Closing boys’ academic gap comes into focus

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CAMBRIDGE – Over the years, a lot of ink has been spilled over the “boy crisis” in American schools. As young women and girls continue to excel in school, boys have fallen behind.

A 2014 American Psychological Association study found that girls have had higher grades than boys in all subjects in over 30 countries for nearly a century.

“The fact that females generally perform better than their male counterparts throughout what is essentially mandatory schooling in most countries seems to be a well-kept secret, considering how little attention it has received as a global phenomenon,” said Susan Voyer, a co-author of the study.

The reasons for higher achievement by girls aren’t fully understood. Some researchers suggest that girls are more likely to plan and set goals, or that teachers (who tend to be women) subconsciously prefer female students. Women who teach may favor the kinds of material that have historically appealed to girls, such as narrative prose and diaries, over the comic books and science fiction that appeal to boys.

Others say that boys mature more slowly than girls, need more break or recess time, and often at age 5 aren’t as ready to begin reading as girls are. And reading could be key; if boys aren’t comfortable reading, it can hold them back in every subject, since reading skills form the foundation for everything else.

This can have stark consequences, according to Will Vitale, a tutor and regional vice president at Axiom Learning, a Cambridge-based company that provides private tutoring and test-preparation services.

“Boys have a much higher rate of learning difficulties than girls,” he said, referring to some of other statistics that reveal the gender gap in learning. “High school boys drink more than any other demographic category – a high school boy is seven times more likely to commit suicide than a girl in high school.”

Axiom created its Young Men’s Initiative to help boys still in school harness their talents and think about what they want from life, Vitale said in a recent interview. The course provides skills training while attempting to spur both character development and leadership growth. It’s open to boys in middle-school and high-school.

Despite evidence that boys face greater challenges than girls in school and beyond, there are few programs specifically designed to help boys.

“There are social development and leadership development programs for boys, but it’s usually that they are for boys who are already in the system somehow. So at the juvenile correctional services level, there are kind of some awesome skill-building programs for boys,” Vitale said. But for those who stay out of trouble, there are few options.

Though there are few leadership and development programs for young men, several do exist. The Concerned Black Men of Massachusetts has been in operation for 25 years, and offers programs in Greater Boston. It helps black men “in the areas of accountability, personal goal setting, and leadership development.”

All-boys schools are springing up across the country. In Texas, the Young Men’s Leadership Academy works to give boys and young men leadership training through school programming. There is also a Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Jacksonville, Florida. On the East Coast, the Eagle Academy for Young Men has schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Newark, New Jersey, and a mentoring program specifically designed to provide students with mentors in the professional world.

There are also dozens in Massachusetts. But while many have been in operation for a long time, including several parochial schools such as St. Sebastians in Needham, and private schools like Belmont Hill in Belmont and Roxbury Latin in West Roxbury, there are no public all-boys schools in the Bay State.

While not linked to any school, Axiom’s program is designed to work in school settings, in small groups or through one-on-one coaching.

“Essentially, it’s a curriculum based on building leadership skills and personal characteristics in middle-school and high-school age boys,” Vitale said. “We’ve done programs in underperforming schools and in what you would think of as really competitive schools; we’ve done it in small groups, we’ve done it one-on-one.”

In schools, the course usually takes the form of a presentation and discussion, while in other settings, the program is more hands-on.

The idea to create the Young Men’s Initiative arose from tutoring.

“Something I think you see working in education or tutoring, is that there are a lot of middle-school boys or high school boys who have the intellectual abilities: they have the intelligence, they have the reasoning or problem-solving abilities to be doing really well in school, but they don’t have the motivation, something is not connecting to them,” Vitale explained.

The Young Men’s Initiative hopes to help its students make that connection. The curriculum focuses on finding what motivates young men to get up every day. Vitale said students work with a Young Men’s Initiative instructor “to identify their passions, their purpose, people who are going to be positive relationships in their life, to figure out what their goals are.”

“We work with them to figure out, ok, what am I really good at? What do I really like to do? How can I make the world a better place?” he said. “And then we help them create a plan based around that.”

The students create six-week and six-month plans that help keep them focused on the goals they’ve identifies for themselves.

The curriculum also broaches subjects that often don’t get a lot of attention, like failure.

“We talk a lot about the importance of failure, and how really, really successful people are able to see failure as an opportunity to learn, are able to keep from getting down on themselves and say, ‘Ok, I tried something, it didn’t work. What am I going to do differently next time?’” Vitale said.

One way he teaches this is by telling stories of people who failed in some significant ways and then trying to get students to match the stories with the names of famous, successful people the tales are about.

“Abraham Lincoln is a great example,” Vitale said. “I can’t remember the actual number, but it’s something like, he ran for office eight times and lost every time before he became president.”

For Vitale, the program has revealed to him how much young men both need and desire to have conversations on potentially uncomfortable subjects like failure or healthy relationships.

“Boys that we talk to have a lot of things they want to say and it doesn’t seem like they have any outlet to have those conversations outside of our program,” Vitale said. He said subjects have included gender stereotypes, “healthy friend relationships versus relationships that are not that healthy,” balancing independence with family concerns, being accountable, and what kind of characteristics to develop while in high school.

For the boys, he said, “it’s such a relief to them to be able to talk about them, and in the groups it’s usually really eye-opening to them to realize, ‘Oh, my friends are thinking about this stuff too.’”