Why Johnny Can’t, Like, Read and Write

The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men - Christina Hoff Sommers 2015

Why Johnny Can’t, Like, Read and Write

There is a much-told story in education circles about a now-retired Chicago public school teacher, Mrs. Daugherty. She was a dedicated sixth-grade teacher who could always be counted on to bring out the best in her students. But one year she found her class nearly impossible to control. The students were noisy, unmanageable, and seemingly unteachable. She began to worry that many of them had learning disabilities. When the principal was out of town, she did something teachers were not supposed to: she went to his office and looked in a special file where students’ IQ scores were recorded. To her amazement, she discovered that a majority of the students were significantly above average in intelligence. A quarter of the class had IQs in the high 120s (124, 127, 129), several in the 130s, and one of the worst classroom culprits was in fact brilliant: he had an IQ of 145.

Mrs. Daugherty was angry at herself for having felt sorry for them and for expecting so little from them. Things soon changed. She increased the difficulty of the work, doubled the homework, and ran the class with uncompromising discipline. Slowly but perceptibly, the students’ performance improved. By the end of the year, this class of former ne’er-do-wells was among the best behaved and highest performing of the sixth-grade classes.

The principal was delighted. He was well aware of this infamous sixth-grade class and its less-than-stellar reputation, so at the end of the year he called Mrs. Daugherty into his office to ask what she had done. She felt compelled to tell him the truth. The principal listened attentively and immediately forgave her. He congratulated her. But then he said, “I think you should know, Mrs. Daugherty, those numbers next to the children’s names—those are not their IQ scores. Those are their locker numbers.”1

The moral of the story: Strict standards are good. Demanding and expecting excellence can only benefit the student. These were once truisms of education. Even today, setting and enforcing high standards for students is uncontroversial, at least as a general principle. Who would question the need for challenging work, high expectations, and strict discipline? The sad answer is that a lot of education experts are skeptical about what they see as old-fashioned pedagogy, and their theories have the effect of relaxing standards and expectations. Rousseauian romanticism, in the form of progressive education, remains a powerful force in American schools. The departure from structure, competition, discipline, and skill-and-fact-based learning has been harmful to all children—but it appears to have exacted an especially high toll on boys.

Knowledge Acquisition versus Jazz Improvisation

Progressive pedagogues pride themselves on fostering creativity and enhancing children’s self-esteem. Strict discipline and the old-fashioned “dry-knowledge” approach are said to accomplish the opposite: to inhibit creativity and leave many students with feelings of inadequacy. Progressives frown on teacher-led classrooms with fact-based learning, memorization, phonics, and drills. Trainees in the schools of education are enjoined to “Teach the student, not the subject!” and are inspired by precepts like “[Good teaching] is not vase-filling; rather it is fire-lighting.”2

In this “child-centered” model, the teacher is supposed to remain in the background so that students have the chance to develop as “independent learners.” Drill and rote have no place in a style of education focused on freeing “the creative potential of the child.” One prominent champion of progressivism, Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve and Punished by Rewards, suggests the modern cooperative classroom should resemble a musical jam session: “Cooperative learning not only offers instruments to everyone in the room, but invites jazz improvisation.”3

Child-centered, progressive education has been prevalent in American schools of education since the 1920s. According to University of Virginia education scholar E. D. Hirsch Jr., the “knowledge-based approach currently employed in the most advanced nations [has been] eschewed in our own schools for more than half a century.”4 With the exception of a brief period in the late 1950s and early 1960s (when the Soviet Union’s success with Sputnik generated fears that an inadequate math and science curriculum was a threat to national security), the fashion in education has been to downplay basic skills, knowledge acquisition, competitive grading, and discipline. This fashion has opened a worrisome education gap that finds American students falling behind their counterparts in other countries.5

In recent years, a growing number of British and Australian educators became convinced that progressive methods in education are a prime reason that their male students are so far behind the girls. There is now a concerted movement in both countries to improve boys’ educational prospects by going back to a traditional pedagogy. Many British educational leaders believe that the modern classroom fails boys by being too unstructured and permissive and hostile to the spirit of competition that so often provides boys with the incentive to learn and excel.

Why the special focus on boys in Britain and Australia? Leaders in both countries view widespread male underachievement as a threat to their national futures. The workplace has changed radically in the past few decades. Today, solid math and reading skills are prerequisites for success. Boys who lack them will face a bleak future, and nations with too many languishing males risk losing their economic edge. As Gavin Barwell, British MP, explained in a 2012 report on male literacy: “Literacy is a significant issue for us all . . . due to the demands of an increasingly complex workplace. We need to act to ensure all our children fulfill their potential and contribute to making the UK economy globally competitive.”6 Closing the boy achievement gap has been at the forefront of Britain’s and Australia’s national agendas for more than a decade.

By contrast, the looming prospect of an underclass of badly educated, barely literate American boys has yet to become a cause for open concern among American educators or political leaders. In a 1995 article in Science, University of Chicago education researchers Larry Hedges and Amy Nowell discussed the bleak employment outlook for the “generally larger number of males who perform near the bottom . . . in reading and writing.”7 That employment outlook is even bleaker today. In March 2010 the Center on Education Policy, an independent research center that advocates for public education, released a comprehensive, state-by-state analysis:

Consistent with other recent research, our analysis of state test results by gender suggests that the most pressing issue related to gender gaps is the lagging performance of boys in reading. . . . Researchers and state officials might investigate ways in which the school environment may be changed to better address the needs of boys.8

So far, neither state nor federal officials seem inclined to take that suggestion. That must change. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Lester Thurow has pointed out, “Within the developed world, the under-educated and under-skilled are going to be left out, or perhaps more accurately, thrown out of the global game.”9 How do we turn things around? The first thing we should do is to follow the example of the British and the Australians. Their efforts can be summarized in a few words: Bring back teachers like Mrs. Daugherty.

British and Australian Initiatives

In the mid-1990s, British newspapers were full of stories about the distressing scholastic deficits of the nation’s schoolboys. The Times of London warned of the prospect of “an underclass of permanently unemployed, unskilled men.”10 “What’s Wrong with Boys?” asked the Glasgow Herald.11 The Economist referred to boys as “tomorrow’s second sex.”12 In Britain, the public, the government, and the education establishment are well aware of the increasing numbers of underachieving young males and they started looking for ways to help them. They had a name for them—the “sink group”—and they called what ails them “laddism.”

A council of British headmasters and headmistresses organized a clearinghouse for information on effective classroom practices and programs for boys. Can Boys Do Better? is its 1997 summary of what works best for boys.13 Here is a partial list of the approaches that these practitioners deemed effective for boys:

• More teacher-led work

• A structured environment

• High expectations

• Strict homework checks

• Consistently applied sanctions if work is not done

• Greater emphasis on silent work

• Frequent testing

• Single-sex classes

The British headmasters called for “silent” (solitary) reflection and study and warned against collaborative learning. The headmasters advised schools to avoid fanciful, “creative” assignments, noting, “Boys do not always see the intrinsic worth of ’Imagine you’re a sock in a dustbin.’ They want relevant work.”14 Nor are the British headmasters focused on students’ self-esteem. They know that boys do better than girls on self-esteem questionnaires—but that gender gap does not strike them as evidence that the girls are being shortchanged. As Peter Downes, a former Scottish headteacher, dryly notes: “Boys swagger . . . while girls win the prizes.”15 He urges teachers to be brutally honest with boys about what life has in store for them if they continue to underperform academically.

Coed public schools throughout Great Britain also began experimenting with all-male classes. In 1996, Ray Bradbury, the headteacher of Kings’ School in Winchester, was alarmed by the high failure rate of his male students. Seventy-eight percent of the girls were getting passing grades or better, compared with 56 percent of the boys. Bradbury identified the thirty or so boys he thought to be at risk for failure and placed them together in a class. He chose an athletic young male teacher he thought the boys would like. The class was not “child-centered”; the pedagogy was strict and old-fashioned. As Bradbury explained, “We consciously planned the teaching methodology. The class is didactic and teacher-fronted. It involves sharp questions and answers and constantly checking for understanding. Discipline is clear-cut—if homework isn’t presented, it is completed in a detention. There is no discussion.”16

Here is how one visiting journalist describes a typical class: “Ranks of boys in blazers face the front, giving full attention to the young teacher’s instructions. His style is uncompromising and inspirational. ’People think that boys like you won’t be able to understand writers such as the Romantic poets. Well, you’re going to prove them wrong. Do you understand?’ ”17

The teacher found that the boys in his single-sex class actively supported one another with genuine team spirit. “When girls are present, boys are loath to express opinions for fear of appearing sissy.” He chose challenging but male-appropriate readings: “Members of my group are football mad and quite ’laddish.’ In the mixed classes they would be turned off by Jane Eyre, whereas I can pick texts such as Silas Marner and the War Poets.” The initial results were promising. In 1996, the boys were far behind the girls. By 1997, after only a year in the special class, the boys had nearly closed the gap. As one of the boys said, “We are all working hard to show we can be just as successful as the other groups.”18

The authors of Can Boys Do Better? were careful not to claim too much. “It should be stressed that many of these strategies [to help boys do better] have only recently been implemented, and it is too early in many cases to fully evaluate their effectiveness.”19 However, a follow-up study by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 1999 (Boys’ Achievement, Progress, Motivation and Participation) supported the headmasters’ key propositions: “The following items all emerge as being important: highly structured lessons, more emphasis on teacher-led work, clear and firm deadlines, and short-term targets.”20 The same report noted that all-male classes and all-male schools may be “singularly well-placed to raise achievement among boys, as they could tailor their strategies directly to the needs of boys.”21

The British are now well into a second generation of research and activism on the boy gap. They have not solved the problem of male underachievement, but they are closing in on solutions. Addressing boys’ literacy is now at the top of the list—even for high government officials. In 2012, the Boys’ Reading Commission issued a major, evidence-based report on how to engage more boys with the written word. The commission included ten members of Parliament, suggesting how seriously the British take the problem to be. Among its recommendations:

• Every teacher should have an up-to-date knowledge of reading materials that will appeal to disengaged boys;

• Every boy should have weekly support from a male reading role model;

• Parents need access to information on how successful schools are in supporting boys’ literacy.22

To those who say that the main factor in literacy is social class, not gender, the report stated outright that “within like-for-like social class groupings, a gender gap of 10 percentage points is sustained.”23 And the report readily acknowledges sex differences: “It is clear from research, and to most people observing children, that there are cognitive differences between girls and boys.”24

The British learned long ago that phonics (teaching beginning readers to learn the relationship between symbols and sounds) works better for boys than the “whole language” approach (where children learn to read “naturally” by seeing words in context). The report cites a now-famous 2005 seven-year study in the Scottish town of Clackmannanshire, which found that “after receiving an early grounding in synthetic phonics, boys significantly surpassed girls in word reading, and stayed ahead through the end of primary school. The same was true for the children’s progress in spelling.”25 But phonics is only the first step. Further research revealed that though the phonics program taught boys the mechanics of reading, it did not improve their comprehension. For that, they need to be motivated to care about what they are reading. So the report stresses the importance of showing boys that reading is pleasurable.26

A color-coded chart in the commission report indicates children’s reading preferences: girls prefer fiction, magazines, blogs, and poetry; boys like comics, nonfiction, and newspapers. “Boys were significantly more likely than girls to read science-fiction/fantasy, sports-related and war/spy books.”27 Such findings will be unsurprising to many, but the report notes that in a survey of 1,200 primary school teachers in the United Kingdom, only one teacher could name a significant writer for boys.28 That was the reason for the commission’s arresting recommendation that teachers should actually have knowledge of reading materials of interest to boys.29

In 2002, the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training published Boys: Getting It Right: Report on the Inquiry into the Education of Boys. The report notes that earlier government inquiries on gender equity focused only on the needs of girls. That has to change, says the committee. What is more, the committee dismissed prior reports that called for transforming boys’ masculinity. Like the British headmasters, the Australian committee members specifically rejected “the progressiveness of the 1970s” in favor of old-fashioned pedagogy.30 Among the committee’s recommendations:

• More structured activity;

• Greater emphasis on teacher-directed work;

• Clearly defined objectives and instructions;

• A return to the traditional phonics-based teaching of reading;

• More male role models.31

Australia has since launched an aggressive campaign on behalf of boys’ education. In 2006, for example, it initiated Success for Boys. This program provided grants to 1,600 schools to incorporate boy-friendly methods into their daily practice.32 In both England and Australia there are now websites and clearinghouses where teachers can find out what is working for boys. The British and Australians have not yet found a complete solution to the boy gap, but they are more than a decade ahead of us in the effort.

Back in the USA

American boys have a lot in common with their counterparts in England and Australia. In all three countries, boys are on the wrong side of an education gender gap. But there is one major difference: it is inconceivable that reports on the US boy gap would emanate from the US Congress. A Success for Boys campaign would create havoc in the United States. The women’s lobby would rise in fury. The ACLU would find someone to sue. Legislators would face an avalanche of angry faxes, emails, petitions, and phone calls for taking part in a “backlash” against girls.

And imagine the uproar if the US Department of Education were to compile a list of boy-friendly reading materials, or even suggest that teachers might familiarize themselves with such things. That would be an affront to decades of “nonsexist” curriculum development. Mark Bauerlein, former director of research at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Sandra Stotsky, professor of education at the University of Arkansas, summed up “Why Johnny Won’t Read” in a 2005 Washington Post op-ed:

Unfortunately, the textbooks and literature assigned in the elementary grades do not reflect the dispositions of male students. Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters. Gone are the inspiring biographies of the most important American presidents, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs. No military valor, no high adventure. On the other hand, stories about adventurous and brave women abound. Publishers seem to be more interested in avoiding “masculine” perspectives or “stereotypes” than in getting boys to like what they are assigned to read.33

American legislators who followed the back-to-basics leadership of their British and Australian counterparts would enrage not only our women’s lobby but our education establishment as well. According to a 2007 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (an education think tank), all the best evidence shows that students need focused instruction in phonics, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But an overwhelming number of schools of education—85 percent!—refuse to instruct future teachers in these methods.34 Collaborative writing groups, creative self-expression, and “journaling”—soporifics for many boys—still take precedence.

The debate between traditionalists and progressives over how to teach language skills is an old one. Particularly frustrating, however, is that this debate has proceeded for decades in the United States without anyone taking serious notice of the fact that American boys are significantly less literate than girls. In an annual survey of college freshmen conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, students are asked how many hours per week they spent reading for pleasure during the preceding year. The 2010 results were consistent with other years: 36 percent of males answered “none.” Among females, the figure was 22 percent.35 Surely this pattern is worth attention; surely the question of “best practices” in teaching reading and writing should consider what works best for boys.

The federal government, state departments of education, and women’s groups have spent many millions of dollars addressing a surreal self-esteem problem that allegedly afflicts girls more than boys. But in the matter of basic literacy, where we have a real and alarming difference between boys and girls, initiatives to close the gap are nowhere to be found. In education circles, it is acceptable to say that boys are psychologically distressed and in need of rescue from their emergent masculinity, but it is not acceptable to say that our schools are failing to teach boys how to read and write. The women’s lobby is one thing, but it is dismaying that those professionally responsible for the education of our children should be so heedless of the needs of boys.

The Wider Background

A frieze on the façade of Horace Mann Hall of Columbia Teachers College celebrates nine great education pioneers. Among them are Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746—1827), Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776—1841), and Friedrich Froebel (1782—1852). Few Americans know much about the profound influence that these eighteenth-century German and Swiss theorists have had on American education. Froebel, for example, is credited with inventing the concept of a kindergarten. The German word kindergarten literally means a garden whose plants are children. Froebel regarded children as fragile young plants and the ideal teacher as a gentle gardener:

To young plants and animals we give space, and time, and rest, knowing that they will unfold to beauty by laws working in each. We avoid acting upon them by force, for we know that such intrusion upon their natural growth could injure their development. . . . Education and instruction should from the very first be passive, observant, protective, rather than prescribing, determining, interfering. . . . All training and instruction which prescribes and fixes, that is interferes with Nature, must tend to limit and injure.36

Froebel wrote these words almost two hundred years ago, but his plant child metaphor continues to inspire American educators. In the most straightforward sense, the plant metaphor is profoundly antieducational; after all, you can’t teach a plant—all you can do is help it develop. Progressive educators oppose “interference” with the child’s nature and look for ways to release its creative forces. Teachers are urged to build on the “natural curiosity children bring to school and ask the kids what they want to learn.”37 All this is antithetical to classical education and, if the British and Australian reformers are right, antithetical to the needs of many boys. Consider the contents of a leading American teacher-training book.

Best Practice: Today’s Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools is a 2005 summary of the “state-of-the art of the teaching methods.”38 Its authors, three university curriculum experts, base their recommendations on what “good teachers do.” Their list of “Best Practices” reflects what they say is the “unanimous” opinion of leading education experts and teaching associations.39 Many of them are the opposite of what the British headmasters recommend for boys:

• “LESS rote memorization of facts and details.”

• “LESS emphasis on competition and grades in school.”

• “MORE cooperative, collaborative activity; developing the classroom as an interdependent community.”

• “LESS whole-class, teacher-directed instruction.”40

According to Best Practice, these recommendations are the expression of an “unrecognized consensus” stemming from a “remarkably consistent, harmonious vision of ’best educational practice.’ ”41 That vision may work for many students, but as the British and Australians have found, it is clearly not working for millions of disengaged boys. Referring to such boys, New York Times writer David Brooks says:

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.42

The British are heeding Brooks’s counsel. Along with the Australians, they are developing a new academic discipline: male-specific pedagogy. There is no such broad-based effort in the United States. Although there are signs of hope at some vocational and technical schools such as Aviation High School (recounted in chapter 1), these efforts are now themselves at risk.

Our Tinkerers, Ourselves

Sumitra Rajagopalan, an adjunct professor of biomechanics at McGill University, has developed a program for teenage boys in Montreal, where one in three male students drops out of high school. Rajagopalan explains that the male students she met were bored by their classroom instruction and starved for hands-on activities. She was shocked to find that many had never held a hammer or screwdriver before. At first they fumbled around, but they quickly gained competence. Under Rajagopalan’s supervision, the boys have now built a solar-driven Sterling engine from Coca-Cola cans and straws. “[B]oys are born tinkerers,” she said. “They have a deep-seated need to rip things apart, decode their inner workings, create stuff.”43

There are millions of languishing young men in the United States just like the ones Rajagopalan is trying to help. In their 2011 Pathways to Prosperity report, Harvard education researchers note the dismal prospects of underachieving young men and suggest that a revival of vocational education in secondary schools may be a partial solution to their problem.44 They cite several such programs and suggest we use them as a model for education reform. The Massachusetts system is singled out for special mention.

Massachusetts has a network of twenty-six academically rigorous vocational-technical high schools serving 27,000 male and female students. Students in magnet schools such as Worcester Technical, Madison Park Technical Vocational, and Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical take traditional academic courses but spend half their time apprenticing in a field of their choice. These include computer repair, telecommunications networking, carpentry, early childhood education, plumbing, heating, refrigeration, and cosmetology. In former times, vocational high schools were often dumping grounds for low achievers. Today, in Massachusetts, they are launching pads into the middle class. The Massachusetts program is so successful it has become known as the “Cadillac of Career Training Education (CTE).”45

Blackstone Valley Tech in Upton, Massachusetts, should be studied by anyone looking for solutions to the boy problem. It is working wonders with girls (who comprise 44 percent of the student body), but its success with boys is astonishing.46 According to a study of vocational education by the commonwealth’s Pioneer Institute, “[O]ne in four Valley Technical students enter their freshman year with a fourth-grade reading level.”47 The school immerses these students in an intense, individualized remediation program until they read proficiently at grade level. Like Aviation High, otherwise disaffected students put up with remediation as well as a full load of college preparatory courses (including honors and Advanced Placement classes), because otherwise they could not spend half the semester apprenticing in diesel mechanics, computer repair, or automotive engineering. One hallmark of the school is the novel way it combines academics with job training. As the Pioneer Institute report explains, “[P]roportions might be reinforced in auto shop with algebra problems asking students to figure the rate at which a car is burning oil or losing tire tread, and a machine shop instructor might ask students for daily written reflections of their work.”48

These Massachusetts technical high schools have long waiting lists (seven hundred students applied for three hundred places in the Blackstone Valley Class of 2015).49 The Pioneer Institute calls the Massachusetts technical school program “a true American success story.”50 And the success can be measured in concrete results. According to the Harvard Pathways report,

These [Massachusetts] schools boast a far lower dropout rate than the state average, and have some of the state’s highest graduation rates. Well over half of the graduates go on to postsecondary education. Perhaps most remarkably, in 2008, 96% of students at these high schools passed the state’s rigorous MCAS high-stakes graduation test, surpassing the average of students at more conventional comprehensive high schools.51

Not only do schools like Aviation High and Blackstone Valley Tech help their students secure a better life, they also address a looming national skills shortage. As the New York Times reported in 2010, “domestic manufacturers . . . are looking to hire people who can operate sophisticated computerized machinery, follow complex blueprints and demonstrate higher math proficiency than was previously required of the typical assembly line worker.”52 But they cannot find them. Countries like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have sophisticated programs to prepare their young people for today’s job market. The United States is lagging behind. “[W]hile we have been standing still, other nations have leapfrogged us,” say the Pathways authors.53

The Women’s Lobby Strikes Back

Despite their success and promise, vocational academies like Aviation High School and Blackstone Valley Tech face harsh opposition from the women’s lobby. In a 2007 report, the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (NCWGE) condemned high school vocational training schools as hotbeds of “sex segregation.”54 (The NCWGE is a consortium of more than fifty groups that lobby for girls’ rights in education; members include the AAUW, the National Women’s Law Center, the ACLU, NOW, the Ms. Foundation, and the National Education Association.) Girls and boys enroll in these programs in roughly the same numbers, but they tend to pursue different fields. According to one NCWGE report, “Girls are largely absent from traditional male courses, comprising only 4% of heating, A/C and refrigeration students, 5% of welding students, 6% of electrical and plumber/pipefitter students and 9% of automotive students.”55 At the same time, they account for 98 percent of students enrolled in cosmetology, 87 percent of child-care students, and 86 percent of health-related fields.56 Such enrollment patterns, they say, “reflect, at least in part, the persistence of sex stereotyping and sex discrimination.”57

But what if they reflect preferences? What if girls are not that interested in refrigeration or welding, compared to early childhood education or nursing? We can all agree that career and technical programs should do what they can to attract and engage female (and male) students in nontraditional occupations. Electricians can earn more than child-care workers. The girls should know this—indeed, they probably know it all too well. According to Alison Fraser, a curriculum specialist at Blackstone Valley Tech (and author of the Pioneer Institute study on Massachusetts programs), recruiting more girls into nontraditional fields (“nontrads” for short) is an overwhelming preoccupation at schools like hers. “It is all we think about,” Fraser told me. She describes Blackstone Valley Tech girls, pressured to sign up for auto body and machine shop programs, who then come to her in tears saying they just don’t want those careers. Says Fraser,

We do everything we can to promote nontraditional fields. We bring in successful women welders and electricians; we counsel the girls and their parents about the benefits of traditional male fields. We force them to explore fields outside their interests. But we cannot force them into a career they don’t want (Fraser’s emphasis).58

Why are vocational schools going to such lengths to persuade girls to become welders rather than nurses? Because state and federal equity officials require them to. Under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, first enacted in 1984, the US Department of Education disburses $1.1 billion annually through the states to secondary schools and colleges for vocational and technical training. The act requires schools to take aggressive measures to persuade young women to enter nontraditional fields. Career and technical schools live in fear that with too few “nontrads,” they will fall short of their “Perkins number”—an illusive, nonspecific, and ever-changing gender quota. As Fraser told me, it is not enough to get girls to explore new areas, we have to “get them to sign up, and get them to stay there.” And the requirements are about to become even tougher—moving toward precisely defined gender goals and quotas.

In April 2012, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent out a “Blueprint” for reforming the Perkins Act when it is reauthorized in 2013. “This is not a time to tinker with [Career and Technical Education],” said the secretary, “it is time to transform it.”59 One proposed transformation is equity for women and girls. “This commitment,” explains the Duncan Blueprint, “stems from the fact that the everyday educational experience of women . . . violate[s] the belief in equity at the heart of the American promise.”60 To fulfill the commitment, the Perkins Act will “ensure equity in access, participation and outcomes” by providing “wrap around supports” (my emphasis).61 Such vagueness will be more than enough for the girl-power lobby to set up shop at the heart of Perkins Act grant making and enforcement.

The National Women’s Law Center is already prepared to wrap around. It has developed state-by state litigation guides—Tools of the Trade: Using the Law to Address Sex Segregation in High School Career and Technical Education. The toolkit informs readers that the “data show a stark pattern of under-representation of girls in non-traditional CTE course in every region of the country.”62 To wit:

• In Massachusetts, “120 girls are enrolled in electrician courses, compared to 1,717 boys”; and “1,605 girls are enrolled in cosmetology courses, compared to 36 boys.”63

• In Maryland, “189 girls are enrolled in automotive courses, compared to 2,425 boys.”64

Interested parties are advised: “Contact the National Women’s Law Center if you want to take action to address the under-representation of female students in CTE in your school or state.”65 Note the use of under-representation as a synonym for discrimination. The new Perkins Act will further empower the women’s lobby to threaten schools like Aviation and Blackstone Valley with lawsuits.

Why pursue this course? Instead of spending millions of dollars in a dubious effort to change aspiring cosmetologists into welders, education officials should concentrate on helping young people, male and female, enter careers that interest them. “What we do not need,” said Alison Fraser from Blackstone Valley Tech, “is having the state say, you have to force these round pegs into square holes.”66

The Perkins Act is not the only reason pressure is increasing on Alison Fraser and her colleagues to change their students’ preferences. On the fortieth anniversary of the Title IX equity law in June 2012, the White House announced that the Department of Education would be adopting a new and more rigorous application of Title IX to high school and college technology, engineering, and science programs. According to the White House press release, “The Department of Education will announce the revision of its Title IX Technical Assistance presentation, made available nationwide to state and local education agencies across the country, to include information on how institutions receiving federal financial assistance are also required to ensure equal access to educational programs and resources in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.” President Obama explained the rationale in a Newsweek op-ed:

Let’s not forget, Title IX isn’t just about sports. From addressing inequality in math and science education to preventing sexual assault on campus to fairly funding athletic programs, Title IX ensures equality for our young people in every aspect of their education. It’s a springboard for success: it’s thanks in part to legislation like Title IX that more women graduate from college prepared to work in a much broader range of fields, including engineering and technology. I’ve said that women will shape the destiny of this country, and I mean it.

It is admirable for President Obama to encourage young women to shape our country’s destiny—but that is already happening. It is our underachieving young men that destiny is leaving behind, and they are being discouraged rather than encouraged by our political elites.

Introducing divisive gender politics into schools like Aviation High and Blackstone Valley Tech is the last thing we should be doing. While it is true that fewer young women than men enter fields like engineering, aviation, and automobile repair, young women are soaring in areas such as biology, psychology, and veterinary medicine.67 In 2010, women held 64 percent of seats in graduate programs in the social sciences, 75 percent in public administration, 78 percent in veterinary medicine, and 80 percent in health sciences.68 Will the federal government demand Title IX investigations in those female-dominated programs? Will our high schools and colleges be taken to task for doing a far better job educating girls than boys? Not likely. There is no National Coalition for Boys in Education, no lobby promoting changes in the Perkins Act or Title IX to help them. And, unlike in England and Australia, no political leader has spoken out publicly on their behalf.

Between the Perkins Act reauthorization and the new application of Title IX to technology and engineering programs, schools will be forced to adopt gender quotas in those few programs that seem to be working for at-risk boys. Women’s groups vehemently deny that quotas are in the offing. “Title IX does not require quotas,” says the NCWGE. “It simply requires that schools allocate participation opportunities nondiscriminatorily.”69 But over the years, this diffuse requirement has been interpreted by judges, Department of Education officials, college administrators, and women’s groups to mean that women are entitled to “statistical proportionality.” What does that mean? Consider what happened in sports.

If a college’s student body is 60 percent female, then 60 percent of the athletes should be female—even if far fewer women than men are interested in playing sports at that college. But many athletic directors have been unable to attract the same proportions of women as men. To avoid government harassment, loss of funding, and lawsuits, they have simply eliminated men’s teams. Vocation and technical schools won’t get rid of their “male teams” in welding, engineering, or automotive repair, but they are likely to cut them back and practice reverse discrimination in favor of girls. More resources will be deployed to change the preferences of young women to suit the ideology of groups like the AAUW and the National Women’s Law Center. School leaders have no matching incentive to develop programs that could attract great numbers of disengaged young men. On the contrary, they are well advised to avoid them. Such programs will put them at risk of a federal investigation and loss of funds.

The Montreal professor, Sumitra Rajagopalan, is surely right. Boys, more than girls, are natural tinkerers, builders, and systematizers. There are a few colleges that have no trouble attracting males—schools whose names include “tech.” If you build them, males will come: Georgia Tech (69 percent male), Rochester Institute of Technology (67 percent); South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (74 percent), and Embry Riddle Aeronautical (85 percent). The Department of Education and the president should be doing all they can to help young men become the builders, engineers, and techies so many of them want to be. Instead, they are creating powerful obstacles to thwart them.

Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State, is an advocate for those who, like herself, are afflicted with a type of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome. She once told an interviewer:

Who do you think made the first stone spear? That wasn’t the yakkity yaks sitting around the campfire. It was some Asperger sitting in the back of a cave figuring out how to chip rocks into spearheads. Without some autistic traits you wouldn’t even have a recording device to record this conversation on.70

But we know that autistic traits are far more common in males than females. Scientists such as Cambridge University’s Simon Baron-Cohen believe autism offers insight into the typical male mind.71 It helps explain the universal male fixation on gadgets, technology, and engineering. Why war against this reality? Why try to change tinkerers into yakkity yaks, or vice versa? To thrive as a society, we need both. By neglecting the needs and interests of boys, we not only sacrifice their life prospects, but our society’s technological future.

Are There More Girl Geniuses?

A 2010 New York Times report carries more bad news for boys. A significant gender gap favoring girls has arisen inside New York City’s gifted and talented programs. According to the article, “Around the city, the current crop of gifted kindergarteners . . . is 56 percent girls, and in the 2008—2009 year, 55 percent were girls.”72 In some of the most elite programs, almost three-fifths of the prodigies are girls. Could it be that girls are simply smarter than boys?

In fact, males and females appear to be equally intelligent on average. But on standardized intelligence tests, more males than females get off-the-chart scores in both directions. The greater variance of males on intelligence tests is one of the best-established findings in psychometric literature. Males predominate among the mentally deficient and the abnormally brilliant. The difference in variation isn’t huge, but it is large and consistent enough that a fair selection process for a gifted-and-talented program will generally produce more boys than girls.

To give just one example of the difference in IQ distribution, here is what a group of Scottish psychologists found in 2002 when they analyzed the results of IQ tests given to nearly all eleven-year-olds in Scotland in 1932.

Figure 12: IQ Scores in Scotland, 1932, Gender Percent by IQ Score

Sample size: 79,376 11-year-olds


Source: Scottish Mental Survey, 1932.

This study, one of the most comprehensive in the literature, shows that for the highest IQ score of 140, boys outnumbered girls 277 to 203 (or 57.7 percent boys versus 42.3 percent girls), and for the lowest IQ boys also outnumber girls, by 188 to 133 (or 58.6 percent boys versus 41.4 percent girls).73

Little appears to have changed in the cognitive profile of men and women since prewar Scotland. Those with IQs above 140 or below 70 are still very much the exception. They can be male or female, but males have a statistically significant edge at both extremes. How did things get turned around with New York City’s kindergarteners? Here is how the Times describes playtime for a group of five-year-old braniacs:

Four of the boys went to the corner to build an intricate highway structure and a factory from wooden blocks, while two others built trucks. One girl helped them, by creating signs on Post-its to stick on the buildings. Another kindergarten girl, Tamar Greenberg, stood to announce to the class her own activity, a Hebrew lesson. “We’re moving to the green table because it’s too distracting with the computers” in the back, she told the other children. On a roster, she neatly recorded the names of the three children who joined her for the lesson: Skyler, Isabelle and Bayla. “No boys were interested,” Tamar said.74

Highly gifted boys and girls are just like other children in one respect: in both groups, the girls are more mature, more verbal, and more capable of sitting still. Until a few years ago, admissions directors for New York City’s gifted programs took account of these differences and through a series of tests, interviews, and observations managed to recruit roughly equal numbers of budding engineers and linguists.

But the old practice of taking equal numbers of boys and girls was phased out a few years ago when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration sought to make the application process more fair, open, and uniform. Reforms were needed because, for many years, admission procedures were haphazard and varied from school to school. Parents who knew how to work the system had a huge advantage. Many average children with assertive parents found their way into the city’s elite programs—and many bright but socially disadvantaged children never had a chance. The Bloomberg administration imposed a uniform and transparent admission process so that all applicants (about fifteen thousand four- and five-year-olds) now take the same two standardized tests. Only children who score in the 90th percentile or above can enter the programs. This approach leaves little room for parental lobbying.

The reformers believed this open and consistent procedure would yield a more ethnically diverse group of students. So far it has not. It has yielded more girls than boys. As the Times reports, the test is “more verbal than other tests” and it plays to girls’ strengths. Boys are especially disadvantaged by the necessity to sit quietly for one hour and focus exclusively on the test.75 Pre-kindergarten boys with mental abilities three or four standard deviations above the mean have astonishing talents. But as Terry Neu, an expert on gifted boys, told me, sitting still for an extended period of time is not one of them. The capacity to remain seated for a long test does not reliably measure brilliance, but requiring pre-K children to do it is a sure way of securing more places for girls than boys in a gifted program.76

The developing gender gap in the gifted programs of New York City does not indicate that girls are smarter than boys. Rather, it shows how well-intentioned government officials and educators—adults with the standard adult preferences for order and quiet—can disregard boys’ needs and abilities and unwittingly adopt policies stacked against them. It is a small part of the long story of how boys have become the have-nots in American education.

The Road to Recovery

American educators and government officials should follow the example of the British and Australians. We are kindred spirits—inclusive, fractious democracies. We all embrace and insist upon the social and political equality of the sexes, and we all contend with the sometimes excessive pressures for political correctness and multiculturalism. Yet, somehow, the British and Australians openly acknowledge the plight of boys and are unapologetically taking steps to help them. The mood in Great Britain and Australia is constructive and informed by good research and common sense. The mood in the United States is contentious, ideological, and cowed by gender politics. The British have their parliamentary “toolkit of effective practices” for educating boys,77 while Americans have the National Women’s Law Center’s Tools of the Trade: Using the Law to Address Sex Segregation in High School Career and Technical Education.

We should pay close attention to the advice dispensed by the British Boys’ Reading Commission and the Australians’ Success for Boys. That means more experiments with single-sex classes and academies. That means more schools of education offering special courses on boy-friendly pedagogy. Old-fashioned, structured, competitive, teacher-directed classrooms work best for many boys. Too many get lost in jazz improvisations. We must make room for more boy-enthralling, job-directed schools like Aviation High School and Blackstone Valley Tech, and more boy-effective teachers like Chicago’s Mrs. Daugherty and Montreal’s Professor Rajagopalan.

Most of all, we need a change of attitude. The women’s lobby, the Department of Education, the gender theorists in our schools of education, the ACLU, the authors of the Perkins Act Reauthorization, and the president of the United States are so carried away with girl power they have forgotten about our male children. They have distracted themselves and the nation from acknowledging a plain and simple fact: American boys across the ability spectrum and in all age groups have become second-class citizens in the nation’s schools. The Australians and British are coping with this reality. If they can do it, so can we.