On Tuesday the American Association of University Women (AAUW) fired another salvo in the gender equity wars. According to their new report, Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education, concerns from psychologists and educators about boys’ academic achievement and overall adjustment are vastly overblown. No need to worry, they say – American boys are doing just fine. Girls are excelling, but their gains “have not come at boys’ expense.”
AAUW cites statistics showing performance is improving for both girls and boys. The myth of the boy crisis, they say, has obscured the real problem: gaping achievement disparities based on race and socioeconomic status. On virtually every scale, poor minority children – boys and girls – lag behind their more economically advantaged, white peers.
Obviously, such racial/economic achievement gaps merit our attention. No one disputes the fact that these disparities are real, or that something must be done about them. But their existence doesn’t negate the legitimacy of red flags raised about boys’ performance and well-being. Suggesting as much is a spurious claim.
What gives? While AAUW may indeed want to highlight already well-publicized achievement gaps, the group is intent on shifting debate away from a growing focus on the needs of boys. In fact, Linda Hallman, AAUW’s executive director told the New York Times this week that talk of a boys’ crisis had been a “distracter.” Much to AAUW’s chagrin, concern about boys’ unmet educational needs has slowly seeped into the gender equity debate – a debate once dominated by Title IX, and two decades later, by AAUW’s 1992 report claiming American education “shortchanged” girls and diminished their self-esteem.
An increasing number of experts believe boys, not girls, have become the forgotten class of students. In her pivotal 2000 book, The War Against Boys, scholar Christina Hoff Sommers says misguided feminism is to blame. In a you-go-girl culture, “Boys are resented, being seen both as the unfairly privileged gender and as obstacles on the path to gender justice for girls.”
This feminization of the American classroom has been hard on boys. In a Washington Post op-ed, therapist and author Michael Gurian wrote, “Every decade the industrial classroom becomes more and more protective of the female learning style and harsher on the male.” Such a shift sets boys up for a fall: a 2006 Newsweek cover story unleashed a raft of statistics chronicling the struggles of boys, stating, “They’re kinetic, maddening and failing at school. Now educators are trying new ways to help them succeed.”
The truth is, on many key measures, boys haven’t been doing as well as girls. According to a 2006 report by the Manhattan Institute’s Jay Greene, 72 percent of American girls graduate from high school compared to 65 percent of boys. Gender differences persist across racial groups, affecting college attendance as well as graduation rates. A study of the Chicago Public Schools by the University of Chicago’s Melissa Roderick found, “Female graduates had higher college-going rates than male graduates in every ethnic group.” Men now comprise a minority of students on college campuses.
Boys are also overrepresented on indicators of behavioral disturbance. According to the Boys Project, boys are two and a half times more likely to be suspended and almost three and half times more likely to be expelled from school than girls. Boys are also more vulnerable in the learning process. They are diagnosed with learning disabilities at rates three times that of girls.
Such data point out the obvious: in the classroom, gender differences matter. K-12 instruction must incorporate the gender-specific needs and differences of girls and boys. Single-sex classrooms and schools are one increasingly popular way to do this. But they won’t work for everyone. We also need genuine school choice, enabling parents to pick the school that best meets the needs of their sons and daughters. Finally, it’s time to end this war – especially when those who lose are children.