The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men - Christina Hoff Sommers 2015
Where the Boys Are
Aviation High School in Queens, New York, is easy to miss. A no-frills, industrial-looking structure of faded orange brick with green aluminum trim, it fits in comfortably with its gritty neighbors—a steel yard, a plastics factory, a tool supply outlet, and a twenty-four-hour gas station and convenience store. But to walk through the front doors of Aviation High is to enter one of the quietest, most inspiring places in all of New York City. This is an institution that is working miracles with students. Schools everywhere struggle to keep teenagers engaged. At Aviation, they are enthralled.
On a recent visit to Aviation, I observed a classroom of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds intently focused on constructing miniaturized, electrically wired airplane wings from mostly raw materials. In another class, the students worked in teams—with a student foreman and crew chief—to take apart a small jet engine and then put it back together in just twenty days. In addition to pursuing a standard high school curriculum, Aviation High students spend half of the day in hands-on classes learning about airframes, hydraulics, and electrical systems. They put up with demanding college preparatory English and history classes because unless they do well in them, they cannot spend their afternoons tinkering with the engine of a Cessna 411 parked outside on the playground. The school’s two thousand pupils—mostly Hispanic, African American, and Asian from homes below the poverty line—have a 95 percent attendance rate and an 88 percent graduation rate, with 80 percent attending college.1 The New York City Department of Education routinely awards the school an “A” on its annual Progress Report.2 And it has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best high schools in the nation.3 Aviation High lives up to its motto: “Where Dreams Take Flight.” So what is the secret of its success?
“The school is all about structure,” Assistant Principal Ralph Santiago told me. The faculty places a heavy emphasis on organization, precision workmanship, and attention to detail. No matter how chaotic students’ home lives may be, at Aviation, they are promised five full days per week of calm consistency. The school administrators maintain what they call a “culture of respect.” They don’t tolerate even minor infractions. But anyone who spends a little time at the school sees its success is not about zero-tolerance and strict sanctions. The students are kept so busy and are so fascinated with what they are doing that they have neither the time nor the desire for antics. Many who visit the school are taken aback by the silent, empty hallways. Is it a holiday? Where are the kids? They are in the classrooms, engaged in becoming effective, educated, employable adults. “Do you have self-esteem programs?” I asked, just for the fun of it. “We don’t do that,” replied the principal.
Study groups from as far away as Sweden and Australia have visited and are now attempting to replicate Aviation in their home countries. It would appear to be a model of best practices. But there are very few visits from American officials. No one from the US Department of Education has visited or ever singled it out for praise. Aviation High is, in fact, more likely to be investigated, censured, and threatened by federal officials than celebrated or emulated. Despite its seventy-five-year history of success, and despite possessing what seems to be a winning formula for educating at-risk kids, it suffers from what many education leaders consider to be a fatal flaw: the school is 85 percent male.4
The women students at Aviation High are well respected, hold many of the leadership positions, and appear to be flourishing in every way. But their numbers remain minuscule. They know their passion for jet engines makes them different from most girls—and they seem to enjoy being distinctive. One soft-spoken young woman whose parents emigrated from India told me she loves the school, and so do her parents: “They like it because it is so safe.” She is surrounded by more than seventeen hundred adolescent males in a poor section of Queens, yet she couldn’t be safer.
Principal Deno Charalambous, Assistant Principal Ralph Santiago, and other administrators have made efforts to reach out to all prospective students, male and female, but it is mostly boys who respond. From an applicant pool of approximately three thousand junior high pupils from across the five New York City boroughs, the school makes about 1,200 offers and fills 490 seats in its entering ninth-grade class. Admission is open to all, and the school admissions committee looks at grades and test scores. But, says Santiago, “our primary focus is on attendance.” Give us students with a good junior high attendance record and an interest in all things mechanical, he says, and Aviation can turn them into pilots, airplane mechanics, or engineers.
“Why did you choose Aviation?” I ask Ricardo, a ninth grader. “I liked the name.” The world of aviation—and classes with a lot of hammering, welding, riveting, sawing, and drilling—seems to resonate more powerfully in the minds of boys than girls. At the same time, it is girls who are the overwhelming majority at two other New York City vocational schools: the High School of Fashion Industries and the Clara Barton High School (for health professions) are 92 percent and 77 percent female, respectively. Despite forty years of feminist consciousness-raising and gender-neutral pronouns, boys still outnumber girls in aviation and automotive schools, and girls still outnumber boys in fashion and nursing. The commonsense explanation is that sexes differ in their interests and propensities. But activists in groups such as the American Association of University Women and the National Women’s Law Center beg to differ.
The National Women’s Law Center has been waging a decade-long battle against New York City’s vocational-technical high schools—with Aviation High at the top of its list of offenders. In 2001, its copresident, Marcia Greenberger, along with two activist lawyers, wrote a letter to the then—Chancellor of the New York City Board of Education, claiming that girls’ rights were being violated in the city’s vocational public schools and demanding that the “problem be remedied without delay.”5 The letter acknowledged that girls prevailed by large margins in four of the schools, but such schools, they said, do not prepare young women for jobs that pay as well as the male-dominated programs. “The vocational programs offered at these schools correspond with outmoded and impermissible stereotypes on the basis of sex.” The letter noted that “even the names assigned to vocational high schools send strong signals to students that they are appropriate only for one sex or the other.”6
In 2008, prompted by the National Women’s Law Center, the public advocate for the City of New York, Betsy Gotbaum, published a scathing indictment entitled Blue School, Pink School: Gender Imbalance in New York City CTE (Career and Technical Education) High Schools. Why are there so few girls in vocational schools for automobile mechanics, building construction, and aviation? The report offered a confident reply: “Research shows that the reluctance of girls to participate in such programs is rooted in stereotypes of male and female roles that are imparted early in childhood.”7 In fact, the literature on gender and vocation is complex, vibrant, and full of reasonable disagreements. There is no single, simple answer.
I asked Charalambous, Santiago, and other administrators whether Aviation High had received any official complaints. They were vaguely aware of the 2001 letter and 2008 report, but were confident that the stunning success of their school, especially one serving so many at-risk kids, would allay doubts and criticism. The educators at Aviation define equity as “equality of opportunity”—girls are just as welcome as boys. They were frankly baffled by the letters and threats and seemed to think it was just a misunderstanding. But the activists at the National Women’s Law Center, as well as the authors of the Blue School, Pink School report, believe that true equity means equality of participation. By this definition, Aviation falls seriously short. There is no misunderstanding.
We must all be “willing to fight,” exclaimed Marcia Greenberger at a 2010 White House celebration of the Title IX equity law.8 To an audience that included Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali, and White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, she noted that Title IX could be used to root out sexist discrimination in areas “outside of sports.” Said Greenberger, “We have loads of work to do!” She singled out Aviation High School as an egregious example of continuing segregation in vocational-technical schools. Ms. Jarrett concluded the session by assuring everyone in the room that “We are hardly going to rest on our laurels until we have absolute equality, and we are not there yet.”
Before Ms. Jarrett or the secretary of education or other education officials join Ms. Greenberger and her colleagues at the National Women’s Law Center in their pursuit of absolute equality, they need to consider Aviation High School in the larger context of American education and American life.
Boys and Girls in the Classroom
In 2000, the Department of Education (DOE) published a long-awaited report on gender and education entitled Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women.9 The research was mandated by Congress under the Gender Equity in Education Act of 1993.10 Women’s groups such as the National Women’s Law Center and the American Association of University Women lobbied heavily for the 1993 law and DOE study. Their own research showed that girls were being massively shortchanged and demoralized in the nation’s schools. The AAUW, for example, called the plight of adolescent young women “an American tragedy.”11 It was because of such claims that Congress was moved to pass the Gender Equity in Education Act, categorizing girls as an “underserved population” on a par with other discriminated-against minorities. Hundreds of millions of dollars in grants were awarded to study the plight of girls and to learn how to overcome the insidious biases against them. Parents throughout the country observed Take Your Daughter to Work Day; the Department of Health and Human Services launched a self-esteem enhancing program called Girl Power!; and, at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, members of the American delegation presented the educational and psychological deficits of American girls as a pressing human rights issue.12
In 2000, women’s groups eagerly awaited the DOE study. It promised to be the most thorough assessment of gender and education yet. Solid and unimpeachable statistics from the federal government would be a great boon to their campaign on behalf of the nation’s young women.
But things did not go as planned. The shortchanged-girl movement rested on a lot of unconventional evidence: controversial self-esteem studies,13 unpublished reports on classroom interactions,14 and speculative, metaphor-laden theories about “school climates” and female adolescent malaise.15 Here, for example, is a typical pronouncement: “As the river of a girl’s life flows into the sea of Western culture, she is in danger of drowning or disappearing.”16 Those portentous words were uttered in 1990 by feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, a leader of the shortchanged-girl movement. The picture of confused and forlorn girls struggling to survive would be drawn again and again, with added details and increasing urgency. By 1995, the public was more than prepared for psychologist Mary Pipher’s bleak tidings in her bestselling book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. According to Pipher, “Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. . . . They crash and burn.”17
The DOE’s Trends in Educational Equity report was based on more straightforward criteria: grades, test scores, and college matriculation. By those standards, girls were doing far better than boys. The DOE’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) analyzed forty-four concrete indicators of academic success and failure. About half of the indicators 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.” Some favored boys: they do better on math and science tests, and they enjoy these subjects more and demonstrate greater confidence in their math and science abilities than girls. Trends in Educational Equity found that the math and science gaps were narrowing, but they still singled them out as areas of concern. On the whole, however, girls turned out to be far and away the superior students. According to the report, “There is evidence that the female advantage in school performance is real and persistent.”18 As the study’s director, Thomas Snyder, told me almost apologetically, “We did not realize women were doing so well.”
A few sample findings:
• “Female high school seniors tend to have higher educational aspirations than their male peers.”
• “Female high school seniors are more likely to participate in more after-school activities than their male peers, except for participation in athletics.”
• “Female high school students are more likely than males to take Advanced Placement examinations.”
• “Females have consistently outperformed males in reading and writing.”
• “Differences in male and female writing achievements have been relatively large, with male 11th graders scoring at about the same level as female 8th graders in 1996.”
• “Females are more likely than males to enroll in college.”
• “Women are more likely than men to persist and attain degrees.”
Figure 1: Average GPA of 12th Graders, by Sex
Source: US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, High School Transcript Study (HSTS), 2000, 1998, 1994, 1990.
Contrary to the story told by the girl-crisis lobby, the new study revealed that by the early 1990s, American girls were flourishing in unprecedented ways. To be sure, a few girls may have been crashing and drowning in the sea of Western culture, but the vast majority were thriving in it: moving ahead of boys in the primary and secondary grades, applying to college in record numbers, filling the more challenging academic classes, joining sports teams, and generally outperforming boys in the classroom and extracurricular activities. Subsequent studies by the Department of Education and the Higher Education Research Institute show that, far from being timorous and demoralized, girls outnumber boys in student government, honor societies, and school newspapers. They also receive better grades,19 do more homework,20 take more honors courses,21 read more books,22 eclipse males on tests of artistic and musical ability,23 and generally outshine boys on almost every measure of classroom success. At the same time, fewer girls are suspended from school, fewer are held back, and fewer drop out.24 In the technical language of education experts, girls are more academically “engaged.”
Figure 2: Percentage of High School Sophomores Who Arrive at School Unprepared, by Sex
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2007, Indicator 22.
If all the data from the Department of Education had to be condensed into a single anecdote, it could be this one about a parent-teacher conference in a middle school in New Jersey in 2010:
A sixth-grade boy, whose mother asks he be identified as Dan, squirms as his teacher tells his parents he’s not trying hard enough in school. He looks away as the teacher directs his parents to a table of projects the class has done on ancient Greek civilization. Some projects are meticulous works of art, with edges burned to resemble old parchment. Dan’s title page is plain and unillustrated, and he’s left an “e” out of “Greek.” “You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t try,” says Dan’s father as they leave the classroom. “I don’t understand,” says Dan’s mother, whose two older daughters got straight A’s in school without her intervention.25
But Don’t Boys Test Better?
Boys do appear to have an advantage when it comes to taking tests like the SAT. They consistently attain higher scores in both the math and verbal sections, though girls are well ahead in the recently added essay section.26 But according to the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, the boys’ better scores tell us more about the selection of students taking the test than about any advantage boys may enjoy. Fewer males than females take the SAT (46 percent of the test takers are male) and far more of the female test takers come from the “at risk” category—girls from lower-income homes or with parents who never graduated from high school or never attended college. “These characteristics,” says the College Board, “are associated with lower than average SAT scores.”27
There is another factor that skews test results. Nancy Cole, former president of the Educational Testing Service, calls it the “spread” phenomenon. Scores on almost any intelligence or achievement test are more widely distributed for boys than for girls—boys include more prodigies and more students of marginal ability. Or, as the late political scientist James Q. Wilson once put it, “There are more male geniuses and more male idiots.” The boys of marginal ability tend not to take the SAT, so there is no way to correct for the high-achieving males who show up in large numbers.
Suppose we were to turn our attention away from the highly motivated, self-selected two-fifths of high school students who take the SAT and consider instead a truly representative sample of American schoolchildren. How would girls and boys then compare? Well, we have the answer. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, mandated by Congress in 1969 offers the best measure of achievement among students at all levels of ability. Under the NAEP program, 120,000 to 220,000 students drawn from all fifty states as well as District of Columbia and Department of Defense schools are tested in reading, writing, math, and science at ages nine, thirteen, and seventeen. In 2011, eighth-grade boys outperformed girls by 1 point in math and 5 points in science. But in 2011 and 2007 respectively (the most recent year for this data), eighth-grade girls outperformed boys by 9 points in reading and 20 points in writing. (Ten points are roughly equivalent to one year of schooling.28)
The math and science gap favoring boys has been intensely debated and analyzed. In 1990, at the beginning of the shortchanged-girl campaign, young women were even further behind. (Seventeen-year-old females, for example, were then 11 points behind males in science.) It is likely that the women’s lobby was helpful in drawing attention to the girls’ deficits and in promoting effective remedies. But what is hard to understand is why the math and science gap launched a massive movement on behalf of girls, and yet a much larger gap in reading, writing, and school engagement created no comparable effort for boys. Just as hard to explain is the failure by nearly everyone in the education establishment to address the growing college attendance gap. Today, women in the United States earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and 52 percent of PhDs.
Figure 3: Percentage of All College Degrees* Female vs. Male, 1966—2021
*(Includes associate’s, bachelor’s, and doctor’s degrees)
Graph by Mark Perry (University of Michigan and American Enterprise Institute). Data from Department of Education, ECLS-K (Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten, 1998—1999 cohort).
According to DOE projections, these male-female disparities will only become increasingly acute in the future. As a policy analyst for the Pell Institute once quipped, only half in jest, “the last male will graduate from college in 2068.”
Where Have all the Young Men Gone?
Trends in Educational Equity was a serious study carried out by an unimpeachable source—highly regarded, apolitical statisticians at the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. But it flatly contradicted the shortchanged-girl thesis. Yes, it showed that young women needed special attention in certain areas such as their performance on standardized math and science tests; at the same time, it exposed the folly of calling them “underserved” or “shortchanged.” How did the women’s groups react?
Initially, they ignored it. But so did most journalists, educators, and public officials. The Education Department wasn’t comfortable with its own findings and gave them little publicity. (One official told me, off the record, that some of the staff worried that it would deflect attention away from worthy women’s causes.) A few months after the study appeared, I asked its director, Thomas Snyder, why the Department of Education had not alerted the public to its findings. After all, the misleading AAUW report How Schools Shortchange Girls generated hundreds of stories by journalists and newscasters across the country. Shouldn’t Trends in Equity in Education have received more publicity? “We were probably more guarded than necessary,” he said, “but we are a government agency. . . . In retrospect, we should have done more.”
So what finally slowed down the girl-crisis parade? Reality struck. The “left the ’e’ out of ’Greek’ ” phenomenon became impossible to ignore. Teachers observed male fecklessness and disengagement before their eyes, day after day in their classrooms. Parents began noticing that young women were sweeping the honors and awards at junior high and high school graduations, while young men were being given most of the prescriptions for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.29 College admissions officers were baffled, concerned, and finally panicked over the dearth of male applicants. A new phrase entered the admissions office lexicon: “the tipping point”—the point at which the ratio of women to men reaches 60/40. According to insider lore, if male enrollment falls to 40 percent or below, females begin to flee. Officials at schools at or near the tipping point (American University, Boston University, Brandeis University, New York University, the University of Georgia, and the University of North Carolina, to name only a few) feared their campuses were becoming like retirement villages, with a surfeit of women competing for a tiny handful of surviving men. “Where Have All the Young Men Gone?” was a major attraction at a 2002 meeting of the National Association of College Admission Counseling.
Throughout the 2000s, stories of faltering schoolboys appeared in almost every major magazine and newspaper in the country. My own book The War Against Boys was published in 2001, accompanied by a cover story in The Atlantic, “Girls Rule: Mythmakers to the Contrary, It’s Boys Who Are in Deep Trouble.” These were followed a few years later by articles in Newsweek, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and U.S. News & World Report. Programs such as 60 Minutes and 20/20 dramatized the plight of boys, as did data-filled books such as Why Boys Fail and The Trouble with Boys.30 In addition to this steady flow of news stories and books, various state commissions and policy centers issued reports on the precarious state of schoolboys.31 In 2006, for example, the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, a nonpartisan Massachusetts think tank on education, released Are Boys Making the Grade? Initially, its researchers wondered if the media stories about disadvantaged boys were exaggerated. They asked, “[I]s the picture as one-sided as the media portray?” Their final answer: a resounding, unequivocal yes. “The gender gap is real and has a negative effect on boys.”32 With obvious surprise at their own findings, the Rennie researchers reported, “In Massachusetts, the achievement of girls not only exceeds the achievement of boys in English language arts at all grade levels, girls are generally outperforming boys in math as well.”33 The study concluded, “Boys are struggling in our public schools.” It suggested several reforms such as more experimentation with single-sex classrooms, a heightened focus on male and female learning styles in teacher training programs, and special attention to black, Hispanic, and other subgroups of boys.
The same year, 2006, the California Postsecondary Education Commission (a group of business leaders, educators, and public policy experts that advises the governor) published The Gender Gap in California Higher Education. It showed women from all major ethnic groups moving well ahead of men throughout the University of California (UC) system.34 In the professional schools, once dominated by men, women were earning 57 percent of degrees in law, 62 percent in dentistry, 73 percent in optometry, 77 percent in pharmacy, and 82 percent in veterinary medicine. Just like Thomas Snyder in the Department of Education and the Rennie researchers in Massachusetts, the California Postsecondary Education Commission authors seemed both surprised and alarmed by their findings. “The magnitude of the issue [of male disadvantage] is large.”35 And they noted the potential harm the growing gap could wreak in the US workforce and in the nation’s “competitiveness in the global economy.”36
By the middle of the 2000s, the precariousness of boys and young men in American schools was one of the most thoroughly documented phenomena in the history of education. Groups like the National Women’s Law Center and the AAUW might have been expected to return to the drawing board to look for ways to address the special needs of girls, while acknowledging the considerable vulnerabilities of boys. That did not happen.
The Empire Strikes Back
In 2008, Linda Hallman, the AAUW executive director, announced her organization’s determination to continue to “break through barriers” for women and girls and not to allow “adversaries” to obstruct their mission:
Our adversaries know that AAUW is a force to be reckoned with, and that we have “staying power” in our dedication to breaking through the barriers that we target. . . . We ARE Breaking through Barriers. We mean it; we’ve done it before; and we are “coming after them” again and again and again, if we have to! All of us, all the time.37 [AAUW emphasis.]
This powerful and influential organization saw the new focus on boys as part of an organized backlash against the gains of women. A few weeks before Ms. Hallman’s declaration of war, the AAUW issued a 103-page study refuting the idea that boys were disadvantaged. According to Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education, the boy crisis was a hoax. This study, said Ms. Hallman, “debunks once and for all the myth of the ’boys’ crisis’ in education.”38 She described it as “the most comprehensive report ever done on the topic.”39 As we shall see, it did not come close to Trends in Educational Equity, or dozens of other studies, in objectivity, soundness, or comprehensiveness. But it did garner masses of publicity, including respectful treatment in places such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.40 On its blog, the AAUW urged its more than 100,000 members around the country to “Build Buzz on Where the Girls Are.” There was no buzz machine behind the research on boys. What did the AAUW find?
Chapter 1 of Where the Girls Are begins with a comment on the motives of authors (this author included) who write about the plight of boys:
Many people remain uncomfortable with the education and professional advances of girls and women, especially when they threaten to outdistance their male peers. . . . From the incendiary book The War Against Boys . . . to more subtle insinuations such as the New York Times headline, “At Colleges, Women Are Leaving Men in the Dust,” a backlash against the achievement of girls and women emerged.41
The report flatly rejects the idea that boys as a group are in trouble. In fact, it asserts that young men are faring better today than ever before. Today’s young men, say the authors, are graduating from high school in record numbers. “More men are earning college degrees today in the United States than at any time in history.”42 Men have not fallen behind; it is simply that females “have made more rapid gains.”43 The report does not deny that there are serious inequities in education, but attributes them to race and class—not gender. It calls for a refocused public debate on the deep division among schoolchildren by race and family income. Finally, it emphatically reminds readers of the real world that awaits young men and women once they leave school: “Perhaps the most compelling evidence against the existence of a boys’ crisis is that men continue to outearn women in the workplace.”44
It is hard to know how to respond to the suggestion that those of us who write about the plight of boys are “uncomfortable with the advances of girls.” The AAUW gives no evidence for it. The same charge was made by two professors, Rosalind Chait Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, and Caryl Rivers of Boston University, in their 2011 book, The Truth About Girls and Boys: “The fact that girls are succeeding academically touches a wellspring of psychic fear in some people.” They called the boys’ crisis “manufactured”—part of a “backlash against the women’s movement.”45 Soon after the 2008 release of Where the Girls Are, Linda Hallman told the New York Times that “conservative commentators” were behind the “distracting debate” over allegedly disadvantaged boys.46
But alarm over the plight of boys comes from parents, educators, writers, research institutes, and commissions from across the political and social spectrum. What we share is a concern for all children, along with an awareness that boys appear to need special help right now. That is not backlash; it is reality and common sense.
What about the claim that boys are doing better than ever? According to the AAUW report:
More men are earning college degrees today in the United States than at any time in history. During the past 35 years, the college-educated population has greatly expanded: The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually rose 82 percent, from 792,316 in 1969—70 to 1,439,264 in 2004—05.47
It is true that in absolute terms more boys were graduating from high school and going to college in 2005 than in the previous forty years. But that is because the population of college-age males was much larger in 2005 than in the previous forty years. In 1970, men earned 451,097 BA degrees; by 2009, the number was 685,382—a 52 percent increase. In the same time period, BA degrees conferred to women went from 341,219 to 915,986—a 168 percent increase.48 Good news all around, says the AAUW. But was it? The picture changes when you control for population growth and consider the rate of improvement. Males stalled in the mid-1970s while females rapidly advanced (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: Percentage of Population Ages 25—34 with 4 Years of College, 1970—2009, by Sex
Source: US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey 1970—2009.
The AAUW researchers point out that even if men are not keeping up with women, they are doing better than in the past. As Linda Hallman explained during a PBS online discussion, “[I]n the percentage of boys graduating from high school and college, boys are performing better today than ever before.”49 Technically true, but thoroughly misleading. In 2008, for example, US Census data shows that among women and men ages twenty-five to twenty-nine, 34 percent of women had a bachelor’s degree—compared with 26 percent of men.50 The number of women with college degrees had increased by 14 percent from 1978; the men, by less than 1 percent (0.77 percent, to be precise). If the facts were reversed and young men soared while women stalled, Ms. Hallman and her colleagues would have a different outlook.
Most of the news stories conveyed the AAUW’s message that there is no serious gender achievement gap in education—the problem is race and social class. As one AAUW author told the Washington Post, “If there is a crisis, it is with African American and Hispanic students and low-income students, girls and boys.”51 But here the AAUW obscures the fact that the gender gap favors girls across all ethnic, racial, and social lines. Young black women are twice as likely to go to college as black men; at some of the prestigious historically black colleges the numbers are truly ominous—Fisk is now 64 percent female; Howard, 67 percent; Clark Atlanta, 72 percent.52
When economist Andrew Sum and his colleagues at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University examined gender disparities in the Boston Public Schools, they found that for the class of 2007, among blacks, there were 191 females for every 100 males attending a four-year college or university. Among Hispanics the ratio was 175 females for every 100 males. For white students the gap was smaller, but still very large: 153 females to every 100 males.53
The facts are incontrovertible: young women from poor neighborhoods in Boston, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC, do much better than the young men from those same neighborhoods. There are now dozens of studies with titles like “The Vanishing Latino Male in Higher Education,” “The Latino Male Dropout Crisis,” and “African-American Males in Education: Endangered or Ignored?”54 When the College Board recently studied The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color, its conclusions were dismaying: “There is an educational crisis for young men of color in the United States. . . . Collectively, [our] data shows that more than 51 percent of Hispanic males, 45 percent of African American males, 42 percent of Native American males, and 33 percent of Asian American males ages 15 to 24 will end up unemployed, incarcerated or dead. It has become an epidemic, and one that we must solve by resolving the educational crisis facing young men of color.”55
What about those middle- and upper-middle-class white—or young men of color from comfortable backgrounds? Clearly, they are not in the same predicament as boys living near or below the poverty line. But even these males are performing well below their female counterparts. Consider, for example, the female advantage when it comes to honor societies, enrollment in AP classes, and earning A’s.56 Judith Kleinfeld, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, analyzed the reading skills of white males from college-educated families. Using Department of Education data, she showed that at the end of high school, 23 percent of the white sons of college-educated parents scored “below basic.” For girls from the same background, the figure was 7 percent. “This means,” Ms. Kleinfeld writes, “that one in four boys who have college-educated parents cannot read a newspaper with understanding.”57
Gender is a constant. Kleinfeld found that 34 percent of Hispanic males with college-educated parents scored “below basic,” compared to 19 percent of Hispanic females. Isn’t it possible—or even likely—that if we found ways to inspire poor black boys to read, those methods might work for Hispanic boys or poor white boys—or even white middle-class boys?
What Motivates the Women’s Lobby?
It is not hard to understand why women’s groups have invested so much effort in thwarting the cause of boys. When they look at society as a whole, they see males winning all the prizes. Men still prevail in the highest echelons of power. Look at the number of male CEOs, full professors, political leaders. Or consider the wage gap. As the AAUW says, “the most compelling evidence against the existence of a boys’ crisis is that men continue to outearn women in the workplace.”58 Why worry about boys doing better in school when they appear to be doing so much better in life?
This is an understandable but seriously mistaken reaction. First of all, most men are not at the pinnacle of power. The “spread” phenomenon we see in testing shows up in life. There are far more men than women at the extremes of success and failure. And failure is more common. There may be 480 male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (20 women), 438 male members of Congress (101 women), and 126,515 full professors (45,571 women). But consider the other side of the ledger. More than one million Americans are classified by the Department of Labor as “discouraged workers.” These are workers who have stopped looking for jobs because they feel they have no prospects or lack the requisite skills and education. Nearly 60 percent are men—636,000 men and 433,000 women. Consider also that that more than 1.5 million (1,500,278) men are in prison. For women the figure is 113,462.59
Finally, a word about the infamous “wage gap,” which represents one of the most long-standing statistical fallacies in American policy debate. The 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. When mainstream economists consider the wage gap, they find that pay disparities are almost entirely the result of women’s different life preferences—what men and women choose to study in school, where they work, and how they balance their home and career. A thorough 2009 study by the US Department of Labor examined more than fifty peer-reviewed papers on the subject and concluded that the wage gap “may be almost entirely the result of individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”60 In addition to differences in education and training, the review found that women are more likely than men to leave the workforce to take care of children or older parents. There were so many differences in pay-related choices that the researchers were unable to specify even a residual effect that might be the result of discrimination.
Wage-gap activists at the AAUW and the National Women’s Law Center say no—even when we control for relevant variables, women still earn less. But it always turns out that they have omitted one or two crucial variables. Consider the case of pharmacists. Almost half of all pharmacists are female, yet as a group, they earn only 85 percent of what their male counterparts earn. Why should that be? After all, male and female pharmacists are doing the same job with roughly identical educations. There must be some hidden discrimination at play. But according to the 2009 National Pharmacies Workforce Survey, male pharmacists work on average 2.4 hours more per week, have more job experience, and more of them own their own stores.61 A 2012 New York Times article tells a similar story about women in medicine: “Female doctors are more likely to be pediatricians than higher-paid cardiologists. They are more likely to work part time. And even those working full time put in seven percent fewer hours a week than men. They are also much more likely to take extended leaves, most often to give birth and start a family.”62 There are exceptions, but most workplace pay gaps and glass ceilings vanish when one accounts for these factors. And as economists frequently remind us, if it were really true that an employer could get away with paying Jill less than Jack for the same work, clever entrepreneurs would fire all their male employees, replace them with females, and enjoy a huge market advantage.
Women’s groups do occasionally acknowledge that the pay gap is largely explained by women’s life choices, as the AAUW does in its 2007 Behind the Pay Gap.63 But this admission is qualified: they insist that women’s choices are not truly free. Women who decide, say, to stay home with children, to become pediatricians rather than cardiologists, or to attend the Fashion Industry High School rather than Aviation High are driven by sexist stereotypes. Says the AAUW, “Women’s personal choices are . . . fraught with inequities.”64 It speaks of women being “pigeonholed” into “pink-collar” jobs in health and education. According to the National Organization for Women, powerful sexist stereotypes “steer” women and men “toward different education, training, career paths,” and family roles.65 But is it really sexist stereotypes and social conditioning that best explain women’s vocational preferences and their special attachment to children? Aren’t most American women free and self-determining human beings? The women’s groups need to show—not dogmatically assert—that women’s choices are not free. And they need to explain why, by contrast, the life choices they promote are the authentic ones—what women truly want, and what will make them happier and more fulfilled. Of course, these are weighty philosophical questions unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. But surely, one thing should be clear: ignoring boys’ educational deficits is not the solution to the wage and power gap. And whatever women’s problems may be, they should not blind us to the growing plight of marginally educated men.
In 2006, the Portland Press Herald ran an alarming series of reports about the educational deficits of boys in Maine.66 Among its findings: “High school girls outnumber boys by almost a 2:1 ratio in top-10 senior rankings,” and “Men earn about 38 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded by Maine’s public universities.” According to the report, boys both rich and poor had fallen seriously behind their sisters. But the director of Women’s Studies at the University of Southern Maine, Susan Feiner, expressed frustration over the sudden concern for boys. “It is kind of ironic that a couple of years into a disparity between male and female attendance in college it becomes ’Oh my God, we really need to look at this. The world is going to end.”67
I can sympathize with the professor’s complaint. Where was the indignation when men dominated higher education, decade after decade? Maybe it is time for women and girls to enjoy the advantage. That is an understandable but misguided reaction. It was wrong to ignore women’s educational needs for so long and cause for celebration when we turned our attentions to meeting those needs. But turning the tables and neglecting boys is not the answer. Why not be fair to both?
In feminist Betty Friedan’s celebrated 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, she said that American women suffered from severe domestic ennui—“the problem that had no name.” Today the problem Friedan described hardly exists. For most American women, especially young women, the problem is not the futility and monotony of domestic life; it is choosing among the many paths open to them. Finding male partners as ambitious and well educated as they are is another challenge. Life for women may be difficult, but the system is no longer rigged against them. The new problem with no name is the economic and social free fall of millions of young men.
Thomas Mortenson, a policy analyst at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, began to notice negative trends for young men twenty years ago. He was certain that journalists, educators, and political leaders would pick it up and run with it. When that did not happen, he wrote about it himself in a 1995 fact sheet entitled “What’s Wrong with Guys?”68 He noted that the women surpassed men in the rates at which they graduated from college in 1991, acknowledging that the gender gap was “widening.” He asked, “When the labor market offers such rich rewards for the college educated—both men and women—why have only women responded?” Mortenson foresaw the profound negative effects of male underachievement on the American economy and the family. He also noted the high psychological toll it would exact from men themselves. As he told an education reporter, “Most men define themselves by their work and must be productively engaged.”69
Unfortunately, Mortenson sounded the alarm during a period when the media, the education establishment, and the government were focused on the AAUW-engineered girl crisis. Congress had just passed the Gender Equity in Education Act, the Department of Health and Human Services had launched Girl Power!,70 and Reviving Ophelia was on the bestseller lists.71 No one was paying attention to boys, and the problem that has no name went unnoticed. Mortenson, a mild-mannered, just-the-facts-ma’am Joe Friday from Iowa, was no match for the girl advocates and their buzz machine.
The Economic Fallout
In February 2011 a small miracle happened. The Harvard Graduate School of Education, once the epicenter of the silenced- and shortchanged-girl movement, published a major study that acknowledged the plight of males. It recognized the real problem that has no name. The study, Pathways to Prosperity, points out that a high school diploma was once the passport to the American dream; in 1973, 72 percent of the American workforce had earned only a high school diploma—or less. Nearly two-thirds of them made it into the middle class. “In an economy in which manufacturing was still dominant, it was possible for those with less education but a strong work ethic to earn a middle-class wage.”72 Not any longer. As the report makes clear, since the 1970s, “all of the net job growth in America has been generated by positions that require at least some post-secondary education.”73 The new passport to the American Dream is “education beyond high school.” And today, far more women than men have that passport. As Pathways to Prosperity reports:
Our system . . . clearly does not work well for many, especially young men. In recent years, a yawning gender gap has opened up in American higher education. Men now account for just 43 percent of enrollment in our nation’s colleges, and earn only 43 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Not surprisingly, women also account for 60 percent of the nation’s graduate students.
This dramatic chart accompanied the report:
Figure 5: The Growing Gender Gap in Our Nation’s Colleges: What Are the Implications?
Women now account for 57% of college students
Women earn 57% of college degrees Men earn just 43% of college degrees
Women now account for 60% of graduate students
Source: Pathways to Prosperity, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2011.
A few months later, in the summer of 2011, the Brookings Institution published a study that reinforced the message of the Harvard study. Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at MIT and senior fellow at Brookings, along with Adam Looney, another Brookings senior fellow, released a report on the fate of marginally educated men in today’s workplace. It confirmed Mortenson’s predictions—and more. To give one dramatic example, for men ages twenty-five to sixty-four with no high school diploma, median annual earnings have declined 66 percent since 1969. Say the authors, “Men with just a high school diploma did only marginally better. Their wages declined by 47 percent” (Figure 6). Not only have men with minimal educational credentials suffered severe setbacks in wages—a large number have vanished from the full-time workforce.
Figure 6: Change in Male Earnings, 1969—2009
Source: “Trends: Reduced Earnings for Men in America,” The Milken Institute Review.
Why have men suffered this decline? As jobs in manufacturing, construction, farming, and mining have disappeared and the United States has moved toward a knowledge-based economy, men have failed to adapt. At the same time, the education establishment, as well as the federal government, looked the other way. Male workers with only a high school degree, say Greenstone and Looney, have been “unhitched from the engine of growth.”74 According to these two economists, “Male college completion rates peaked in 1977 . . . and then barely changed over the next 30 years. This slowdown in educational attainment for men is puzzling because attainment among women has continued to rise, and higher education is richly rewarded in the labor market.”75
These rewards are already in evidence. In major cities across the United States, single women ages twenty-two to thirty with no children now earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts (Figure 7). According to the latest Census Data, since 2007, the number of young men (ages twenty-five to thirty-four) living with their parents shot up from 14.2 percent to 18.6 percent. For young women the rates have remained steady—around 10 percent (Figure 8). The Population Reference Bureau notes, “The share of young men living at home has reached its highest level since the Census Bureau first started tracking the measure in 1960.”76
Figure 7: Top Towns for Women
Percentage in which median full-time wages for single, childless women ages 22—30 exceeds those of single, childless men in the same age group.
New York City—Northeastern NJ
Charlotte—Gastonia—Rock Hill, NC/SC
Source: Reach Advisory, New York, New York.
Figure 8: Share of Men and Women Ages 25—34 Living with Their Parents, 2000—2011
Source: US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey. Graph from Population Reference Bureau, September 2011.
At the conclusion of their report, the Brookings authors offer suggestions on “the long road back.” One of their top recommendations: more career academies for high school students that blend academic instruction with workplace experience. In other words, more schools like Aviation High School. Given the current climate, how likely is it that will happen?
The Women’s Lobby Again
In June 2012, the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (NCWGE) published a new, 66-page report on the plight of girls in education, Title IX at 40: Working to Ensure Gender Equity in Education.77 While acknowledging that women have made progress, and mentioning that men may face bias in nursing and child care programs, they once again present girls as the shortchanged gender. “Girls and women,” they say, “are discouraged from pursuing traditionally male training programs.”78 Aviation High is not singled out by name, as it was at the White House equity seminar in 2010, but it is clearly in their sights. The report calls for aggressive Title IX compliance reviews and demands that Congress “hold states and municipalities accountable for increasing women’s completion of career and technical education programs.”79 As we shall see in chapter 7, the effort to harass and subjugate one of the few styles of education that is working for boys is already bearing bitter fruit in law and regulation. The buzz machine never stops.
Soon after the AAUW published its 2008 report dismissing the boys’ crisis, Linda Hallman boasted in her monthly newsletter about how its release was publicized by the major news organizations—NPR, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. She said, “[The] AAUW’s ability to capture media attention demonstrates the power and credibility of our message.”80 Not so. Capturing media attention and being credible are distinct phenomena. What it demonstrates is these women’s groups’ preternatural ability to lobby, to network, and to spin.
Within living memory, the American feminist movement has been a valiant, broad-based vehicle for social equality. It achieved historic victories and enjoys continuing, well-deserved prestige for its contributions to social equality. But it has now harnessed that prestige to the ethos and methods of a conventional interest group. For leaders like Linda Hallman and Marcia Greenberger, men and women are two opposing camps engaged in a zero-sum struggle. Their job is to make sure women win. Few women, including feminist women, share their worldview. The AAUW and the National Women’s Law Center represent a tiny ideological constituency. But, at the moment, the education establishment, the White House, and many in the media treat them as the authoritative voice of American women.
Male underachievement is more than an American problem. While men still outnumber women in higher education in China, Japan, and India, there is a growing college gap favoring women in countries as diverse as France, Brazil, Albania, Malaysia, and Australia. And the international dimension gives the problem special urgency, as education writer Richard Whitmire and literacy expert William Brozo remind us: “The global economic race we read so much about—the marathon to produce the most educated workforce and therefore the most prosperous nation—really comes down to a calculation: Whichever nation solves these ’boy troubles’ wins the race.”81
That is surely an overstatement, but we do know that the entry of large numbers of women into the workforce in recent decades has paid large economic dividends. There is no principle that says gender parity in education guarantees national economic success, but finding ways to get boys and men more engaged in school will certainly yield social and economic benefits that go beyond the welfare of the men themselves.
As we shall see, for countries such as Australia, England, and Canada, closing the boy gap has become a national priority. But the United States has an extra handicap. We are coping not only with millions of poorly educated boys and young men, but with a tenacious women’s lobby that thwarts all efforts to help them. And today, that lobby appears to be setting the agenda for the US government.
In June 2012, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights published a report entitled Gender Equity in Education.82 This new equity study might have been an occasion for federal officials to finally acknowledge the boy gap and alert the public to its social and economic hazards. After the department’s 2000 Trends in Educational Equity study and alarming reports on male academic disaffection by the California Post-Secondary Education Commission, the Massachusetts Rennie Center, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Brookings Institution, it would seem impossible for federal officials to ignore boys any longer. But Gender Equity in Education reads as if it were crafted by spin-mistresses at the AAUW and the National Women’s Law Center. The reading, writing, and school engagement chasms favoring young women are never mentioned; the college gap is noted without comment. In contrast, the few areas where girls are behind boys are highlighted as examples of inequitable “disparities” and described as “underrepresentation.”
The report’s treatment of the gender gap in the elite Advanced Placement (AP) program is typical of the entire study. In 1985, boys and girls took AP courses at nearly the same rate. Around 1990, the girls moved ahead of boys and never looked back. By 2012, AP enrollment was 56 percent female. How do you turn that into bad news for girls? The authors of Gender Equity in Education found a way. They mention without elaboration that “girls outnumber boys in enrollment in AP science, AP foreign languages, and several other AP subjects”—and then they get down to business. Bullet point: “In AP mathematics, however, boys have consistently outnumbered girls by up to 10,000.” A longitudinal graph emphasizes the point. But there are no bullet points or graphs showing that girls have consistently outnumbered boys by up to 32,000 in biology, 56,000 in history, and 206,000 in English.83 Why don’t the lower male numbers count as disparity and underrepresentation? Because they do not fit the shortchanged-girl narrative promoted by the women’s lobby. Unfortunately for boys, that narrative has been adopted by the federal government and other influential quarters of the American education establishment.
A Smoking Gun on How Our Schools Fail Boys
What, finally, explains boys’ plight in education? Why should they be so far behind girls in honors courses and college attendance? Boys score slightly better than girls on national math and science tests—yet their grades in those subjects are lower. They perform worse than girls on literacy tests—but their classroom grades are even lower than these test scores predict. How does that happen? Don’t expect answers from the Department of Education.
In February 2013, three economists from the University of Georgia (UGA) and Columbia University may have inadvertently solved the mystery behind the boy gap. In “Non-cognitive Skills and the Gender Disparities in Test Scores and Teacher Assessments: Evidence from Primary School” (published in the Journal of Human Resources), they confirmed that boys across racial lines and in all major subject areas earn lower grades in elementary school than their test scores predict.84 But then these economists did something no education official had thought to do: they looked for an explanation. And they appear to have found it. Teachers as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades—and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better and are more amenable to classroom routines than boys. As the authors say, “We trace the misalignment of grades and test scores to differences between boys and girls in their non-cognitive development.” Non-cognitive skills include self-control, attentiveness, organization, and the ability to sit still for long periods of time. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys do. It is not unheard of for some males never to develop them at all.
The economists looked at data from 5,800 children in kindergarten through fifth grade. They examined students’ performance on standardized tests in reading, math, and science. They then compared the test scores to the teachers’ evaluations of student progress, both academically and socially. At all stages studied, teachers’ assessments strongly favored the girls. Girls reap large academic benefits from good behavior and accommodation to the school environment. So do some boys, by the way. The researchers found that boys who possess social skills more commonly found in girls—those who are well-organized, well-behaved, and can sit still—are graded as well or better than girls. But such boys are rare. According to the authors “the seeds of a gender gap in educational attainment may be sown at an early age.”
Figure 9: Male-Female Gender Gaps on Kindergarten Test Scores and Grades
Source: “Non-cognitive Skills and the Gender Disparities in Test Scores and Teacher Assessments: Evidence from Primary School,” Tables 4A, B and C (for Whites). All gender gaps are significant at the 5% level or higher.
Graph by Mark Perry (University of Michigan and American Enterprise Institute). Data from Department of Education, ECLS-K (Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten, 1998—1999 cohort).
Some will say: too bad for the boys. If young boys are inattentive, obstreperous, and upsetting to their teachers, that’s their problem. After all, the ability to regulate one’s impulses, delay gratification, sit still, and pay close attention to the teacher are building blocks of success in school and later life. As one critic told me, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers.
But unfocused workers are adults. We are talking here about children as young as five and six. If little boys are restive and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them improve? When we realized that girls, as a group, were languishing behind boys in math and science, we mounted a concerted national effort to give female students more support and encouragement, an effort that has met with significant success. Surely we should try to provide similar help to boys. Much is at stake.
Grades, more than ever before, are crucially important to a child’s future. According to the lead author, UGA’s Christopher Cornwell, “The trajectory at which kids move through school is often influenced by a teacher’s assessment of their performance, their grades.”85 Grades determine a student’s entry into enrichment programs and AP classes, as well as whether or not a student receives honors. Most of all, they open and close doors to higher education. So, says Cornwell, “If grade disparities emerge this early on, it’s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned.”
Boys, on average, lack the social maturity of girls—and for that, many are paying a high price that continues after they have become more purposive young adults. What is the answer? More boy-friendly curricula? More male teachers? More single-sex classrooms? Special preschool classes to improve boys’ social skills? Extra recess where boys are allowed to engage in their characteristic rough-and-tumble play? More boy-engaging schools like Aviation High? As we will see in chapters to come, these are all promising solutions—and all are strenuously opposed by the women’s lobby.
Teachers know their male students are struggling, and most would welcome new ideas on how to help them. But they get little help or support from official circles. The 2012 Gender Equity in Education report is striking proof that boys are nowhere on the agenda.
The sad truth is that the educational deficits of boys may be one of the least-studied phenomena in American education. If Professor Cornwell and his colleagues are right, our educational system may be punishing boys for the circumstance of being boys. And it is a punishment that can last a lifetime.