By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—Too bad the study came out during summer vacation. We tend to forget whatever we learned by the time school rolls around again. But there’s something worth retaining over the long, lazy days: The “boy crisis’’ in education is not what it was cracked up to be.
Let’s go to the videotape. The first salvo in the battle of the classroom sexes probably came six years ago with the publication of “The War Against Boys.’’ Christina Hoff Sommers’ screed opened with the dire warning: “It’s a bad time to be a boy in America.’‘
Since then, things have gone from “bad’’ to worse. We’ve had documentaries and cover stories, psychologists and sociologists, scholars and ideologues offering a horror story of boys in academic free fall.
On the seesaw of this school playground, the message is that as girls went up, boys went down. The social changes that were good for the goose were bad for the gander. The common wisdom is that boys have fallen behind. Behind girls.
The causes and cures for the boy crisis are all over the map. The problem is either feminism that demonizes boyishness, or sexism that boxes boys in. It’s either nature that hard-wires the boy brain to learn differently, or nurture that creates what has been called a “biologically disrespectful model of education.’’ It’s that boys need more discipline, or less.
Last December, Doug Anglin, a senior from Milton High School in Massachusetts, filed a lawsuit claiming sex discrimination in the whole system. “If you sit down, follow orders and listen to what they say, you’ll do well and get good grades,’’ he complained. “Men naturally rebel against this.’’ (Where? In the Army?)
Now a Washington think tank, the Education Sector, has performed a crisis intervention. “The real story,’’ it reports, “is not bad news about boys doing worse; it’s good news about girls doing better.’’
Using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress—aka “the nation’s report card’’—the report found that girls score higher in reading and writing and boys score higher in math and science. But girls are closing the math gap faster than boys are closing the writing gap.
It turns out that boys aren’t doing worse in school. They are doing better than ever before. But girls—with apologies to the grammar police—are doing more better.
In college too, more men are enrolling than ever but at a slower pace than women. Women do get 57% of the bachelor’s degrees—including a large number of older women returning to school—but the gap at traditional four-year colleges is much less and, let us remember, boys are still a majority in the Ivy League.
The “boy crisis’’ isn’t exactly a myth, says Sara Mead, author of the report. It’s a “some boys crisis.’’ Race and class are the real issues. In Boston, for example, 100 white males graduate for every 104 white females. But 100 black males graduate for 139 black females. “It’s sexier to think about gender,” says Mead. “It’s something people like debating.’’ Americans, she fears, “have gotten used to thinking poor and minority students do poorly in school. Whereas if you hear that boys are doing worse, it’s startling.’’ Especially to the middle-class object of this anxiety attack.
As the besotted grandmother of a 4-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy, I’m not about to deny gender differences. Moreover, I’m uneasy about the massive drugging of little boys for whatever is labeled attention deficit disorder. And we know too little about the different pace of development or the meaning of new brain research.
I also worry that something in the culture is teaching poor Hispanic and African-American boys that being smart isn’t masculine. Remember when being smart wasn’t feminine? Is that message percolating up through the boy culture?
But in the same grandmother role I see that differences among boys and among girls are greater than differences between boys and girls. And I don’t think the “boy crisis’’ should let us stop worrying about why girls lose their interest in math or why women with those bachelor’s degrees still earn less than their male counterparts.
Last week, there was some good news from New York, a city with a high school graduation rate of only 58%. The 15 small schools started in the city in an experiment posted a graduation rate of 73%. Could size and personal attention matter more than gender?
The battle of the sexy ideas is a distraction from the struggle for minds of the younger generation. We need to worry more about children one by one. And less about whether boys are losing their place at the head of the class.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.