Countries like the UK are substantially ahead of the U.S. when it comes to recognizing and advocating solutions for the boy crisis in education. In the United States, boys are the vast majority of students diagnosed with learning disabilities (75%, to be exact), a phenomenon shared by other western countries.
The number of students diagnosed with learning disabilities (LD) has mushroomed over the past several decades, resulting in a controversy as to how many are genuine cases and how many are misdiagnoses. Grame Paton at UK magazine The Telegraph tells us:
Official figures show that almost one million boys in English state schools had some form of learning difficulty, behavioural problem or speech and language impairment last year compared with just 511,570 girls. In all, almost a quarter of boys aged five to 19 had some form of difficulty that prevented them playing a full part in lessons, while just 13.7 per cent of girls were diagnosed.
It follows the release of data showing that boys are much less likely to pass primary school tests in the three-Rs or go on to gain good GCSE grades. Data from the Department for Education also showed that children were far more likely to have special needs if they were black, from poor families and had been in social services care.
The disclosure follows a landmark report from Ofsted three years ago that claimed many children with special needs were simply “underachieving” because teaching standards were too low…
Chris McGovern, a former head teacher and chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: “The number of children with special needs has grown incredibly over the last 20 years and it often comes down to poor training and teachers who cannot control children. Classifying children as having special needs is too often a ready excuse.
“There are some children with SEN – for example those on the autistic spectrum – who have genuine needs that must be addressed, but these are in a minority.”
In 2011, the Coalition pledged to crackdown on misdiagnoses of special needs by introducing rigorous screening measures to prevent children being labelled when they have merely fallen behind or caused disruption in class.
Today’s figures suggest the intervention has coincided with an overall drop nationally in the proportion of children with special needs.
It emerged that 1.55 million children in English schools – 18.7 per cent – were diagnosed in 2012/13. This compared with 1.62m – 19.8 per cent – just 12 months earlier. Of those, a higher proportion of children had a formal “statement” of special educational needs which marks out the most serious cases.
There is definitely a process for a school to declare that a child has a learning disability. It is not as though a teacher can do it unilaterally. That is not to say the process is entirely objective, however. Given that much of the evaluation is based on adult (female) perceptions of student (boy) behavior, especially in the context of what is perceived as deviant in a gynocentric lower education environment (given that it is run almost entirely by women), there is an inevitable element of subjectivity that can work against boys.
The comments section of the article is pretty much what you would expect whenever there is a discussion of a crisis among children in lower education. First, the teachers are blamed:
“Anyone not learning effectively from the teaching they are given is likely to be labelled as having SEN. It would be much too much to expect a school to admit that there was anything wrong with its teaching.”
Then the parents are blamed:
“The label is also an excuse for the parents to wash their hands of any responsibility for their childrens’ behaviour.”
Let’s just start working on this from the realistic premise that no one – regardless as to what the data will show – will be inclined to step up and take any responsibility for this. Truth be told, though, I cannot recall any parent clamoring to have their child labeled as learning disabled simply because it allowed them to be more irresponsible parents. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it is quite unheard of.
Based on the research I have done so far, I think this comment is particularly insightful:
Boys develop the fine motors skills to be able to write later than girls. They also develop later the ability to concentrate and focus. Education that demands that boys learn to read and write at the age of 4 will mean that some boys will be physically incapable of doing so. If there was less pressure in the early years with realisation that most of those who struggle at 4 will probably grasp these skills by the time they are 7, then maybe there won’t be as many boys labelled as “struggling”.
Both Peg Tyre in The Trouble With Boys and Richard Whitmire in Why Boys Fail talk about the tendency of schools to push tougher curricula (especially tougher literacy skills) down through the education pipeline, to the point where kindergarten today requires what first grade required 20 years ago. And if you read Dr. Michael Gurian’s book Boys and Girls Learn Differently, you will see him agree that boys develop fine motor skills necessary for writing later than girls.
Some MRAs may dislike the notion that boys’ biology may place certain limitations on boys. Certainly they do not limit all boys, or perhaps even most. I do believe, however, that we ignore biology at our peril. Take me for example. I can relate to a lot of what these education theorists are saying. While I have always loved reading and writing, I have lived through a lot of the learning difficulties they speak of regarding boys and literacy.
I have always had a hard time focusing. I was labeled with ADHD and put on Ritalin as a child. Even as an adult, if I sit or lay down to read I have to break up the reading session by standing up and walking around before I start again. Sometimes I don’t sit down to read at all; even at age 30 and in the comfort of my own home I sometimes – just as I did when I was 14 – put my shoes on before I start reading. I then read on my feet, sometimes pacing in front of my desk.
Why do I do this? Truth be told, until recently I didn’t know. I just told myself the same answer I did at 14, the earliest time in my life I can recall doing this: when I put on my shoes before I start reading, I feel like I”m about to go somewhere. And when you think about it, that’s really a great mindset with which to start reading. Especially for a boy. And if I still feel I need this as a man, I wonder how much more I needed it when I was too young to remember.
Of course, standing up to read and breaking up reading sessions with movement is frowned upon in the modern education system. In addition recess is now banned at many schools, or is taken away from boys on an individual basis as a punishment. And even when they get recess, boys are often nowadays very limited in what kinds of activity they can do.
It’s no wonder that young boys become disengaged, withdrawn, and start to act out based on pent-up frustrations that they simply aren’t sure how to articulate yet. While acknowledging that certain kids do have genuine learning disabilities that warrant our care and concern, let’s expand our approach by also taking a look at the educational environment and seeing what we can do to make it more adaptive for boys.