For more than a decade, the conventional wisdom has been that schools have shortchanged girls, who were ignored in the classroom as they lagged behind in math and science.
But now a growing chorus of educators and advocates for boys is turning that notion upside down.
Boys are the ones in trouble, they say. They are trailing girls in reading and writing, are more likely to get in trouble or be labeled as learning disabled, and are less likely to go to college.
The educators, citing emerging brain research, say that the two sexes learn differently and that schools are more geared to girls than to their ants-in-the-pants counterparts. But they are adopting strategies to help boys succeed, from playing multiplication baseball to handing out stress balls and setting up boys-only schools.
"The public schools teach to girls. You have to be able to follow the rules and color in the lines," said Livermore parent Missy Davis, who moved her son, Collin, to the private, all-boys Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland after he struggled in coed public and parochial settings. "Boys get labeled immature and disrupting. (Teachers) don't know how to utilize the energy."
Juanita McSweeney, a 30-year teaching veteran, experienced that energy two years ago when she had a class full of "strong boys" who outnumbered the girls in her fifth-grade class at Happy Valley Elementary in Lafayette.
"I was going nuts. ... My salvation that year was two words: Koosh balls," she said, referring to the toy balls covered with hundreds of soft rubber strands.
McSweeney had stumbled across a growing body of literature confirming what she had long intuited -- that boys and girls do learn differently -- and providing strategies to help keep boys, especially, focused and engaged.
"Instead of twiddling with your neighbor, you'd twiddle with your Koosh ball. The way to get rid of that extra energy seemed genius to me," she said.
McSweeney was so enthusiastic that this year the Lafayette School District provided gender training to its entire staff and parents by the Gurian Institute of Colorado. The firm has trained 30,000 teachers in gender differences and learning since it was founded in 2002 by Michael Gurian, a Spokane, Wash., family therapist and author who helped kick off the boys movement in 1996 with his book "The Wonder of Boys."
Among the neurological differences Gurian and others highlight, based on brain scans and other research:
-- Males use more cortical areas of the brain for spatial and mechanical functioning, while females use more for words and emotions -- meaning boys tend to benefit from hands-on learning, while girls are better auditory learners who write and use more words.
-- Boys have less of the "calming chemical" serotonin and more testosterone, making them more fidgety, impulsive and competition-driven.
-- Boys' brains go more frequently into a "rest state," leading to "zoning out" or moving around to try to stay focused.
While gender brain differences remain controversial -- only two years ago Harvard President Lawrence Summers lost his job after suggesting males may be more innately suited to science -- what may have been dismissed as pop science a decade ago is now getting serious attention from brain researchers.
"We can say confidently, and more and more confidently all the time, that the ways males and females on average are processing information is not the same," said Larry Cahill, a fellow of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine who last year published a review of studies on neurology and gender. "It's kind of a zeitgeist shift from the belief that this doesn't matter very much to, 'This might matter big time, and we need to figure out how.' "
The differences, Gurian said, mean five to seven boys in a coed class of 30 will struggle in a classroom where they need to "sit still, read and write a lot, and do a lot of busy work."