Why boys are falling behind and why we have to fix it

posted at 12:31 pm on February 4, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

Even addressing the issue of male academic underachievement can result in backlash from people incensed that society would bother caring about the disadvantages of men after spending decades and centuries ignoring the disadvantages of women. I understand that impulse, but as a person who cares deeply about her brothers, father, husband, and the possibility of raising decent men, should the opportunity arise, I have to care. Many others would no doubt feel the same if the problem were addressed with any frequency.

As Christina Hoff Sommers writes in the New York Times, “fairness today requires us to address the serious educational deficits of boys and young men. The rise of women, however long overdue, does not require the fall of men.”

Sommers highlights a new study that sheds light on how early boys are falling behind and why.

Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. Why? A study coming out this week in The Journal of Human Resources gives an important answer. Teachers of classes as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades — and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys.

The study’s authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted.

The scholars attributed this “misalignment” to differences in “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys.

No previous study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated that the well-known gender gap in school grades begins so early and is almost entirely attributable to differences in behavior. The researchers found that teachers rated boys as less proficient even when the boys did just as well as the girls on tests of reading, math and science. (The teachers did not know the test scores in advance.) If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.

Sommers, author of the “War Against Boys,” expresses optimism about the burgeoning scholarship on male underachievement and wonders why we can’t put a push on attracting boys with new methods, just as we have with attracting girls to math, science, and technology fields.

The achievement gap exists across all races and socioeconomic classes, but it’s particularly pronounced in minority communities, where the numbers are shocking. Closing the racial achievement gap depends on helping these young men:

A third reason: improving the performance of black, Latino and lower-income kids requires particular attention to boys. Black women are nearly twice as likely to earn a college degree as black men. At some historically black colleges, the gap is astounding: Fisk is now 64 female; Howard, 67 percent; Clark Atlanta, 75 percent. The economist Andrew M. Sum and his colleagues at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University examined the Boston Public Schools and found that for the graduating class of 2007, there were 191 black girls for every 100 boys going on to attend a four-year college or university. Among Hispanics, the ratio was 175 girls for every 100 boys; among whites, 153 for every 100.

One of the many reasons I like school choice, charter schools, and magnet schools is they give educators the flexibility to try new methods for different school populations, and parents the freedom to choose what works for their children. A couple ideas:

WHAT might we do to help boys improve? For one thing, we can follow the example of the British, the Canadians and the Australians. They have openly addressed the problem of male underachievement. They are not indulging boys’ tendency to be inattentive. Instead, they are experimenting with programs to help them become more organized, focused and engaged. These include more boy-friendly reading assignments (science fiction, fantasy, sports, espionage, battles); more recess (where boys can engage in rough-and-tumble as a respite from classroom routine); campaigns to encourage male literacy; more single-sex classes; and more male teachers (and female teachers interested in the pedagogical challenges boys pose).

Sommers also explores vocational high schools with a hands-on engineering and mechanics focus coupled with rigorous academic standards as a way to enthrall young men and reward them for achievement in more traditional areas.

The success of boys is important to all of us— to the economy, to every racial and economic group, and at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, to the generations of educated women we’ve produced who might like reliable, successful partners with whom to share their lives and raise another generation of successful boys and girls.*

*No, I’m not dismissing the concerns of gay men and women looking for mates, but the problem of educationally mismatched women and men is particularly problematic for heterosexual women.

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feminists:…what does it matter?
…boys need to use pens and pencils more than their penis’s!

KOOLAID2 on February 4, 2013 at 10:36 PM

Dodgeball & shop class!

/you’re welcome

roy_batty on February 5, 2013 at 1:41 AM

One question I find myself asking is, are those women actually taking useful degrees? What I’ve been finding, at least in engineering is there aren’t many girls in the workplace, and those that are a mostly in clerical or admin type jobs.

There are some in the software side of the house, and a scattering in the MechE and EE, but not all that many all put together.

Where do they go when they get out of college?

Voyager on February 5, 2013 at 8:24 AM

*No, I’m not dismissing the concerns of gay men and women looking for mates, but the problem of educationally mismatched women and men is particularly problematic for heterosexual women.

Mary Katharine, the fact that you felt it necessary to include this “disclaimer” at the conclusion of your article says far more about the absolute mess our culture is in than anything else in the article itself.

Shump on February 4, 2013 at 12:36 PM

I agree, Shump, we need to move forward with eyes wide open on the issue of homosexuality.

Homosexuality is, in my opinion, the new wedge issue for progressives to divide conservatives. I am not trying to start an argument here, I just want to point something out. The progressives are hitting the gay issue on all fronts in the media. Ask yourself why? I think it is because it divides conservatives (and certain groups therein) and independents from each other. This is similar to the abortion issue and even, in some small degree, the contraceptive issue. Now, you may ask, channeling HRC, What difference does it make? Well, there are always conservatives that say we should stay away from the abortion issue at election time, or stay away from other social issues during debates, etc. If we keep losing ground, and choose to not fight on issues of principle, aren’t we eventually going to have nowhere to stand? Aren’t some principle beliefs unchangeable? Absolutes?

This challenge isn’t going away.

As far as our boys are concerned, we have another fight on our hands. We need strong families with strong fathers, and, in my family, Christian school, where Christian values are taught and boys are nurtured to be men of God. We are in a tremendous struggle for the hearts, souls, and minds of our children. Pray and act. God is not neutral on this.

FastTalker on February 5, 2013 at 8:46 AM

Ummm…let me know when the National Football League spends the entire month of October promoting awareness of a disease that ONLY AFFECTS MEN.

Galtian on February 4, 2013 at 4:54 PM

I understand your point but men DO get breast cancer!

2L8 on February 5, 2013 at 8:51 AM

Let’s kidnap some of hardest-core militant feminists, and force them to watch hours of “Duck Dynasty“.
Of course it’s a felony, but still . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

listens2glenn on February 4, 2013 at 8:42 PM

Anyone who has not seen Duck Dynasty is missing a special treat! Check it out.

2L8 on February 5, 2013 at 8:53 AM

I love Duck Dynasty, if anything for how they smash that old convention that guys with long hair and/or unkempt beards have no character, or have no Christian morals, or will never succeed in the business world. Living proof that your average dress code (especially in schools) is a bit too stifling these days.

TMOverbeck on February 5, 2013 at 9:45 AM

My sons were doing ok in school, but not excelling, and then we sent the oldest to a rigorous math and science high school, where they build hover crafts and race them for their science projects. Now oldest is doing awesome, and we see an engineering degree in his future. Next in line son cannot wait to go. It’s the public schools, people, they suck.

Kristamatic on February 5, 2013 at 10:30 AM

Where do they go when they get out of college?

Voyager on February 5, 2013 at 8:24 AM

A lot of them – despite their devotion to feminism – graduate with MRS degrees.

As far as boys, I am shocked that the Brits have such a good idea of the potential fixes: guy reading material, letting them play (I hope it is real play, not keeping them from dodgeball and stick fights), single-gender classes and male teachers. It also helps if your math/science problems involve boy things (a word problem involving hitting Johnny with a dodge ball, or crashing trains will actually retain their attention; the first time a boy will pay attention in biology class is when you get to cut something open – especially if it’s squishy).

Kristamatic on February 5, 2013 at 10:30 AM

Yep. Get them to learn with hands-on. It’s still the best way to keep a boy’s interest in a subject.

GWB on February 5, 2013 at 10:52 AM

I have four boys and have seen this over and over. Most recently, I had one son in an advanced math class. At the end of the year, the math award went to a girl. Now….My son took the PSSA (national achievement test) and got 100% in math.Have you ever seen that? At the beginning of the next school year the advanced math kids had to take a “keystone test” to move up in math. All the advanced math kids passed BUT the “math award girl”. BTW, she was the teacher’s daughter…

Redglen on February 5, 2013 at 11:58 AM

What about the war on masculinity? DOes this mean they’ll be knocking it off soon?

johnnyU on February 5, 2013 at 12:26 PM

My first IB biology class had only 4 boys in it. It’s improved since then, but I assure you that there is no dearth of girls taking advanced math and science. We are shortchanging our boys, though.

Bob's Kid on February 5, 2013 at 1:16 PM

I like boy students better. They are more likely to engage in physical activities in the science classroom.
Girls are usually awful at science labs, compared to boys.
I’m not talking about the exceptions to this.
So don’t somebody get all wacked out about my overall observations.
Boys are better problem solvers than girls.
Critical thinking question tests (essay, short answer & general problem solving questions) are things girls are abysmal in compared to boys.
IT’s why I get such flack bcs you’ve got these straight A student girls who cannot think their way out of a paper bag.
So I mix up instruction by having paper test learning/lecture/labs along with project based instruction.
Then I cover everybody’s learning style.
What I deal with now is all kids not actually doing their work. They are simply refusing to actually do the work, resulting in zeros (F).
So this is something else entirely. Bcs I’ve got boys & girls doing that equally almost.

Badger40 on February 5, 2013 at 1:48 PM

What I deal with now is all kids not actually doing their work. They are simply refusing to actually do the work, resulting in zeros (F).
So this is something else entirely. Bcs I’ve got boys & girls doing that equally almost.

Badger40 on February 5, 2013 at 1:48 PM

This 100+
I cannot over emphisize this problem. The outright refusal to work, the students cry about writing 4 sentences. Ask them to read, the same problem. In fact we teachers were told to have pictures in most projects for the VISUAL learners. The results are that the students spend 80% of that project time drawing and the rest learning\ and copying the same statements(and I mean the exact same statements on 33 different projects) onto the project.

See teacher, I learned today. I learned that as a class if we collectivly do crappy I know you will lower the standards until we as students only do the work we want, which is not much.

19thgenamerican on February 5, 2013 at 2:24 PM

guy reading material, letting them play (I hope it is real play, not keeping them from dodgeball and stick fights), single-gender classes and male teachers.

My oldest will be attending one of the last all-male colleges (other than seminaries) in the fall. There are only 3 left — as opposed to something like 60 all-female colleges. It’s okay for a school to be for women only, but positively neanderthal if it wants to structure itself around the needs of men, you know.

This school has more acres than students and an armory where the guys keep their hunting rifles. As one dean of admin told parents of prospective students during our first visit, profs don’t ask, “How does this poem make you feel?”

I think what most caught my son’s attention is that the college has one of the strictest honor codes in the nation. While other schools were sending him brochures telling him about their great facilities or how successful their graduates are, this one’s marketing was all about building men of great character.

I really think our young men hunger for that — but they aren’t getting it in our high schools and universities which are all about feeeeelings and moral relativity.

CJ on February 6, 2013 at 12:34 AM

Homosexuality is, in my opinion, the new wedge issue for progressives to divide conservatives.

FastTalker on February 5, 2013 at 8:46 AM

Because they lay a clever trap by focusing on “hating people” instead of issues. Not sure if MKH was being sarcastic (I think so), but if not, this is the language the left forces us to adopt.

-Abortion is not about a Dr. Mengele-style procedure that ends someone’s life before it starts. It’s about women’s rights!
-Abortion/contraception isn’t about religious freedom, it’s about victims of incest being forced to bear their inbred spawn!
-Gay marriage isn’t about society, it’s about rewarding these two people who’ve loved each other for 50 years in shame and secret because you evil conservatives were trying to drag them out in the street to tar and feather them the whole time!
-Gun control isn’t about freedom vs. government control, it’s about protecting children!

Rhetorically, they create false dilemmas which conservatives accept as the terms of the argument, which is the mistake.

It’s like when you were a child and you knew a parent would argue with you. You’d argue until you passed out if you had to. That’s what liberals do when we accept their terms. The thing to do is point to the language of the second amendment: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” End of discussion.

If we can’t pinpoint the moment life starts, then we should follow the liberal climate-change cautionary model and assume the worst (life starts at conception). End of discussion.

If straight people shouldn’t define marriage for gays, then gays shouldn’t define it for straight people. End of discussion.

gatsbysgirlontheside on February 6, 2013 at 9:47 AM

As a mother with recent experience in getting my kids into the gifted program in our school district, let me tell you about the part of the admission process.

There is a parent questionnaire that asks such lame-brained questions such as:

“On a scale of 1 to 5 does your child break gender norms?”

“On a scale of 1 to 5 how ethnically and culturally sensitive is your child?”

“On a scale of 1 to 5 does your child realize that his/her ethnicity has entitled them to special privileges?”

I swear to God, I almost walked out but I scored him midling on all the asinine questions. Fortunately his IQ and test scores got him in. Now I am going through it again trying to get my youngest in as a kindergartner. Lord give me strength!

mrsmwp on February 6, 2013 at 11:29 AM

Oh, btw, both of my children are boys.

mrsmwp on February 6, 2013 at 11:29 AM

As long as boys see a world where nearly every television show and every single commercial makes men (STRAIGHT men) out to be stupid, immature, inept, sexist, racists, bigots and basically good for nothing other than donating sperm, you aren’t going to get boys who work to achieve. Why should they bother, they are just going to turn out to be like what they see on T.V. anyway, right?

You get out of children what you EXPECT of them. Take a look around at the current culture and you’ll see why boys are failing – its what’s expected of them.

Fatal on February 7, 2013 at 5:41 PM