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

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.