[Paleopsych] NYT: Boy Problems
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Sun Apr 3 18:06:12 UTC 2005
Magazine > The Way We Live Now: Boy Problems
By ANN HULBERT
"It's her future. Do the math,'' instructs a poster that is part of
the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.'s two-year-old ''Girls Go Tech''
campaign. Accompanying the message -- which belongs to a series of
public service announcements also sponsored by the Ad Council -- is a
photograph of an adorable little girl reading a book called
''Charlotte's Web Site.'' The cover of the E. B. White takeoff shows
Fern and Wilbur looking intently at Charlotte on a computer screen.
The text below warns that ''by sixth grade, an alarming number of
girls lose interest in math, science and technology. Which means they
won't qualify for most future jobs.''
But they don't lose interest in reading, this particular ad presumes
-- nor do girls lose interest in school, certainly not at the rate
boys do. The recent controversy over comments made by Lawrence
Summers, the president of Harvard, about the gender gap in science and
engineering has eclipsed a different educational disparity: boys
perform consistently below girls on most tests of reading and verbal
skills and lag in college enrollment and degree attainment. After
dominating postsecondary education through the late 1970's, young
American men now earn 25 percent fewer bachelor's degrees than young
Who knows what Summers would say about this phenomenon, which is the
flip side of the underrepresentation of female scientists at the top
that he was addressing. Male achievement, as he explained, tends
toward the extremes when it comes to testing, while females' scores
are more concentrated in the middle of the range. What Summers didn't
spell out is that boys owe their edge in math to the unusually high
performance of a relatively small number of boys in a pool that also
has more than its share of low-scoring students. In assessments of
verbal literacy, the clumping of boys toward the bottom is more
The gender disparity widens among low-income and minority students.
And it is especially dramatic among African-Americans, a recent Urban
Institute study shows. Black women now earn twice as many college
degrees as black men do. They also receive double the number of
master's degrees. But the female lead isn't just a black phenomenon;
among whites, women earn 30 percent more bachelor's degrees than men
and some 50 percent more master's degrees.
It's his future. Do the math -- but, as the Boy Scouts warn, be
prepared. This trend doesn't lend itself to clear-cut treatment.
Ignore the male lag, some advocates of girls are inclined to argue, on
the grounds that men on average still end up outearning women. Bring
back old-fashioned competition and more hard-boiled reading matter,
urge advocates for boys like Christina Hoff Sommers, who in ''The War
Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men'' (2000)
denounces a touchy-feely, cooperative, progressive ethos that she says
undermines boys' performance and school engagement. Males come from
Mars and thrive instead on no-nonsense authority, accountability,
clarity and peer rivalry.
What both of these views -- feminist and antifeminist alike -- fail to
appreciate is how much patient attentiveness (in the Venus vein) it
takes to boost stragglers rather than strivers. In the ''do the math''
mission under way with girls, the overarching goal has been
surprisingly competitive: to maintain the momentum of female math
students (who do just as well as boys early on in school) and to keep
the top achievers in the academic pipeline for those ''future jobs''
in our technological world. The payoff for efforts that have been
directed toward school performance has been gratifying. Girls are
taking more math and science courses in high school and majoring with
greater frequency in those fields in college. (Look at the 40 Intel
finalists: this year 38 percent of them were girls.)
The educational predicament of boys is fuzzier by comparison and
likely to elude tidy empirical diagnosis and well-focused remedies. At
the National Bureau of Economic Research (under whose auspices Summers
delivered his remarks about women), analysts have been puzzling over
the whys behind ''Where the Boys Aren't,'' the title of one working
paper. There are some obvious explanations: men in the Army and in
prison and more job options for males (in construction and
manufacturing) that don't require a college education but pay
Yet there are also murkier social and behavioral -- and biological --
issues at stake that don't augur well for a quick-fix approach. On the
front end, boys appear to be later verbal bloomers than girls, which
sets them up for early encounters with academic failure -- and which
makes early-intervention gambits like the Bush administration's push
to emphasize more literacy skills in preschool look misdirected. Down
the road, there is evidence that poorer ''noncognitive skills'' (not
academic capacity but work habits and conduct) may be what hobble
males most, and that growing up in single-parent families takes more
of an educational toll on boys than girls.
Those are challenges that beg for more than school-based strategies.
To give her credit, Laura Bush hasn't shied away from them as she
starts a boy-focused youth initiative, which runs the gamut from
dealing with gangs to financing fatherhood programs to improving
remedial English programs. Rewards for such efforts aren't likely to
be prompt and aren't aimed at the top -- two reasons they deserve the
spotlight. Females have yet more strides to make in the sciences, but
they're building on success. A boost-the-boys educational endeavor
faces the challenge of dealing with downward drift. Clearly the nation
needs an impetus to tackle the larger problem of growing social
inequality. Worries that it is boys who are being left behind could be
the goad we need.
Ann Hulbert is a contributing writer for the magazine.
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