The U.S. Department of Education has just released a comprehensive report, "Trends in Educational Equity for Girls & Women," that dramatically controverts the conventional belief that girls are shortchanged in the nation's schools.
With all of the talk in the past decade about a "girl crisis," even the statisticians who put the study together were surprised by what it showed. As the study's director, Thomas Snyder, told me, almost apologetically, "We did not realize women were doing so well."
For the past decade, advocacy groups such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW), citing their own research findings, have aggressively promoted the idea that girls are victims of gender-biased schools.
A stream of books and pamphlets successfully popularized the complaint that our schools are "failing at fairness" to girls. The AAUW called the plight of girls an "unacknowledged American tragedy."
But objective social science gives a different picture.
The new Education Department study examined 44 "indicators" of academic equity. About half showed no differences between boys and girls. For example, "Females are just as likely as males to use computers at home and at school," and "Females and males take similar mathematics and science courses in high school."
The study found that boys do slightly better in math and science. Overall, however, girls are far and away the superior students.
Most alarming is the gender gap in basic literacy: "Females have consistently outperformed males in reading and writing. . . . The writing skills of female eighth-graders were comparable with those of 11th-grade males."
Confronted with this kind of "gender inequity," girls' advocates reply that females are now doing well precisely because of all of the special support they got in the '90s. But that is not so. Girls had already overtaken boys by the mid-'80s. No one is suggesting that girls should not have been given help in math and science, but it is deplorable that because of a manufactured girl crisis, boys' far more serious deficits have gone unnoticed and unattended.
Like American boys, boys in Great Britain are markedly behind girls academically. But British educators and legislators are years ahead of us in confronting and addressing the problem of male underachievement.
In 1994, the Times of London reported that 14-year-old British boys are, "on average, more than three years behind girls in English," and it warned of the prospect of "an underclass of permanently unemployed, unskilled men." The British have a name for the underachieving boys -- the "sink group" -- and they call what ails them "laddism."
The British government reacted with a highly successful back-to-basics program in the primary schools, whose explicit purpose is to help boys catch up with girls. The British are also experimenting with all-male classes in coed public schools. They are again allowing "gender stereotypes" in their educational materials: They found that boys enjoy and will read adventure stories with male heroes. War poetry is back. So is classroom competition.
By contrast, our federal and state governments remain oblivious to boys' problems. Strongly lobbied by women's groups, Congress in 1993 passed the Gender Equity in Education Act, categorizing girls as an "underserved population" on par with other discriminated-against minorities. This act provided massive resources for special aid to female students.
In 1997, the Department of Health and Human Services launched "Girl Power!" -- a special program for girls age 9-14 to "empower" them to "make the most of their lives." HHS, which has no comparable support program for boys, explained why girls need such a program in a "Fact Sheet": "Studies show that girls . . . (are) performing less well in school and neglecting their own interests and aspirations."
As the "Trends in Educational Equity" report confirms, this is not true.
I asked Snyder, the study's director, why the Department of Education was not doing more to publicize its findings. If boys are three years behind girls in writing and one-and-a-half years behind in reading, surely parents, educators and legislators should be apprised of it. He agreed.
"We were probably more guarded than necessary," he said, "but we are a government agency. . . . In retrospect, we should have done more."
However, he and his colleagues at the National Center for Education Statistics already have done a great deal by producing an objective, authoritative and non-political report on male and female achievement.
The plight of American boys, until now pushed to the side by zealous and misinformed girl partisans, can no longer be ignored. When "Trends in Educational Equity for Girls & Women" begins to get the attention it deserves, the current discourse on gender equity will be making a 180-degree turn. The prospects of the nation's boys will then brighten immeasurably.
Christina Hoff Sommers is author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming our Young Men. She is the W.H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.