Education Sector, a new Washington think tank established this year by the Bill & Melinda Gates and other leading foundations, describes itself as an "honest broker of evidence in key education debates." But its first big study, "The Evidence Suggests Otherwise: Truth About Boys and Girls," is deficient in this virtue.
Resident Scholar Christina Hoff Sommers
One looks in vain in Ms. Mead's report for any indication that anyone is undermining girls. She seems to think that concern for boys means shortchanging girls. But it does not--because education is not a zero sum game.
From the study's title, one might think that it contains evidence that boys are not languishing academically. It doesn't. In fact Ms. Mead concedes that vast numbers of boys are doing poorly. She acknowledges that more boys than girls drop out; that girls have higher aspirations and take more rigorous academic programs. The number of boys diagnosed with disabilities, she says, "has exploded in the past 30 years." She admits that "high school boys' achievement is declining in most subjects." And, yes, she says, it is true that our colleges are now 57% female.
So how does she back up her claim that "in fact, overall academic achievement for boys is higher than it has ever been"? She argues that in "absolute" terms boys are doing better today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. She adds that, in any case, the problem of male underachievement is largely confined to black, Hispanic and low-income white males. Neither claim withstands scrutiny.
The reading scores of 17-year-old boys overall have gone down in the past decade, hitting an all-time low in 2004. Judith Kleinfeld, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska, has done a thorough analysis of the reading skills of white males from college-educated families. Using Department of Education data, she shows that at the end of high school, 23% of the white sons of college educated parents scored "below basic." For girls from the same background, the figure is 7%. "This means," Ms. Kleinfeld writes, "that one in four boys who have college educated parents cannot read a newspaper with understanding."
Education Sector's study concedes that African-American, Hispanic and low-income white males "are in real trouble." But it attributes their plight to larger social problems that have little to do with gender. Ms. Mead does not seem to have noticed that among these demographics, males are far behind their female counterparts. For example, Ms. Kleinfeld found that 34% of Hispanic males with college-educated parents scored "below basic"--compared to 19% of Hispanic females.
Today, for every 100 women who earn a bachelor's degree, just 73 men get one. Not to worry, says Ms. Mead. It is actually good news for young men, because more of them are going to college today than did in the '70s and '80s. By this reasoning, we need not worry about the relatively low wages of women compared to men, since in "absolute terms" women are doing better than in the past. Would the policy analysts at Education Sector welcome the view that when it comes to a wage gap, it’s not bad news about women doing worse; it’s just good news about men doing better?
In one characteristically free-wheeling passage, Mead says that “the current boy crisis hype” plays into “America’s deepest insecurities, ambivalence and fears about changing gender roles.” A more plausible explanation for the growing concern over boys is that teachers, parents, reporters and scholars, both liberal and conservative, have become aware that a steadily increasing proportion of the nation’s boys are poorly equipped to cope with the world that awaits them.
We are strikingly better at educating young women than young men. Boys need our attention. It is difficult to understand why an organization devoted to improving education should regard the current concern for boys as a threat to girls' progress. Education Sector would be more constructively occupied if it looked for ways to help our boys keep pace with the girls.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.