On a crisp fall morning in 2017, veteran science teacher Mary Bozenmayer and her colleagues filed into the cafeteria of their New Jersey middle school for an all-day professional development session. The speaker took the podium, smiled brightly, and explained that he was there to tell them how boys and girls think differently.
Bozenmayer was skeptical. Given her scientific training, she knew that most theories about sex-related brain differences had been debunked long ago. Still, she tried to keep an open mind as the trainer, who worked for an organization called the Gurian Institute, told the teachers that girls learn best by sitting quietly and following directions while boys require competition and physical activity to master difficult concepts. “Males can store trivia (like sports statistics) better than females, and for a longer period of time,” read a card he handed out. Another stated, “Boys take longer to process emotions than girls, making them generally emotionally fragile.” Modern classrooms, the trainer said, cater to girls’ learning style—and as a result, he concluded, girls are succeeding in school while boys are falling dangerously behind.
This didn’t sit right with Bozenmayer, so she raised her hand and asked, “If boys are struggling so much, then why are we still seeing women underrepresented in Congress, in Fortune 500 companies?” The trainer responded by repeating his talking points. “I felt my blood pressure going up,” Bozenmayer recalls. “I was like, this just seems too skewed.” Yet when she looked around the room, she saw many of her male and female colleagues nodding in agreement, diligently sifting through the cards and taking notes.
The idea that boys and girls have innate characteristics that cause them to learn differently has picked up momentum over the past decade. The Gurian Institute says it has trained 60,000 educators in 2,000 school districts—to the tune of as much as $10,000 per session. Another prominent advocate of sex-differentiated education, the psychologist Leonard Sax, offers a popular two-day workshop for schools on “the emerging science of male-female differences.” At the Boy Brains & Engagement Conference, hundreds of teachers rack up continuing education credits while hearing about boys’ and girls’ learning styles. “Scientists have discovered about 100 typical gender differences in the brain,” states its brochure.
These ideas have gained traction among policymakers. The No Child Left Behind legislation signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 encouraged single-sex classrooms. Though the Obama administration pushed back against that idea, state legislators have taken up the cause: Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law allowing “gender-specific classrooms” in 2014; California passed a similar law in 2017. The number of single-sex public schools has exploded over the last two decades, up from a handful in the early 2000s to a few hundred today.
Beneath the move to make schools more “gender-friendly” lurks the fear that our educational system is failing boys in particular. A suite of bestselling books about boys’ academic struggles has pointed to their lagging grades, test scores, and graduation rates. “The evidence that boys are falling behind has mounted,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in 2012. “The case is closed.” In a 2015 Washington Post op-ed headlined “Why Schools Are Failing Our Boys,” one parent, a mother, wrote, “The lack of movement and rigid restrictions associated with modern schooling are killing my son’s soul.” Some writers have framed the so-called boy crisis as a consequence of feminism. In a 2017 National Review article titled “The Feminization of Everything Fails Our Boys,” conservative pundit David French decried “the feminized school, complete with its zero tolerance, mortal fear of anything remotely martial, and its relentless emphasis on compassion and nurturing rather than exploration and adventure (unless the adventurer is a woman).”
The stereotype of girls as naturally industrious homework-doers and boys as misunderstood rebels is a convenient frame to explain some boys’ lackluster academic performance. Just one problem: Overwhelming evidence shows that our cultural expectations of gender play at least as much of a role as supposedly hardwired differences in how boys and girls learn. While some studies from a few years ago showed girls surpassing boys academically, more recent research suggests that these findings are far from universal: The gender gap in academic achievement varies enormously by race, class, and geographic location.
And even where girls do have an edge in school, the reason may not be biological: Cutting-edge neuroscience has cast doubt on the idea of consistent and meaningful brain differences between girls and boys, and education researchers have found that sex-differentiated teaching doesn’t guarantee academic progress. Rather, our preconceptions about how girls and boys learn and behave are influencing their school experiences and reinforcing gender stereotypes. And most troubling: Neurological research suggests that these stereotypes may actually be shaping students’ brains.
Bozenmayer took her concerns about her school’s training to her principal and his superiors—and when they didn’t take action, she made contact with Galen Sherwin, a senior attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who heads its “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign. The ACLU argues that separating boys and girls at school is almost always unfair—and in many cases, it may be illegal under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education. So far, the ACLU has challenged single-sex schooling in 15 states, resulting in the closure of 36 programs. After the ACLU contacted the New Jersey attorney general’s office for civil rights in 2018, Bozenmayer’s district discontinued the trainings.
For teachers struggling with discipline, overcrowded classrooms, and underfunded schools, the case for male and female learning differences can be persuasive. As Rebecca Bigler, a professor of psychology at University of Texas, Austin, who studies gender-role development in children, observes, “It offers a simple solution to a really complex problem.” Sherwin considers that a small victory. But new single-sex public schools keep cropping up, mostly in poor communities of color, where she worries that they reinforce not just insidious gender stereotypes but damaging racial ones as well. A 2017 Education Week report found that single-sex public schools are composed of a disproportionate number of students of color—about 90 percent, compared to roughly 50 percent nationwide. More than three-quarters of students at single-sex schools come from poor families, compared to about half nationwide.
The idea of single-sex learning isn’t new, of course. It was once considered improper for girls and boys to learn together. When I attended an all-girls high school in the 1990s, it was thought that boys dominated classroom discussions and made girls feel self-conscious about being smart. But the driving philosophy of single-sex education that has emerged in this century is less focused on boosting girl power than saving boys.
In 2006, author and self-described “social philosopher” Michael Gurian published The Wonder of Boys, in which he argued that male brain structure, along with the dissolution of traditional societal structures, has made boys susceptible to “gang activity, sexual misconduct, and crime.” Critics hailed it as the male answer to Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, the 1994 bestseller about struggling teenage girls. The Wonder of Boys has sold more than 400,000 copies and has been translated into 17 languages. He’s written several other books about boys, and two about girls. On his site, he claims to have “briefed” Congress about his work. In 1996, he founded the Gurian Institute, which helps school districts set up single-sex classrooms and has prompted some to found single-sex schools. (The institute occasionally opines on other educational topics, as well—most recently, Gurian argued passionately against closing schools during the COVID-19 crisis, citing a pair of discredited doctors who claim that socially distancing harms the immune system.)
Gurian, who does not have degrees in education, psychology, or neuroscience, has elaborated on his “nature-based theory” of gender across more than two dozen books. In The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life, Gurian thunders against an educational system that caters to docile, well-behaved girls—and leaves rambunctious, competitive boys to act out in frustration. “Parents bringing their sons to their first days of preschool will increasingly find that at least one of these sons could eventually face an educational crisis,” he writes.
To address this crisis, Gurian says, we must design classrooms and teaching strategies specifically for boys. This should start in preschool, where instead of forbidding violence, teachers should practice “aggression nurturance,” allowing boys to hit and kick each other instead of using their words. “Given the hormonal and neural makeup of males,” he writes, “it’s often the case for boys (and men) that aggressive gestures are as nurturing as words, as bonding as hugs.” (Sax, the psychologist, echoes these ideas, recommending spanking to discipline boys but not girls.) Gurian suggests a suite of strategies that he claims will enhance boys’ learning at all levels: Teachers shouldn’t look boys in the eye—male brains get stressed out by direct eye contact. Lights should be kept bright, since low lights can make boys “act out.” To tempt boys to read, he suggests offering instructional manuals, business books, and comics rather than To Kill a Mockingbird or Romeo and Juliet.
Gurian argues that boys are well suited for the kinds of lessons they received a few centuries ago: hunting, farming, and learning trades from mentors. He blames the Industrial Revolution for the demise of that kind of education. American schools, he says, were developed to train students for factory work. Gurian, who’s also a novelist, decries the modern emphasis on reading and verbal tasks, which, he asserts, girls are naturally better at. “Because boys’ brains are not as naturally well-suited, on average, for classrooms that emphasize reading, writing, and complex word making, any culture that relies greatly on those techniques is set up for problems with a number of boys.” What’s more, he says, boys are naturally less resilient than girls—so getting a bad grade can damage their fragile egos. “The male learning brain is more porcelain than the female; the female learning brain is more steel.”
More than a decade ago, Lise Eliot noticed that parenting articles often referred to supposedly inborn differences in how boys and girls think. The idea made intuitive sense to Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago who studies brain plasticity—the capability of our minds to develop and adapt. So she decided to make a research project out of it, amassing a trove of data from brain imaging studies of children and adults.
Eliot expected to see consistent differences in the structures of male and female brains, so she was perplexed when the images revealed something quite different. Some features were indeed more common in the brains of one sex. For example, in women, the outer layer of the brain known as the cerebral cortex tends to be thicker; men’s hippocampus, a region associated with memory, is often proportionally larger than women’s. Yet she found that individual brains contain a mix of traits considered “male” and “female.” In fact, she found only one consistent difference between male and female brains across all ages: Male brains were about 11 percent bigger than female brains. But that didn’t seem especially telling since all male organs tend to be slightly bigger, in proportion to men’s larger overall body size.
When Eliot and her colleagues looked at images and studies of children’s brains, they noticed even fewer consistent differences between males and females. “I was baffled,” she recalls. “People have tried to argue, if we behave differently, there must be something different about the brain. But it’s certainly not showing up in gross structures or pathways.” Daphna Joel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Tel Aviv University, describes the overall effect as a “gender mosaic”—each of our brains has a “specific configuration of ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics.”
When Eliot dug into psychological studies, she noticed something similar. Overall, in both kids and adults, significant sex-based differences in behavior were statistically small. Among very young children, they were basically nonexistent, while in teens and adults, they became a little more pronounced: Girls tended to develop a slight edge over boys in verbal tasks, and boys became better at spatial and math problems. Between early childhood and the end of adolescence, researchers at Emory University found, boys’ advantage over girls on spatial tasks tripled, from “small” to “moderate.” There is a statistically significant gender gap on reading tests given to US students, with girls scoring higher, particularly in middle and high school. Yet as a report from the Brookings Institution notes, this gap has been shrinking, and it is smaller than gaps between white and black students, urban and suburban students, and students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. And the gender gap disappears by adulthood.
Eliot knew that the human brain is exceptionally good at adapting and changing in response to outside stimuli. That led her to wonder if we’re inadvertently shaping our kids’ brains according to gender stereotypes. There is good evidence for this. For example, scientists have found that Broca’s area, a region of the brain responsible for verbal processing, is larger in girls and women. Yet it’s been shown that parents can improve their young children’s language abilities by talking to them—and that mothers talk more to baby girls than to baby boys, which could stimulate the development of this region. “How, then,” writes Joel in her recent book, Gender Mosaic: Beyond the Myth of the Male and Female Brain (co-authored with Luba Vikhanski), “can we tell whether the girls’ superior verbal skills indeed stem from their sex, or whether they are affected by the gendered care they receive?” She cites a 2014 study in which researchers analyzed brain activity in the parents of infants. In heterosexual couples, there were consistencies along gender lines—the women’s patterns looked one way, the men’s another. But in gay couples, where parenting roles were less gendered, both parents displayed typically male and female patterns of brain activity. This, writes Joel, raised an interesting question: “Are such differences preprogrammed in our biology, or dictated by the roles allotted to women and men in our society?”
The power of our social environment to shape our bodies isn’t just limited to the brain. While Gurian and Sax claim that an abundance of testosterone hardwires boys to be competitive, the opposite may be true: Studies show that competition itself temporarily increases testosterone levels in both boys and girls.
And those stereotypes creep into the classroom. Bigler, the psychologist, has found that simply using the terms “boys” and “girls” in school (and elsewhere) can change the way children think about gender. Even the seemingly innocuous greeting “Good morning, boys and girls!” fosters what psychologists call essentialist thinking—the idea that people in different categories “are different in big, sweeping ways,” Bigler says. Children are strongly influenced by their parents’ and teachers’ attitudes—and, Bigler says, adults commonly dismiss kids’ “gender prejudice” as cute or harmless. Bigler once asked a class of elementary school students to name their favorite and least favorite classmates. Many of the boys said they couldn’t name just five kids they didn’t like—they found all the girls odious. When Bigler told me this story, I laughed. “I’ve been telling this anecdote for 30 years, and everyone laughs,” Bigler said. “But it’s not funny. The problem is that when kids say these things, adults don’t counter them.”
As I’ve shared what I’ve learned about the lack of evidence for consistent sex-based brain differences with friends and acquaintances, I’ve often gotten comments like “That can’t possibly be true! I have watched my kids and their friends, and from the time they were toddlers, the girls put the toy trucks to bed as if they are babies, and the boys turn the dolls into guns.” That might be accurate, Joel told me—but we can’t know how much of this is due to how stereotypes shape our children. Humans have a remarkable ability to filter our observations for information that reinforces our beliefs. So we’re more likely to notice the little girls who baby the trucks than those who learn the difference between backhoes and excavators. And once we notice the behaviors that match our preconceptions, we tend to reinforce them. “Is that truck your baby?” we might ask a little girl. “Do you want to give it a bottle?”
Yet Gurian is unmoved by the growing scientific consensus around the gender-neutral brain—in fact, he often rails against the scientists who have shown it to be true. When Eliot tagged Gurian on Twitter to criticize his claim that female brains are hardwired to be better at verbal tasks, Gurian tweeted back, “You are like a climate change denier: a scientist who denies the science.” (“Show me the data,” she shot back, correcting Gurian’s misleading use of math for good measure. He didn’t respond.)This vicious cycle of stereotype reinforcement irks Eliot. “If you want boys and girls to think more similarly, you have to give them more similar training,” she told me. “Everything we know about the brain backs this up.” It’s one thing for parents to influence their kids’ gender biases; it’s another thing when those biases are not just reflected but promoted in our public schools.
When I contacted Gurian, his first comment to me was, “If you’re into what Lise Eliot believes, I’m not interested in talking.” Her research, he thinks, is too far removed from the classroom to be relevant to education. He claims his work promoting sex-differentiated teaching and single-sex schools is based on “more than 1,000 studies on male/female brains.” The sources listed on his site are a grab bag, to say the least: Mixed in with more recent, peer-reviewed studies are decades-old papers with names like “Ice-Cream Consumption, Tendency Toward Overeating, and Personality” and “Women’s Preference for Attractive Makeup Tracks Changes in Their Salivary Testosterone,” and a 1999 book called Why Men Don’t Iron. (When I contacted him with more questions about his sources, he would not comment.)
Contrary to Gurian’s claims, the experts I talked to pointed to recent research showing that teachers’ gender stereotyping may be self-reinforcing. In a 2014 study, Sarah Theule Lubienski, a professor of math education at Indiana University, analyzed teachers’ ratings of elementary school students for behavior and academic competence. She found that girls had to be perceived as more hardworking and eager than boys for teachers to see them as equally good at math. In a subsequent study, Lubienski showed that the expectation that girls must be obedient discourages them from developing the kind of bold, creative problem-solving required for higher-level math. That might help explain why girls generally keep up with boys on standardized math tests, even though the top achievers are disproportionately male. “We are teaching girls to be good, plodding students,” Lubienski says. “Instead we should be helping them to develop strategies for solving unfamiliar problems. Let’s reward students when they are bold in their thinking.”
Research shows that single-sex schooling doesn’t measure up to Gurian’s claims. In 2010, Bigler and a team of researchers from the University of Texas, Austin, investigated a public all-girls middle school in the Southwest. On paper, the school was a gleaming example of the success of single-sex education: Its student body was diverse, and its test scores were high. But when the researchers dug into the data, they discovered that the girls who were admitted through a purportedly random lottery were already performing better on tests than their peers in other coed schools—while girls who were denied admission had lower test scores. The students at the girls’ school did no better on standardized tests than their peers at a coed magnet school. In 2014, in a meta-analysis published by the American Psychological Association, researchers combed through 184 studies of 1.6 million students around the world. Among controlled studies, they could find “little or no advantage” of single-sex schools over coed ones, noting that this undercut assumptions about biological differences between boys and girls.
To see how single-sex education plays out in the real world, I traveled to one of the battlegrounds where its proponents and opponents have been facing off. In 2014, the ACLU filed a complaint with the Department of Education against the Hillsborough County school district in Tampa, Florida, claiming that its schools were violating students’ rights under Title IX. The district, the complaint alleged, had spent nearly $100,000 on trainings by the Gurian Institute, Sax, and others. (One session was titled “Busy Boys, Little Ladies.”) It then set up single-sex classrooms in 18 schools where teachers implemented gender-based instructional strategies, like giving girls a dab of perfume on their wrists for doing a task correctly and letting well-behaved boys bring electronics to school. The district eventually scrapped that program. But in 2011, it opened two single-sex middle schools: Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy and Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, both of which have been designated Gurian Institute Model Schools.
Presumably because of the ACLU complaint, Tampa has taken great pains to make sure its single-sex schools do not run afoul of Title IX, which generally prohibits separating children by sex or gender within coed schools, while allowing stand-alone single-sex schools under certain conditions. No Tampa student is required to attend its all-boys or all-girls schools—they are magnet programs that families must opt into.
Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy is in a low-income neighborhood on Tampa’s east side. Its student body is poorer than most nearby schools’—about 75 percent of its 530 students get free or reduced-price lunch. Three-quarters of the students are black or Hispanic, compared with 57 percent in the rest of the district. Senior administrator Kathy Wasserman showed me around the school, pointing out the features specifically designed with boys in mind. At the entrance was a trophy display with a large cup at the center. This, she said, belonged to last year’s winning “house”—the boys are divided Harry Potter–like into three houses, each structured like a business, with head boys acting as “executive officers.” Through academics, sports, and good behavior, houses can amass points, which are tallied every two weeks. The house system, Wasserman explained, was a cornerstone of the school. “Boys thrive on competition,” she told me.
Yellow-and-black-striped lines ran down the center of the hallways. Wasserman said the school had instituted two-lane traffic because “boys thrive on structure.” That’s key to the school’s approach. “We have a structure and a procedure for everything we do.” We ducked into a language arts class, and Wasserman pointed out that the desks were arranged into traditional rows—because, she said, boys can assimilate information best when they’re looking straight ahead. An assistant teacher showed me a timer and said it was set to go off every 12 minutes, at which point the boys would be allowed to file out to the water fountain in the hall. “Boys do really well responding to that timer,” Wasserman said. “Structures, timers, all of those things are nonnegotiable.”
When I asked what she thought about the idea that traditional coed schools are failing boys, she paused. “Girls do really well with the ‘sit and be quiet and do what I say,’” she said. “I think best practices generally have gone away from that now in education. But we are definitely built for boys, with the movement. You know, we’re loud. We have a lot of energy. We build in time even during lunch for the boys to get out.”
Yet even the school breaks here felt almost militaristic in their emphasis on structure. At lunch in the cafeteria, Wasserman told me, “If you need the restroom, it’s this. If you need a drink of water, it’s this. If you forgot your fork, it’s this. And it runs like clockwork.”
The Gurian Institute promotes single-sex education as part of the solution to the specific challenges facing boys of color, such as high dropout rates and the school-to-prison pipeline. The institute’s approach is presented through the lens of the supposed boy crisis. “Most male issues, including the issues faced by boys of color, involve our society’s inability to nurture the nature of males themselves,” Gurian writes. A recent episode of his podcast was titled “We Can’t Fix Racial and Socio-Economic Gaps Without Fixing the Gender Gap.”
While these efforts are driven by genuine concern about the racial achievement gap, Sherwin, the ACLU attorney, worries that separating students of color by gender “rests on stereotypes that these kids are so unruly and out of control that boys and girls can’t be in the same classroom together.” This is particularly disturbing in light of the recent history of single-sex public education in the United States. Juliet A. Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, has traced the modern push for single-sex education to the years after Brown v. Board of Education, when school districts separated students by sex at the behest of white parents who balked at the idea of white girls being educated alongside black boys. Sherwin says the rigidity that I observed at Franklin isn’t surprising. Ideas about sex-based differences, she says, “can take on troubling racial overtones about black and Hispanic boys being more disorganized, more unruly, harder to control.”
Increasingly, single-sex programs are cropping up as magnet programs, offered as alternatives to local schools and framed as part of the school-choice movement promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Accordingly, Sax’s organization, the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, has changed its name to the National Association for Choice in Education. “The reality is that parents have limited choices in education,” Bigler says. “Maybe in some communities, the best option happens to be a single-sex school, because it has more resources.” Tellingly, Sherwin points out, the trend among elite single-sex private schools is toward coeducation. “If single-sex worked so beautifully, you would see it being implemented everywhere, not just in poor, minority districts.” The 2014 meta-analysis of single-sex education found no evidence that it provides a boost to poor students of color.
Despite the lack of evidence, advocates of single-sex education keep plugging away. The National Association for Choice in Education took down its public list of single-sex classrooms and schools in 2011 to stymie “the ACLU’s program of harassment.” In 2017, two years after the ACLU filed a complaint against a majority-Latinx Los Angeles middle school that separated students by sex, California lawmakers passed a bill that made the practice legal. In 2018, the ACLU lost a fight over single-sex middle schools in Austin, Texas’ majority-Latinx school district. It’s not clear what the next step in the legal battle will be. So far, the Trump administration hasn’t issued any policies about single-sex public schools, but observers note that it favors giving school districts maximum leeway.
I spoke to an English teacher from a large, mostly poor and nonwhite school district in Texas who had complained when the superintendent required teachers to attend a training based on the work of Gurian and Sax, and then switched her coed middle school to boys-only. For months, she fought with the administration about what she saw as a school culture based on false stereotypes about masculinity—and damaging to a vulnerable population of boys. In particular, she worried about a group of gay students getting bullied and a first-year teacher who was sexually harassed by students. Her complaints went largely unanswered, and at the end of the school year, she was dismissed without explanation.
Just two miles away from Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy, whose student body is demographically similar to Franklin’s, had a very different vibe. Gone were the timers, the hallway lanes, and the desks in rows. It wasn’t chaotic, exactly—just a little more friendly. And that was no accident. Wasserman’s counterpart there, Lori Bartholomew, told me that her teachers emphasize collaboration, inclusivity, and figuring out how girls’ emotional lives affect learning. It was common, she said, for teachers to begin class by inviting girls to talk about anything that might be bothering them before launching into the lesson. As at Franklin, the students were divided into houses, but here the focus was on cooperation, not competition.
Bartholomew made plenty of generalizations that I suspected would make Lise Eliot’s blood boil. She pointed out that one teacher was using a “soft tone” because “girls are very sensitive to sound.” Assigned seats in the lunchroom were changed every two weeks because girls’ friendship groups “are like concrete, and you need a jackhammer to break them apart.” She told me that girls are more sensitive to emotions than boys. “A lot of it comes with the mothering and nurturing,” she said. “They even say that women will produce oxytocin when they hear a baby cry, because that’s their natural instinct.”
The kind of teaching strategies I saw at Ferrell emphasized what’s known as social-emotional learning: helping children express and control their emotions, develop self-esteem, form relationships, and experience empathy. Research shows that social-emotional learning can improve academic performance. In 2011, the nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) analyzed more than 200 school programs, finding that high-quality social-emotional learning programs correlated with an 11 percentile jump in students’ reading and math scores. A follow-up study in 2017 found that the benefits of these programs persisted for several years.
Perversely, the result of these tired tropes was an educational environment that seemed to be genuinely nurturing. In an honors math class, I watched the teacher challenge the girls to work together to think creatively about the day’s lesson. At one point, she divided the class into groups to figure out how the concept of absolute value might relate to the real world. After a few minutes of huddling, the girls shared their ideas. “When you’re walking, you’re never walking negative distance,” one girl said. The others nodded. Later in the lesson the teacher encouraged the girls to work cooperatively on a graphing exercise. “Check with your neighbors. See if they got the same kind of graph that you did,” she said. “If not, help them out.”
On standardized tests, Ferrell girls outperformed Franklin boys in every academic subject. The difference is especially pronounced in math: 55 percent of Ferrell girls’ scores in 2018 qualified as proficient, compared to 40 percent of Franklin boys. This gender gap between Tampa’s single-sex schools hints at a larger irony: Sex-differentiated teaching was supposed to solve the “boy crisis” in education. But most of the experts I talked to worry that it may do just the opposite. “We sometimes teach boys that it’s not okay to express their emotions, and that can be academically stifling,” says Justina Schlund, the field research coordinator for CASEL. She’s concerned that stereotypes about emotionally distant male brains might discourage educators from covering important lessons boys need to succeed—“teaching boys that they are empathetic creatures, that they can exist as a member of a classroom, a family, a community, these are critical skills in life, and also in the classroom.”
One part of the social-emotional curriculum is promoting vulnerability—a willingness to accept failure and ask for help. Edward Morris, a University of Kentucky sociologist, studies how expectations of masculinity shape boys’ lives. In his extensive observation of high school classes, he’s documented a pattern of boys’ reluctance to ask teachers for assistance when they don’t understand something. “Boys are socialized to not admit weakness,” he says. That mindset is powerful: It can hinder not only boys’ academic achievement but also their careers and relationships. “This restrictive box of masculinity promises superficial power to men, but ultimately exacts far more costs to their well-being and the health of society in general.”
On my tour of the boys’ middle school, we stopped by the media center. A mural of inspirational leaders—all men—adorned the wall. Under the watchful gaze of Martin Luther King Jr., Ben Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln, two boys were working on homework at a table. Wasserman asked them to stand and recite the school creed, which students say in unison every morning. The boys shuffled to their feet, unsmiling.
“I will become a man of responsibility, respect, honesty, integrity,” they intoned. “Confidence, perseverance, courtesy, good judgment, and good sportsmanship. I will become this man.”
Wasserman smiled and motioned for the boys to take their seats. “Thank you, gentlemen.”