In interviews with hundreds of Alaskan teenagers, psychologist Judith Kleinfeld, EdD, noticed a big difference in how boys and girls viewed their futures. Most of the girls planned to attend college and had specific career goals. Most of the boys said they weren't planning on college and seemed perplexed about possible careers.

"So many of them just seemed lost," says Kleinfeld, a gender researcher and professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She noticed a particularly worrisome trend among teenage boys who had sisters.

"We got this common scenario of the 'smart sister' and the 'slacker boy,'" she says. "Very often, it seemed, the girl of the family feels responsible to fulfill the parents' expectations, and the boy just withdraws from the competition."

The lack of engagement Kleinfeld found in her research is occurring throughout the United States, particularly among minorities and lower- to- middle-income families: Boys are trailing girls academically and attending college less frequently. According to National Center for Education Statistics data, for example, for every 100 women who earn bachelors degrees, only 73 men earn one.

Kleinfeld is working to get boys back in the game through the Boys Project, a national coalition of researchers, educators, journalists, education policy experts, health-care professionals and parents she formed in 2006 to help boys reach their potential. Its work is funded by its members and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Kleinfeld, the mother of three grown children (two boys, one girl), says her group is focusing national attention on this achievement gap and its causes, which they attribute to multiple factors, such as a dearth of positive role models for boys and schools poorly adapted to boys' energy and interests. "Schools have become very girl-friendly," she says. "But it's not a see-saw. We can design schooling where both boys and girls do well."

A boy's life

Research shows that boys tend to lag a year and a half behind girls in reading and writing. Kleinfeld's group believes that difference has much to do with teachers failing to hook boys on reading and writing early on. Female teachers--still the majority--tend to assign books they loved as children, such as "Little House on the Prairie," rather than the adventure novels boys favor, she adds. Teachers also favor girls because, as research has shown, they tend to follow school rules better than boys do.

"Boys tend to go off on their own track and do original and creative work, but the grading system in schools emphasizes neatness and whether students get their homework in on time," says Kleinfeld.

Most schools also don't emphasize enough the active play that research shows is key to boys' development in particular, says Kleinfeld. In fact, many discourage it, frequently punishing boys for what was once considered "rough and tumble" play, which research shows has a key role in the development of boys' motor and social interaction skills, she says. The result? Many boys develop negative attitudes toward school, she says.

In addition, boys are more likely to be prescribed Ritalin for attention-deficit disorders despite unknowns of how it effects their brains, says Kleinfeld. And, she points out, popular culture helps undermine boys with images of lazy, dumb men (think Homer Simpson).

"Boys are the last group you can make fun of," says Kleinfeld. "Boys are internalizing these attitudes."

Male bonding

Mentoring programs are one way to combat these negative stereotypes and boost school performance, The Boys Project is finding. One such program, called Band of Brothers, is the brainchild of Boys Project board member Jonathan Shepard, assistant principal of Sycamore Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas. He recruits men from the community to serve as mentors for boys who are withdrawn or are having emotional or academic troubles.

Volunteer mentors--who undergo thorough background checks before they're selected--have lunch with their mentees to hash out such topics as school frustrations, academic goals and problems the boys might be having. The mentors focus on confidence building and behavior modeling by swapping stories and talking about honesty, humility and leadership.

Shepard encourages these volunteers to meet with the boys in the school's gym and science lab for bonding activities--two favorites are constructing "marshmallow launchers" and group dodgeball--because the boys open up when they are happily active.

"Boys will talk your ear off when they are doing something, and they will be as quiet as a mouse when they are required to just sit and talk," says Shepard, the father of two boys, ages 8 and 10.

Since he launched the program four years ago, 100 boys have participated and are faring better for it: Participants' grades have gone up, school absences are down, and the boys are noticeably more engaged in school.

"Parents and teachers make comments like, 'I have never heard him laugh so much or like that before,'" Shepard says.

Beyond mentoring programs, parents can help steer their boys down the right path by simply reading with them every night and spending time with them--dads especially, Kleinfeld says. The Boys Project is working to drive this point home with parents and partnering with schools to help teachers better engage boys. A next step may include working more closely with universities' schools of education, so that teachers are better trained to help boys from the start.

Helping boys succeed helps girls, too, Kleinfeld points out. Tomorrow's successful women will be on the lookout for men who are as happy with what they've accomplished as they are.

"With boys not going to college as frequently or earning as much, these girls are going to have a hard time finding a partner that has comparable goals or interests," says Kleinfeld. "This has occurred for a long time in the African-American community, and now it's spreading to other groups."

Further Reading

For more on the Boys Project, visit www.boysproject.net.