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Feb. 27, 2014

Solving ‘the boy problem’

Boys will be boys, goes the old adage, but it’s exactly this philosophy that has hurt young men in urban classrooms for more than a century, a Michigan State University scholar argues in a new book.

Many boys have devalued academic success since schooling was made mandatory starting in the early 1900s, Julia Grant writes in “The Boy Problem.” Today, boys make up two-thirds of the special education population and black and Latino males in particular face high rates of suspensions, expulsions and imprisonment.

On Feb. 27, the Obama administration unveiled an initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper” to address some of the most persistent social and economic problems faced by boys of color, including educational opportunities. Grant said the program appears to rest partly on the assumption that what black youth need is more male role models and masculine guidance.

Since 2006, when federal guidelines on same-gender schools were relaxed, educators across the nation have opened hundreds of all-male public schools, with some stressing military-like regimens and “tough love” in hopes of tapping into what some consider boys’ essential masculine nature.

But same-gender schools aren’t the solution, Grant said. After all, the recent academic and social progress made by girls had nothing to do with emphasizing their femininity; instead, girls were encouraged to speak up, be assertive, work hard and break down professional barriers.

“Why not do the same for at-risk boys?” said Grant, a professor and associate dean in MSU’s James Madison College. “In other words, perhaps it is not tapping into this so-called ‘boyishness’ that will best serve our young men but encouraging the development of human qualities such as courage, perseverance and empathy.”

The boy problem originated in the early 20th century with poor immigrant boys from Italy, Poland and other countries who often were seen as troublemakers and put in special education classes or reform school. But not only did those children suffer from impoverishment and language barriers, many of them did not value education – not when there were plenty of working-class jobs to be filled without a diploma.

Times have changed, Grant said, and those jobs no longer exist without an advanced education. Yet at the same time, boys of color have the lowest graduation rates of any group. While the plight of black and Latino boys recently has become a hot topic, Grant said the issue is not new, but a more dramatic iteration of a boy problem that traces back to the turn-of-the-century immigrants.

She said racism has played a big role in limiting opportunities for African-American boys in school and employment, both then and now.

Grant also refutes the claim that feminism is the cause of the crisis in boys’ education – that female progress has come at the expense of boys’ regress. How could it have, she asks, when the crisis existed decades before women’s equality was even on the public agenda?

She said teachers and principals should receive cultural competence training on how to better work with students from all backgrounds. In addition, schools should review their punishment policies for minor offenses such as challenging the teacher, walking out of class or violating the dress code.

“When you take a kid in trouble and give them suspension or expulsion, you’re really contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline,” Grant said. “Instead, you could attempt to come up with more creative ways to incorporate all boys into the culture of the school.”

Ultimately, she said, American society needs to reinvestigate what is best for boys.

“Nurturing boys as youth, rather than as men in the making, might serve society and boys themselves better, by encouraging the development of the qualities we seek to inspire in all of our children.”