The Reality About Boys

By Leonard Sax, MD, PhD
August 6,2007

The cover story for TIME magazine (August 6 2007) is “The Myth About Boys.” According to this cover story, boys today are doing just great in school, “better than ever,” and anything you’ve heard to the contrary is a myth. If you are involved in any way in educating boys, I would advise you to read both the story and my reply to it, because you are likely to hear more about it from parents and others. I would also encourage you to watch the TODAY show segment on this story broadcast last Tuesday, in which Matt Lauer interviewed both the author of the cover story, David Von Drehle, and me, to hear our contrasting perspectives on this issue. You can link to streaming video of the TODAY show segment at

The TIME cover story provides three bits of evidence, and only three, to support the assertion that boys are doing “better than ever” at school.
1. Reading scores for 4th-grade boys have risen.
2. The proportion of boys graduating from high school has increased 4% (four percent) since 1980.
3. More boys are going straight to college after finishing high school.

Let’s take each of those points in turn. First: Reading scores for fourth-grade boys have indeed risen over the past 20 years; but (as the TIME cover story concedes), reading scores for twelfth-grade boys have plummeted over the same time period, so that “many boys are leaving [high] school functionally illiterate.” Not to worry, though. After all, those fourth-grade boys are doing better. As those fourth-grade boys move up to the higher grades, we can confidently “expect gains in the higher grades soon.”

Such a comment betrays a stunning lack of understanding both of the reasons behind the rise in fourth-grade test scores and the corresponding decline in the scores of high school boys. These two phenomena are closely linked. Over the past 20 years, there has been an acceleration of the early elementary curriculum, coupled with a narrowing of the focus of elementary education (for more detail on this point, with supporting references, please see chapter 2 of Boys Adrift). Recess has been cut back. There’s less music, less art, less physical education, and more reading drills, writing drills, and arithmetic exercises. (This is somewhat less true at elite private schools than at public schools.) When you turn elementary school into year-round test-prep, you will see test scores rise. But that improvement comes at a price. Some students, especially boys, tune out. They lose interest. They no longer read for fun. (See chapter 2 of Boys Adrift for documentation of the lower propensity of boys to read for fun today compared with 1980.)

And they stop paying attention. Over the same 20 years during which we’ve seen this acceleration and intensification of the early elementary curriculum, there has been an explosion in the number of kids, especially boys, being diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. The United States has about 5% of the world’s population but consumes about 90% of the total global production of ADHD medications such as Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, and Metadate. (Please see chapter 4 of Boys Adrift for more facts and figures about the overdiagnosis and over-prescribing of medications for ADHD in the United States.) The TIME cover story praises the “enlightened teaching and robust encouragement” which Mr. Von Drehle believes now characterizes American education. But what’s so enlightened about an educational system which drives many parents to drug their children, especially their sons? The number of boys on stimulant medications for ADHD has increased roughly 30-fold (i.e. by 3000%) over the past 20 years. In affluent suburbs, it’s now common to find one in three middle-school boys on these “academic steroids.” From my perspective as a practicing family physician, listening to the concerns of parents who feel pressured to put their sons on Adderall or Concerta, it’s hard to share the enthusiasm of the TIME cover story for our supposedly “enlightened” system. In my experience, it’s usually not the boys who have something broken and in need of fixing. It is instead more often the school which needs to be brought back into alignment with the reality of what’s developmentally appropriate for kids to learn, and how best to inspire kids to become lifelong learners rather than mere test-takers.

Regarding the supposed 4% increase in graduation rates: the debate about graduation rates is not very productive. It’s clear that over the past 25 years, administrators have become very ingenious in disguising dropouts as transfers, etc. What’s more important than the graduation rate claimed by a school district, I believe, is what kids do after they graduate.

Which brings us to point #3: At least more boys are going to college than ever before, right? The “favorite statistic” in the TIME cover story, the statistic which Mr. Von Drehle says serves to “sum up all the others,” is the one which supposedly proves that “fewer boys today are deadbeats” (p. 45). This statistic refers to the fact that more boys between the ages of 16 and 19 today are in school or working than was the case 20 years ago. That’s true, primarily because more boys today attend college than in the 1980’s. The TIME cover story concludes that boys therefore “are pulling themselves up.”

But take a look at the big picture. It’s true that more boys are going to college than was the case 20 years ago. In affluent suburbs, in particular, essentially every boy goes to college. The only requirement for a boy to go to college, after all, is a parent whose checks don’t bounce. A more meaningful parameter is how well boys do at college. According to a recent front-page article in the New York Times, at many colleges and universities, roughly 4 out of 5 students earning high honors now are women. According to the latest report from the US Department of Education, only 30% of men who enroll at a four-year college or university will earn a degree within four years, compared with 39.7% of women. According to a May 2007 report underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts, young men today (age 30 to 35 years of age) are the first generation of American men to earn significantly less than their fathers did at the same age. They are also the first generation of American men ever to be less well-educated than their sisters. In this age group, 32% of women have earned a 4-year college degree, compared with only 23% of men. Please see chapters 6 and 7 of Boys Adrift for more information about the end result of our current educational system: a growing proportion of young men who “fail to launch.” Again, I stress that the problem is NOT that more young women are earning college degrees; the problem is that their brothers aren’t keeping up with them. Why not? Answering that question is the main mission of my book Boys Adrift. You will have to tell me whether you think I succeeded.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, is Executive Director of NASSPE and author of Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men

What Ever Happened to Grammar? Penmanship?

Grammar Instruction?

Grammar. We all use it everyday and most of us studied it to some degree in school. While few of us considered it our favorite time of the day, we all begrudgingly admitted it was important. We knew that understanding grammatical concepts like the objective case pronoun-while they make some people’s heads spin-is the key to writing and speaking correctly. Many parents do not realize that most schools have stopped explicitly teaching these language fundamentals and that their children would be hard pressed to explain why the pronouns you and me must be used after the preposition between.

Sometime in the 1970s as part of the whole language movement education schools and teacher organizations began to downplay the necessity of grammar. By the mid-1980s the National Council of Teachers of English had passed a resolution stating “the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises…is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.” Today’s grammar opponents contend that grammar is so dull that it discourages children’s interest in writing. Rather than find a way to make grammar instruction more interesting, teachers simply omitted it from the language arts curriculum.

The problems resulting from not instilling the value of good grammar into our children are many. Children’s scores on the government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress writing exam have been falling steadily since it was first given in 1984. Students without a solid foundation in their own language have more trouble learning foreign languages. Teachers know that kids who rely on “what sounds right” when speaking or writing their native language will struggle in French, Spanish or German. Teachers of younger children report that children who do not understand grammar and syntactic clues like commas have more difficulty reading aloud and understanding what they read.

A more frightening consequence of leaving grammar out of the English language curriculum for the last 20 years is that teachers no longer know grammar themselves. If teachers are not equipped to address students’ questions about grammar, students have little chance of gaining a firm grasp of it. Those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or from homes where English is not the primary language are particularly at risk of speaking and writing improperly for the rest of their lives. The lack of proper verbal and written language skills can relegate these children, even the brightest ones, to second-class citizen status.

Many people dismiss the need for explicit grammar instruction for the same reason they brush aside the need for attention to spelling-computers. It is true that word processing programs can now detect misspellings and disagreement between nouns and verbs, but they will be of little assistance to your child when he is filling out a job application or interviewing for college. Since most textbooks do not provide teachers guidance or materials to teach grammar, your child’s school must offer supplementary instruction. Ask what is being done about this important issue at your next parents’ meeting. You might be surprised!


Handwriting helps children learn attention to detail, polishes fine motor skills, and most importantly, can be a gateway to good reading skills. Unfortunately penmanship – or handwriting as it’s often called – is becoming a lost art, squeezed out of daily classroom schedules by the blocs of new material being forced in.

“Handwriting skills complement other language arts skills,” says Jan Olsen, founder of Handwriting Without Tears, a Maryland-based program for teaching penmanship.

“I’ve seen children who didn’t seem to care about letters take a real interest after they ‘build’ a letter out of wood pieces. It’s the phenomena of caring about things that we make ourselves. For some, their ability to write opens up their interest in reading.”

Olsen’s Handwriting Without Tears program was recently adopted as an approved program in California and South Carolina and is used by several school districts and many families.

Olsen’s comments are echoed by Myrna McCulloch, founder and director of The Riggs Institute, a nonprofit publisher, teacher, parent, and tutor training agency based in Oregon. McCulloch understands well the rationale that’s keeping handwriting instruction out of the classroom – computer usage trumps learning to write – and she strongly disagrees with it.

“Writing helps make an imprint on the brain,” McCulloch explains. “If you meet someone and can’t remember their name, what do you do? You write it down and you remember it!”

Of the four learning modalities – visual, auditory, oral, and motor, McCulloch says motor skills are the ones that leave the “strongest imprint” and thus provide reinforcement and entry to the other modalities.

Nonetheless, some teachers might find handwriting instruction akin to teaching children how to “ride a horse” when they’ll be “driving automobiles” in the real world.

“Many students bring word processors to classrooms,” says Pearl Rock Kane, professor of education at Columbia, Teachers College. “And computers do teach children to store things, to file, to organize.”

There’s no question – even among handwriting instructors – that children must acquire computer skills. But Olsen argues that being able to print and write bolsters self-esteem as well as fosters a special appreciation for words and language. No computer printout can give children the boost that forming letters with their own hands does. And employers value both writing and computing skills.

“A person who can fill out a job application, take a phone message, address a package, and make a list is better qualified for life and work,” Olsen says.

Teaching handwriting might be particularly important to children with special needs. Olsen, a registered occupational therapist, points out that learning handwriting can help prevent or correct number reversals. She has several success stories of children who learned to write despite other learning problems. “Children need to move, see, hear, handle and touch while they’re learning for optimum results,” she says.

Handwriting methods fall into two major categories – D’Nealian and Zaner-Bloser – and both have their advocates. The D’Nealian method is a modified italic form where letters are shaped without lifting the pencil from the paper, thus making letter reversals virtually impossible. Zaner-Bloser uses vertical, straight letters that more closely resemble book print. Some writing techniques, like those espoused by the Riggs Institute, use a combination of both. Handwriting Without Tears uses vertical, straight lines to teach cursive writing.

Nuances of handwriting instruction techniques are moot points, however, if schools aren’t devoting time to any handwriting programs at all. If that’s the case, Olsen’s advice to parents is simple: do it yourself. Better yet, urge your school to train teachers and provide workbooks for handwriting instruction, an action taken by one of Olsen’s clients who ended up on a school board handwriting committee.

Whatever they do, parents should not assume that computer use makes learning handwriting obsolete and unnecessary. Kids need both, says Olsen, to function well in the classroom and beyond.

Electronic Effect: Television, gaming and computers’ impact on learning

“Turn off the TV, pitch the video games and unplug the computer!” Too long for a bumper sticker? Maybe. But young people spend an average of 23 hours a week in front of the television set – more time than they spend doing any other activity besides sleeping. And that’s hurting our kids.

We talk about 21st century education and standards, we examine and demand research into reading pedagogy, early education, class size, site-based management and data drive reform. But how often do we demand to know the correlation between the hours our children spend engaged in front of electronic media and their reading proclivity, constructive play or basic conversation?

Any keen observer can connect the dots between ‘electronic exposure’ and poor child outcomes in learning and health. Our couch potatoes are getting younger every year. And empirical evidence is also beginning to accumulate that supports the long-time hypothesis that children who are exposed to too much television and video games may suffer serious and long-lasting consequences (and that’s not even getting into issues of content!):
1. The University of Michigan found that TV discourages reading, reduces school performance and interferes with vital social interactions.
2. A new study in the journal Pediatrics finds that infants and young children who spend long hours in front of the television are far more likely to develop problems like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, now the most common childhood behavioral disorder.
3. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Children’s Digital Media Centers found that in “heavy TV households” 34 percent of children ages 4 to 6 can read, compared with 56 percent in homes where the TV is on less often.
4. And those “Baby Einstein” videos? Research has found that the more TV and videos that infants watch, the less words they know. Being read to, on the other hand, has the opposite effect of boosting baby vocabulary.
5. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges that children under 2 not be exposed to electronic media at all, and that older children be limited to no more than 1-2 hours of “quality” media a day. Instead, “encourage alternative entertainment for children, including reading, athletics, hobbies, and creative play.”

We can’t talk about evaluating and improving children’s reading skills without also talking about preconditions for success, especially when children are young – including all the conditions that encourage or discourage them to read.

Interest must start at home – and other activities can’t be considered more important than reading. A $50 video game could buy a lot of books – or go to the library, and sock that cash into the college fund.

Think about it.

Character education? What to look for in your school

Is your school pursuing character education? Over the past decade, American schools have become increasingly reflective about their role as moral educators. The wave of school shootings grabbed the nation’s attention not long ago, experts were urging teachers to move beyond their fondness for “value neutrality.” They considered moral literacy and character education part of the educator’s task. By the mid-nineties many charter schools were gaining parental support from their commitment to those goals. The first full-blown “character education programs” emerged.

While parents have always wanted schools to help children “do their best and be their best,” they may find themselves wondering if programs that sound good really do provide character instruction. There are a wide variety of approaches, not all of which work.

Some schools, which see themselves as the child’s first civic community, have grounded their character education programs in the context of “rights and responsibilities.” This “democratic” approach to character education (“what are my rights? what are my responsibilities?”) may provide a minimum standard, but as a framework for character education, it sets a low bar. Instead of encouraging children to go the extra mile, these programs unintentionally encourage students to think legalistically, and ask “what is required of me? What is not?” The child measuring his behavior by minimal civic standards is all too often focusing on “the most I can get away with” rather than “the best I can do.”

Other approaches are mainly empathetic, seeking to form “caring communities” and “responsive classrooms.” Still others are prescriptive, urging compliance with well-articulated, often Biblical, norms. Yet others identify consensus values and strive to promote respect, responsibility, honesty, trustworthiness, etc.

Whether or not your school has a “program,” it will no doubt have an ethos and an approach. The fact is schools do character education whether they realize it or not. Every standard teachers set for academic performance, every response to classroom conflict, every incentive given for diligent effort, every cruel remark tolerated, every thoughtless habit overlooked, every encouragement for overcoming adversity, teaches.

As you navigate through myriad possibilities at your child’s school, keep the following thoughts about good character education in mind.

1. Quality character education is virtue-based. It promotes excellence.

2. Quality character education inspires a love of the good, not just legalistic knowledge of the permitted and the forbidden.

3. Quality character education generates light not heat. When political hot potatoes are part of the program, ask questions.

4. Quality character education promotes and conduces to the school’s main task,intellectual excellence.

A virtue-based approach sets high standards against which to evaluate our selves. Good character education does not, in other words, simply post rules, highlight a “virtue of the month” or trumpet the 10 Commandments. While good programs should provide students with a rich vocabulary of virtue (one moving well beyond “appropriate,” “caring” and “nice”), mind and heart should function as one. The art of character education in the lower grades is helping children come to care about the good.

To achieve that goal, quality literature is important. Our stories and heroes shape the moral imagination. They move the heart and help children come to care. Does your school recognize this by reading the quality literature that will help children not just recognize and know the good, but love it?

The mandate of schools, above all else, is to educate individuals who think well, seek knowledge, and love the truth. Intellectual virtues, such as carefulness, accuracy, perseverance in the face of obstacles, courage in attempting novel solutions are largely derivative of the moral virtues. When your child takes care to write a paragraph or accurately carry out a science project, they are demonstrating virtues. Teaching and recognizing these virtues is what a good character education program is all about.

The best character education programs do not take valuable time “away from school.” They make school better. They do not spend endless hours “discussing virtue.” They inspire and live it. Quality character education reinforces the dispositions and habits that advance scholarship and help students aspire to excellence in all things. That’s a pretty powerful prescription for the 21st century.

Adapted from Parent Power! September 2000.
Guest Contributor, Mary Beth Klee, Ph.D., is an educational consultant and the author of Core Virtues. For more about Character Education and models of schooling see On Purpose

What about technology and schools?

A survey by school administrators found that parents ranked computer literacy more valuable than honesty, citizenship, biology, geography, classic literature or athletics. A similar survey of teachers ranked computer skills as more “essential” than European history, biology, chemistry and physics

But in the rush to log on, parents might be wise to take a deep breath and examine whether the results have equaled the promise – and what the side effects on our children might be.

Child development experts believe that hands-on learning for very young children (K-3) is most valuable when it imprints knowledge deeply on a young child’s brain by providing lessons of experience through several senses. Too-early use of computers exacerbates the effects of television, in which fast-paced visual stimuli change how brains are wired, limiting their attention spans and, in turn, hampering their ability to learn through reading or listening.

Even older children, for whom technology can make difficult concepts (such as certain physics concepts) more comprehensible, can find themselves seduced by the ease with which papers can be made to look snappy, and many teachers report that increasing numbers of students are writing research papers by combining ideas without exploring the relationships between them – a job made easier by “cut and paste” functions of word processors and the wealth of information available on the Internet.

So what should parents look for to maximize the positive aspects of technology?

For very young students, avoid a push to early use of computers which might limit their emotional and intellectual base. Or use it to “fill in the gaps”, such as the use of phonics software to supplement teachers who were never taught how to teach phonics.

For older students, ensure that your school integrates technology into the curriculum by allowing classes to plunge into a variety of real-life hands-on experiences: tracking bird migrations and posting them on the web, using e-mail to fulfill assignments on what it would take to build an industrial plant overseas, or directing a simulated three-month expedition through the jungles of Central America – all of which have been done in the classroom.

And in all cases, first things first: Make certain that good curriculum and excellent teaching drive technology – not the other way around.

Click here to learn more about how some policies are helping students access more and better learning online.

Is recess becoming obsolete?

It shouldn’t. Don’t forget to play!

With increased focus on high standards, something important is being squeezed out of children’s schedules, something their parents enjoyed in abundance, something that can help shape a child’s future as much as a math or reading class.

That “something” is time for play.

Parents are demanding better academics in the classroom. In the rush to meet those demands, schools confuse strengthening their curriculum or raising standards with the need to add more class time or homework. As a result, play time is sacrificed, often with parents as unwitting accomplices.

Often it’s not how much extra time a school spends on academics, but how time is spent that makes schools more effective. Instituting longer school days without raising the quality of important things like books and instruction only robs a child of much needed down-time.
There is even an Institute for Play! Its president, Stuart Brown, M.D., wants to help parents understand that play is as important in the life of a child as nutrition and sleep. “A whole series of developmental phenomena occur as the result of play. Children learn to trust, to believe in the safety of social interaction, to know their environment in an experiential way, to learn a sense of self, and the ‘illusion of success’ which in turn leads to optimism” Brown says.

When they are playing, kids learn how to make trade-offs. To play a game with his or her friends, a child needs to play by the rules. Every child on the playground knows that a game can only get so rough and tumble before someone objects and the game becomes no fun. “Children learn to give up things they want in order to get into the game,” Brown noticed. “It’s a tremendously important skill for being a part of a community – being able to share, being able to lose and take your lumps.”

Look at your child’s time at home. Is there enough playtime after school? On the weekends?

Look at your child’s school. Is there enough recess time? That’s when children learn to get along and share. That’s when they learn what happens when you are nice or mean to someone.

So, what should parents do to ensure that play remains a part of childhood?

1. Make sure there are at least two substantive recess periods where children can get out of the classroom. If not, find out from the principal why, and point out the benefits.

2. When homework is out of the way each day, does your child have a chance to engage in a play activity she likes? (TV doesn’t count!)

Just as importantly, however, parents should evaluate whether they are pushing their child into one activity after another with no down-time, particularly during the summer months. “There is huge pressure on parents and kids,” says Brown “to fit a model of performance – to get into a good college, to gain technical skills. That

So our advice: let them play! Trust us, they won’t object.