04/03/2014 06:43 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2014

Teaching Our Boys to Face the Competitive Landscape of Today's World

Last week someone asked me a thought-provoking question about the dwindling engagement of young men in our educational system: did I believe that there is a correlation between the rise of women's access to education and the alarming increase in drop-out rates amongst young men versus young women today? [1]

My initial reaction was as you might expect: moderately incensed. After waiting centuries for access to the "hallowed halls of education," girls are now being blamed for the boys running away? I caught myself however, mid-outrage, as the word "competition" popped to mind. At first I thought, "Well maybe the boys just can't compete with the girls?" Then my more mature self kicked in, and I had to wonder if today's schools are in fact simply more "competitive" for all students. If so, in what ways might such changes be particularly impactful for boys?

Traditionally, competitive success in our schools has been defined by the most immediately measurable of metrics, namely the quantitative ones. Grades, touchdowns and goals, SAT scores, the number of elite universities into which our children were admitted -- these have been our measures of competitive achievement. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that some of the most important contributing factors to this form of success have been heavily weighted toward the success of boys.

First and foremost, quantitative achievement has always required access to high quality schools that couple learning opportunities with elevated expectations; such access has historically been far more present for boys than girls. Yes, women did make it in these schools, but only with a lot of fight and a lot of failure.

Second, such success required that experiences be provided in those environments that would hone their drive and competitive skills -- so what better way to do so than on the playing field? Once again, boys have dominated pre-collegiate and collegiate sports. Even with the advent of Title 9, funding and support for athletic opportunities continue to be male-dominated. Take a look at the emphasis placed on men's March Madness. Is anyone worried about his or her women's bracket?

Third, students have been conditioned to expect that, at the end of all of this competition and measurable success, a prize is waiting for them. That prize was called a career. Traditionally, the stay-at-home husband has not been presented as a viable option for boys. Though the pre-destined idea that men are expected to work outside the home might have created pressure, it also implied that if a boy wanted a career, it was his to take in one form or another -- no one would reject him purely because of his gender. Not so for women. Certainly many have prevailed due to, I believe, collaborative support, grit, flexibility and "failing forward."

In considering these added competitive burdens we have placed upon our girls and not our boys, is it possible that, in fact, it is our boys we have been failing all along?

What's changed? There is little doubt that the measurements of success today are less quantitative and more qualitative then ever before. Our students must be able to think in order to succeed; they must be able to test and evaluate assumptions; and most importantly, they must know how to fail, learn from those failures and try again, and again. These pathways to success require far more resilience, similar to that which has been required of our girls. We need students who are okay knowing that there may not be a right answer and there may not be a winner. And this is the opposite of what we traditionally taught our boys as young children: we have not inculcated them with resilience and flexibility. We have not coached them in selfless collaboration, nor given them the words or tools necessary to develop emotional IQ, without which their sense of empathy and foundation of character will fail them. In this new paradigm, a dependence on a "right answer" and a sense of entitled productivity in the world will no longer guide them to success. On the other hand, our girls could not have survived without meeting these requirements. No wonder our boys are checking out on us.

How then do we reverse this? I say that we start very young. Let's elevate the acquisition of empathy and character to the same level as math and literacy. Our educational environments must set the expectation that failure is a mandatory step in the mastery of anything. Let's make sure that every one of our students knows from the very start that their education that ultimately their success in life is utterly and completely theirs to fight for -- and fight they must, girls and boys alike, side-by-side.

(1)Source: Child Trends' caluculations of U.S. Census Bureau, School Enrollment-Social and Economic Characteristics of Students: October 2012.