Denying the boy crisis

A new Washington think tank, Education Sector, has released a study, “The Truth About Boys and Girls,” that, in the words of the Washington Post, “argues that widespread reports of U.S. boys being in crisis are greatly overstated and that young males in school are in many ways doing better than ever.”

As Jay Matthews of the Post reports, the study, authored by Education Sector senior analyst Sara Mead, claims that “over the past three decades, boys’ test scores are mostly up, more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor’s degrees.”

So why the widespread perception that there is a boy crisis? Matthews summarizes the findings of the Education Sector study on this question:

It concludes that much of the pessimism about young males seems to derive from inadequate research, sloppy analysis and discomfort with the fact that although the average boy is doing better, the average girl has gotten ahead of him.

“The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse,” the report says, “it’s good news about girls doing better.”

If only it were so.

As I have written before, wishing something to be true, won’t make it true. Nearly anyone who teaches on an American college campus today is aware of the real story–the growing gender gap and its disturbing social and demographic implications–if they trust their eyes (see “Those lying eyes“) and the relevant statistics. Further, the notion that test score “improvements” reflect meaningful educational progress (for boys or girls) is laughable in a globalized economy.

It doesn’t take long to spot some of the flaws in the Education Sector study; its selective use of data and argumentative tone suggests that it was written to support foregone conclusions, not to look at the situation objectively.

Take, for example, the claim that “more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor’s degrees.” That is true–more men are attending and more are getting degrees than in the past–but it conveniently ignores underlying trends and the growing gender gap on American college campuses. The chart provided by Education Sector (see here) shows an ascending line for the number of men attending college–and it should, since there are more male students in college today on an absolute basis than 30 years ago. A second chart begins to hint at the gender problem, where female college enrollments show a dramatic upward trend in comparison to male enrollments.

What is missing is context: how large is the pool of college-aged men and women. Here’s what USA Today reported in 2005 (“College Gender Gap Widens: 57% Are Women.”):

There are more men than women ages 18-24 in the USA — 15 million vs. 14.2 million, according to a Census Bureau estimate last year. But nationally, the male/female ratio on campus today is 43/57, a reversal from the late 1960s and well beyond the nearly even splits of the mid-1970s.

The trends have developed in plain view — not ignored exactly, but typically accompanied by some version of the question: Isn’t this a sign of women’s progress?

Today, though, the blue-collar jobs that once attracted male high school graduates are drying up. More boys are dropping out of high school and out of college. And as the gender gap widens, concern about the educational aspirations of young men appears to be gaining traction, albeit cautiously.

The disparity is even greater than simple percentages suggest, because (as USA Today notes), there were some 800,000 more men than women in the 18-24 age group. That would suggest even greater under-representation of men than many realize hearing the percentage break-down.

What is even more disturbing is how consistent the declining trends for male students are across race, class and income levels. If you look at the statistics below (taken from the USA Today story), it’s clear that a shift of some significance is occuring.

  • “About 9.9 million women (57.4%) and 7.4 million men (42.6%) were enrolled in colleges eligible for federal student aid in 2003-04.”
  • From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the percentage of undergrads (18-24) who were male from low-income families (incomes less than $30,000), dropped from 44% to 40%. Among racial/ethnic groups: decreases of 46% to 42% (White), 43% to 39% (Hispanic), 54% to 47% (Asian) and an increase of 32% to 36% (Black).
  • From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the percentage of undergrads (18-24) who were male from middle-income families ($30,000-$69,999), dropped from 50% to 44%. Among racial/ethnic groups: decreases of 50% to 43% (White), 48% to 32% (Black), 46% to 42% (Hispanic); 57% to 50% (Asian).
  • From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the percentage of undergrads (18-24) who were male from upper-income families ($70,000 or more), dropped from 51% to 49%. Among racial/ethnic groups: decreases of 52% to 49% (White), 50% to 49% (Hispanic); 52% to 51% (Asian) and an increase of 41% to 48% (Black).

I find startling the declines in relative college attendance for affluent white, Hispanic and Asian males. Such a trend would suggest cultural and social factors that need to be addressed if we hope to stabilize the current college gender gap where it is. (I take it as a given that any society with a growing and significant educational gap between men and women is courting trouble.)

What about the “progress” on boys’ test scores that the Education Sector study trumpets? If you look closely, the study’s claim is that boys have narrowed the gap (somewhat) between their lagging achievement and that of girls the same age on reading tests. In a concession to reality, Mead, the author of the study, must concede that the results don’t look as convincing for older boys–the ones who are about to make college decisions.

And Mead also concedes that: “There are groups of boys for whom “crisis” is not too strong a term. When racial and economic gaps combine with gender achievement gaps in reading, the result is disturbingly low achievement for poor, black, and Hispanic boys.” Mead believes, however, that “closing racial and economic achievement gaps” would benefit these boys more than “closing gender gaps.” (Does this mean she would be content with a continuing gender gap, all things being equal?)

By the end of “The Truth about Boys and Girls,” Mead has backed away from her earlier sunny optimism on the question (“In particular, the disproportionate number of boys being identified with learning and emotional disabilities, suspended from school, and dropping out suggests that what our schools are doing doesn’t work very well for some boys.”) She concedes that something is amiss and that the notion of an educational crisis for boys must “resonate with the experiences of parents and educators.”

Her concern, she tells us, is that “The boy crisis offers a perfect opportunity for those seeking an excuse to advance ideological and educational agendas.” Mead finishes her report with a relatively dispassionate survey of the various educational “solutions” being peddled by cultural conservatives, progressive educators, researchers and pop psychologists, and then calls for “a more reasonable conversation” that could “lead to effective responses to the achievement problems facing some boys, without unfairly undermining the gains that girls have made in recent decades.”

It’s hard to disagree with her closing thoughts. That “more reasonable” conclusion, however, is lost when the “news” is, to cite the Post‘s headline: “Study Casts Doubt on the ‘Boy Crisis’.” The idea should be to improve the academic performance of boys without detracting from that of girls; denying or downplaying the problem only delays the day of reckoning.


USA Today data cited from: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Student Aid Studies, 1995-96, 1999-2000, 2003-04; Income ranges adjusted for inflation to 1995-96 dollars; Source: ACE Center for Policy Analysis


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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