity, says Brad Adams, executive director of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition.

For a boy, the two most important life questions are: Will I find work that’s significant? And will I be worthy of my parents? When boys themselves are asked what they need, they say: I need purpose. I need to make a difference. I need to know I measure up. I need challenge. Above all, I need a meaningful vocation.

No wonder so many boys are so miserable. The modern world of extended years in school and delayed adulthood cuts them off from what they need most.

Boys also need to imagine themselves as heroes, says Jim Power, the principal of Upper Canada College. To girls, Vimy Ridge is a “horrific” place where many Canadian soldiers died in World War I.  When boys are asked about Vimy Ridge,  they imagine themselves there. “Every boy is thinking to himself: How would I have measured up?”

These days, “boys are often treated as a problem,” Wente writes.

The dominant narrative around difficult boys – at least in the public school system – is that they’re unteachable, unreachable, disruptive and threatening. Many commentators – men as well as women – blame male culture itself for the problems with boys. In their view, what we need to do is destroy the death star of masculinity and all the evil that goes with it. What we need to do is put boys in touch with their emotions and teach them to behave more like girls.

Boys’ schools take another track, celebrating “boyness,” Wente writes.

Several public school systems have launched all-boys’ schools for failing boys. In New York, the Eagle Academy for Young Men is achieving impressive results for minority boys in a tough neighbourhood. These schools demand a lot. Their ethos is: We’ll help you succeed, but we’ll be tough on you, and you must claim responsibility. (By contrast, the attitude of Ontario’s public schools toward difficult boys is: We’ll let you pass if you leave us alone.)

But schools can’t give boys what they really need, Wente writes. They need “men who will guide, instruct, esteem, respect and understand them,” that is, fathers.

Do boys need single-sex schools?

Boys are more likely to be labeled disabled, less likely to be in gifted classes and much less likely to earn a high school diploma, New York City schools have found. The city is looking for ways to help boys succeed in school that probably will include “more single-sex schools, as well as mentoring, tutoring and other after-school programs,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

“A high level of physical energy and impulsivity tends to be devalued or even punished in schools,” says Steve Nelson, head of the progressive Calhoun School, a private school.

Charter schools are opening boys-only schools in low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The Eagle Academy, which started in the Bronx in 2004, was aimed to combat citywide graduation rates of 30% or lower for African-American males. Although the school has an 83% graduation rate this year, up from 80% in 2009, citywide numbers for African-American men are in the mid-40s, and are still “very, very troubling,” said (David) Banks, Eagle’s president and founding Principal of Eagle Academy.

. . . Young men who want to attend the school are selected by lottery. Mr. Banks — whose schools feature mandatory parental involvement, longer school days and Saturday classes — wants to open four more schools in the next five years.

“All-boys schools create safe environments in which boys can learn,” concludes a recent report on single-sex schools (pdf) serving black and Latino boys, notes Susan Sawyers on HechingerEd.  “An emphasis on building strong relationships among the boys, teachers, and staff proved important to engaging the boys in the learning process,” said New York University professor Pedro Noguera, an author of the Black and Latino Male Schools Intervention Study, at a conference in April. The study looked at seven schools that were traditional public, public charters and private schools.

The authors found that all-boys schools nurtured their students social and emotional development; challenged stereotypes about African-American and Latino male identity; infused strong academic expectations and college preparation as part of the boys’ social identity; and made strong efforts to shore up basic academic skills before moving on to more challenging offerings.

However, Noguera also said that the push toward single-sex schools for low-income boys is “an intervention in search of a theory” and named the report just that. Unlike all-girls schools, which are based on the theory of expanding gender role options for girls, all-boys schools are not based on a “shared understanding” of what boys actually need.

But it’s clear they need something more than they’re getting now.