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Q & A

The Trouble With Boys Q. Who should read this book?
A. I wrote it for parents who are concerned about their sons' performance in school and for teachers who are wondering how to get boys engaged in learning. I'm hoping that policy makers read it as well.

Q. What is your book about?
A. We have a problem in this country—on the whole, boys are not thriving in school. They are getting kicked out of preschool at five times the rates of girls, getting left back more in kindergarten, they are reading less well and less often. They are being diagnosed with learning disorders more and given attention-enhancing drugs at four times the rates of girls. More than fifty-seven percent of our traditional-aged undergraduates are female. About two and half million more girls than boys now attend college.

Q. What's causing boys to underachieve?
A. There have been changes in our schools—and in our society—that have made school less friendly to boys. Some of them are obvious—many schools have cut back recess—which is having a terrible effect on a lot of kids and many of them are boys. Some of them are subtle. It turns out, there are studies that show that the way teachers teach reading can disadvantage boys. There are also some big cultural shifts going on that are throwing the underachievement of boys into stark relief. It used to be that if a boy did poorly in school, he'd take a job in manufacturing or in construction, where he could earn a good enough salary to support himself and maybe a family. Those sectors are eroding quickly. A college degree has become a prerequisite to the middle class—and many boys just aren't making it.

Q. Is every boy underachieving?
A. Everywhere you look, there is a thin margin of top performing boys. But in every demographic, in every community, the bottom of the class is disproportionately male. My book describes that phenomenon, looks at where it comes from and looks at what some schools are doing to address it.

Q. Is there anything we can do about it?
A. Definitely. The first thing we need to do is begin to talk about the problem. When it comes to taking action, we need to move carefully but we need to move. Poor boys and boys of color are really struggling right now. And they are going to need some dramatic help to get them back on track. When it comes to middle class boys, we can help them by changing some things about the classroom—allow for more physical movement, more recess, more hands-on activity, boys-friendly reading instruction. Boy-friendly books. Writing teachers who understand and celebrate the way boys write and think. We need teachers and administrators that encourage boys to stay engaged in learning.

Q. Why should we care?
A. At all but the very highest income levels, our country is bifurcating into two groups: educated women and less educated men. That division will have massive implications for the way our children live their lives—their opportunities, their career choices, what they do, who they marry, how they raise their children, if they can afford to retire. As parents and educators, I think we need to decide—is this what we want?

Q. What made you tackle this subject?
A. A while back, I wrote a cover story for Newsweek about the underachievement of boys in school. My reporting showed how boys were demonstrably falling behind in the educational realm. When the story came out, it set off a deluge of responses. Feminist academics insisted it was girls not boys, who needed our attention. But parents, hundreds of them, wrote to thank me for addressing the central drama of their lives—the underachievement of their boys in school. Teachers contacted me and asked me to write more. I was intrigued.

Q. If this is such a big problem, how come it hasn't been talked about more?
A. There are people in public life who talk about gender and school as if it's a see saw. If boys are up, then girls are down. If girls are up, then boys are down. But that's a false model. The lives of our children, boy and girls, are intertwined. There are a lot of concerned parents, educators and policy makers who, while they don't want to take away from the astonishing gains our young women are making, are starting to realize that we can no longer ignore what's happening to boys

Q. Tell us a little about your background?
A. I am a grateful recipient of the gains achieved by the feminist movement. I am also the mother of sons. I approached this subject as a veteran investigative reporter, not an ideologue. I went where the facts took me.

Q. What will it take for things to change?
A. Parents and teachers are starting to get it. And they're starting to reach out to find solutions to the problem. But we're not going to get anywhere until we have national leadership on this issue. We need politicians who will trust that the American people are sophisticated enough to have a nuanced discussion about gender and education. Who will politely ignore those radical elements that try to shut down the discussion by insisting that when we talk about gender and education we should focus solely on the struggles of girls. I think we're moving closer to that moment. I hope my book can help get us there.