[Paleopsych] NYT: Boy Problems

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Magazine > The Way We Live Now: Boy Problems


    "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
    women do.

    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
    relatively well.

    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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