Saving Boys

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Wes Moore

Two African-American boys are born into poverty in Baltimore. By coincidence, both are named Wes Moore. Both are attracted to the culture of the streets, but they take different paths. One turns out to be a Rhodes Scholar; the other is convicted of murder and spends most of his adult life in prison.

The story of these two men is told in The Other Wes Moore, a new book written by the successful Wes Moore, with the cooperation of his less fortunate namesake. It is an engrossing tale that speaks directly to one of the most important questions being debated today by youth policy experts: What can be done to prevent so many African-American boys from failing?

Although the author politely declines to draw any sharp conclusions from the comparison between himself and the other Wes Moore, the obvious answer to the question,

The Genius in All of Us:

Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ Is Wrong

By David Shenk
Doubleday
320 pages, $26.95.

based on his account, is parental influence and determination. Both boys had caring mothers, but the successful Wes’ mother stretched herself as far as possible to reclaim her son from the destructive peer influences he encountered in the ’hood.

While neither boy grew up with his father, there also was an important difference between the two fathers. The author’s father died prematurely of a sudden illness, and the other boy’s dad just rejected him. In fact, the most heartbreaking scene in the book is when the young “other” Wes finds his estranged father passed out on a sofa in someone else’s house. The man stirs from his stupor just long enough to look up at his son and ask, “Who are you?”

Both boys were bored by school and found more interesting endeavors on the streets. Experts tell us that an ever-increasing number of American boys in general and African-American boys in particular are dropping out of school because they have failed to acquire the reading skills necessary to succeed. According to some studies, an African-American boy who does not read proficiently by the third grade is almost certain to wind up in prison.

Considering these findings, it is not surprising that at least one Wes Moore ended up behind bars. He dropped out of school and got his GED in the Job Corps, but returned to a life of crime. In his early 20s, he was arrested along with his older brother for the slaying of a guard who tried to stop them as they fled from a jewelry store robbery.

The Other Wes Moore:

One Name, Two Fates

By Wes Moore
Spiegel & Grau
256 pages, $25.

Although he had been incarcerated many times previously, he was surprised to realize after being convicted that he would be spending the rest of his life in jail. “Maybe it was because he’s never thought long term about his life at all,” the author writes. “Early losses condition you to believe that short-term plans are always smarter.”

The real surprise, however, is the unusual success of the author and how the doors of privilege have opened for him. He had already been put on disciplinary probation at school and had been arrested at least once by the police before his panicked mother, in desperation, sent him off to Valley Forge Military Academy – a private prep school in Pennsylvania that she could not afford – where he succeeded in turning his life around. But the author admits, “The chilling truth is that Wes’ story could have been mine; the tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

Unfortunately, as good as the book is, The Other Wes Moore is likely to reinforce a common misconception about the backgrounds of the millions of young men whose failure in school deprives them of any opportunity for success as adults. As Richard Whitmire emphasizes in his book, Why Boys Fail, the problem is by no means unique to African-American boys. He makes the case that a majority of white boys in the United States, as well as blacks, are falling dangerously behind in educational achievement. This group includes boys who grow up in middle-class homes, as well as those from poor families.

Whitmire, a former USA Today editorial writer, argues that this is happening because today’s more challenging public education system no longer accommodates the slow development of boys’ brains in the early grades, particularly in reading and language. “The world has gotten more verbal; boys haven’t,” he says.

Teachers come in for a lot of blame in Whitmire’s book. As he sees it, teachers do not expect as much from boys as from girls. Those boys who do not learn to read proficiently in the early grades find that teachers in middle and high schools have no clue how to help them to improve reading comprehension. In addition, teachers compound the problem by ruling out the types of books and theme-writing subjects – violence and warfare – that would prevent boys from getting bored in school.

Why Boys Fail:

Saving Our Sons from

an Educational System

That’s Leaving Them

Behind

By Richard Whitmire
AMACOM
256 pages, $24.95.

Whitmire has found a few programs that seem to work for boys, but he is not very encouraging. “There’s no shortage of solutions offered up by experts,” he says. “Problem is, my reporting suggests that most of the solutions are inadequate. Parents lose regardless of which ‘solution’ they choose.” He writes admiringly about two charter schools where boys are succeeding, one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Brooklyn, N.Y. He also has praise for California’s career-oriented schools and for an elementary school in Delaware, where struggling students are assisted by an army of 120 volunteer mentors who meet with the children three times a week. Most school-based mentoring programs are not as large or as well-organized.

Whitmire faults the U.S. Education Department for failing to recognize the education problems unique to boys, and he implausibly blames the feminist movement for causing the government to resist the development of programs that favor boys at the expense of girls. He calls on the U.S. government to copy the programs for boys that exist in Britain and Australia.

Teachers, parents and anyone else who is guilty of setting low expectations for American boys should also read The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk, who argues that the IQs of children should not be used to predict their success or failure as adults. Previous books on this subject have demonstrated that IQ is often a function of influences in early childhood. Kids from wealthy families test higher than those from poor families. But Shenk emphasizes that hard work and determination are more important than native ability – even for those people such as Ted Williams, Mozart and others who have been judged to be exceptionally gifted in their fields.

Based on studies of twins, Shenk says, experts estimate that “60 percent of each person’s intelligence comes from genes while the remaining 40 percent gets shaped by the environment.” Shenk’s formula for turning an ordinary thinker into a genius includes these steps:

(1) Find your motivation.

(2) Be your own toughest critic.

(3) Avoid bitterness and blame.

(4) Identify your limitations and ignore them.

(5) Delay gratification.

(6) Have heroes.

(7) Find a mentor.

These are essentially the steps that enabled one Wes Moore to succeed. Shenk’s advice should be made available to everyone who works with boys who are struggling in school.