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Where the Boys Are

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For the past two years, British newspapers and academic journals have been reporting that boys are on the weak side of the gender gap. The Times of London announced that on national-curriculum tests 14-year-old British boys are "on average, more than three years behind girls in English," and warned of the prospect of "an underclass of permanently unemployed, unskilled men." According to the journal New Scientist, "Girls are racing ahead in Britain's schools ... boys are being left behind." A growing body of evidence suggests that American boys may be in similar straits.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is considered one of the more reliable measures of academic proficiency. In 1992, 17-year-old boys outperformed girls by 4 points in mathematics and 10 points in science, while girls outperformed boys by 12 points in reading and 17 points in writing. Girls are catching up in math and science; boys continue to lag far behind in reading and writing. The U.S. Department of Education's Condition of Education 1995 estimates that "the gap in reading proficiency between males and females [favoring girls] is roughly equivalent to about one and a half years of school." In the July 7, 1995 issue of Science, University of Chicago researchers Larry V. Hedges and Amy Nowell report that girls' deficits in math, while small, are of concern and should be addressed. Of boys' writing skills, they say: "The large sex differences in writing ... are alarming. The data imply that males are, on average, at a rather profound disadvantage in the performance of this basic skill." So far, however, only girls are treated as a problem group. There are calls for special math classes for girls, but the idea of special reading and writing classes for boys rarely surfaces.

By most reasonable measures, girls are faring better than boys. Boys get lower grades. More often than girls, they drop out and are held back. Far more boys than girls suffer from learning disabilities. (In 1990, three times as many boys as girls were enrolled in special education programs.) Of the 1.3 million American children taking Ritalin, the drug commonly prescribed for attention-deficit disorder, three-fourths are boys. More boys than girls are involved in crime and with alcohol and drugs. Significantly fewer boys than girls are going on to college.

Why do we hear so little about boys' educational deficits? One reason is that for the past five years, prestigious women's organizations and many journalists have actively promoted the idea that our schools are biased against girls. In January 1991, the American Association of University Women announced its research finding that "gender biased" schools were producing a generation of psychologically diminished and academically "shortchanged" women. As The New York Times reported then: "Girls emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, relatively low expectations from life, and much less confidence in themselves and their abilities than boys, a study to be made public today has concluded."

According to the AAUW, "What happens to girls during their school years is an unacknowledged American tragedy." The AAUW's president candidly explained to the Times why the research was undertaken in the first place: "We wanted to put some factual data behind our belief that girls are getting shortchanged in the classroom."

Needless to say, "belief" should come after, not before, data-gathering. Referring to what he describes as the "purported finding to the effect that girls in our society 'lose' their self-esteem," William Damon, a professor of education at Brown University, says, "The scientific support underpinning all this clamor is as shaky as jello." He notes a lack of "reports of such gender-specific losses in reputable professional or scientific journals" and points out that "boys with conduct disorders--those who routinely cause trouble--often score extremely high on many self-esteem measures. ... The concept of high self-esteem is so nebulous that it can just as readily indicate swaggering miscreancy as self-assured learning and productivity." Soon after the AAUW self-esteem study began to make headlines in 1991, Science News ran a story reporting the disbelief of leading researchers. The majority of scholars in the field of adolescent development see no significant gender difference in self-esteem. However, this widespread professional skepticism did not make it into the news stories.

Instead, newspapers and magazines around the country reported the AAUW's findings as the product of an objective scientific inquiry. Soon the parlous state of girls' self-esteem achieved the status of a national emergency. Congress reacted by passing the Gender Equity in Education Act to "help make school an environment where girls are nurtured and respected." Girls are now officially categorized as an "historically underserved population." The Ms. Foundation persuaded hundreds of public schools to institute "Take Our Daughters to Work Day," a "girls only" holiday that leaves boys behind at school to do chastening exercises. When called on to explain its opposition to including boys, the Ms. Foundation points out that the program was launched in response to "disturbing research" on adolescent girls showing "that adolescence takes a greater toll on the self-esteem and school performance of girls than of boys."

Quite a few writers were fascinated by the theme of the "silenced" adolescent schoolgirl suffering the draining effects of gender bias. A spate of popular anecdotal books appeared--with titles like Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls and Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls--deploring our "girl-destroying culture." The country's schoolgirls are both pitied and exalted. Novelist Carolyn See declared (in The Washington Post), "The most heroic, fearless, graceful, tortured human beings in this land must be girls from the ages 12 to 15." According to Dr. Mary Pipher, whose Reviving Ophelia has been on The New York Times paperback best-seller list for more than 50 weeks: "Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn. ..." The belief that the "selves" of adolescent girls go down in flames is the sensational fruit of advocacy research that has never been replicated.

But it dominates discussion and drives policy. Massachusetts is now forming a Status of Girls Commission because, as state Rep. Sally Kerans explains, "Girls have twice the suicide and school-dropout rate as boys." Ms. Kerans' mistake is a perfect example of how belief can bend facts. In fact, more boys drop out and boys commit suicide six times more than girls do. In 1992, there were 4,693 suicides for young people between the ages of 15 and 24--649 girls and 4,044 boys. Ms. Kerans seems to have confused suicide rates with rates of suicide attempts.

Reacting to considerable criticism (not from the media but from an increasing number of unpersuaded scholars), the AAUW recently commissioned a more serious scientific study on gender and academic achievement. The new study, "The Influence of School Climate on Gender Differences in the Achievement and Engagement of Young Adolescents," by University of Michigan professor Valerie E. Lee and her associates, was recently released without the fanfare the AAUW usually lavishes on such announcements. This is not surprising, since Ms. Lee's study strongly suggests that reports of a tragic demoralization and shortchanging of America's schoolgirls have been greatly exaggerated.

Ms. Lee and her associates analyzed data on the educational achievement and engagement of more than 9,000 8th-grade boys and girls and found that differences between boys and girls were "small to moderate." Moreover, they wrote, "the pattern of gender differences is inconsistent. In some cases, females are favored; in others males are favored." Focusing on 8th-grade girls, the study found them more academically engaged than the boys, having better study habits, better attendance, and more positive academic behavior overall. Professor Lee's temperate conclusions are fully consistent with Education Department data and with the findings of Mr. Hedges and Ms. Nowell, the University of Chicago researchers.

In an apparent allusion to the "shortchanged girl" crisis, Professor Lee told the Harvard Education Letter that David and Myra Sadker's book Failing at Fairness "does not contain an ounce of real research." Though her AAUW sponsors had cast the nation's girls in the role of victims of gender inequity, Ms. Lee's study concluded: "The public discourse around issues of gender in school needs some change. ... Inequity can (and does) work in both directions."

The dearth of news coverage was total. The earlier "shortchanged" findings were reported in more than 1,500 news stories; to my knowledge, Ms. Lee's responsible and objective study has not received a single mention in any major newspaper.

In the present climate, educators who wish to help boys face obstacles. Prince George's County, Md., on the outskirts of Washington, includes several poor, mostly black public schools. According to one school board member, many of the boys "are at the bottom in every respect, in every academic indicator, and every social indicator." To help such boys, the county organized a "Black Male Achievement Initiative." Since 1991, approximately 40 young men have been meeting two weekends a month with a group of professional men for tutoring and mentoring. The program is popular and effective, but now must be radically restructured by order of the Department of Education's office for civil rights, which found that "it discriminates against girls." The woman who chairs the county school board was pleased: "The point here is that we were shortchanging female students and we're not going to do that anymore." For the record, African-American girls vastly outnumber African-American boys in higher education.

Though American schoolboys are lagging behind girls, this is not recognized as a problem and its national implications are not discussed. There are no masculinist organizations promoting the claim that boys are relatively worse off than the girls; nor would yet another advocacy group, this one taking up the cudgels for boys, be desirable. We must repudiate the partisanship and gender advocacy that have beclouded the issues surrounding children and make every effort to bring balance, fairness, and objective information into an urgently needed analysis of gender differentials in education. American schoolboys appear to be seriously at risk. Their plight will not be effectively addressed until educators, journalists, and politicians begin to challenge the myth of the incredible shrinking girl.

Christina Hoff Sommers, a professor of philosophy at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is the author of Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women. She is writing a book on boys.

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