Lost boys

While girls surge ahead in all subjects at school, boys are lagging behind. Is "girl power" to blame? Do boys need their own dose of "empowerment"?

Published February 5, 2002 8:30PM (EST)

The first panicky calls for the empowerment of girls in education came slightly more than a decade ago, inciting a national response of extraordinary scope and intensity. Bombarded by the impassioned claim that girls were shortchanged at school, Americans mobilized without delay, inviting the media to publicize the alarming plight of girls, while pushing public and private schools to institute permanent changes to end discrimination in the classroom. By 1994, a federal law -- the Gender Equity in Education Act -- specifically banned discrimination against girls in school.

From the beginning, critics of the empowerment movement claimed that creating special programs for girls was sexist. Later, other researchers -- most prominently Diane Ravitch, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former assistant secretary of education, and Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the 1992 book "Who Stole Feminism" and "The War Against Boys" -- began to question whether there had ever been a "girl crisis" in the first place. These critics painted the feminist leaders of the girl empowerment movement as adult women who were somewhat hysterically looking for evidence of patriarchal coercion where none existed, in order to correct inequities that had been solved by the previous generation.

Critics of empowerment efforts didn't dispute that girls at one point had been discriminated against in education, but claimed that by 1990, those inequities had largely been erased, and that girls had already begun to overtake boys in many academic and social areas. As Ravitch told a New York Times reporter, "It might have been the right story 20 years earlier, but coming out when it did, it was like calling a wedding a funeral."

Regardless of exactly when it began to happen, it appears now that American girls have made outstanding progress in academic achievement. Some researchers credit the empowerment movement; others say it was superfluous. But what is certain is that recent studies indicate that girls have significantly bridged historical gender gaps in math and science scores (and in some studies, have eliminated them entirely) and have held on to their historical advantage over boys in reading and writing skills.

At the same time, according to those studies, boys have not made the same progress in eliminating their side of the gender gap. Suddenly, the debate among researchers is focused on the boys: Are they behind because of the girl empowerment movement? Are they being shortchanged in the classroom simply because they are boys?

Just last month, the results of a study that tested 15-year-old students in 32 industrialized nations reflected that girls score much higher than boys in reading and [in most countries, including the United States] are on par with the boys in math and science. Authors of the report, issued by PISA (the Program for International Assessment, a French-based international consortium of educational researchers), called the reverse gender gap "striking."

Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington-based think tank, and a higher education policy analyst for Postsecondary Education Opportunity, based in Iowa, says that in his 30-year career devoted to eliminating gender imbalances in education, he has witnessed a troubling shift.

"Right around 1990, it hit me that girls had made extraordinary progress between 1970 and 1990," he says. "For me, it was one of those 180-degree reversals: Now I believe that boys are the ones with a gender disadvantage in education. They are where the girls were 25 years ago."

According to the U.S. Department of Education, American girls have been ahead of boys in reading in studies for every year on record, beginning in 1969. But as girls move ahead in math and science, the reverse gender gap, which has shown up on dozens of local and national studies, becomes all the more pronounced.

(The most pressing and intractable educational gaps in the United States are still undeniably those of race and socioeconomic status. American students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to educational discrimination and underachievement: On the PISA study, American students recorded the highest gap out of all participating countries between students in the top and bottom quarter of wealth.)

A study released in June by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that the average 16-year-old boy has the reading skills of an average 14-year-old girl. Equally dramatic gaps have show up in local studies in Boston, Chicago and New York. On the last Regents exam in New York City, 70 percent more girls than boys had exemplary scores in reading and writing; 45 percent more boys than girls scored well below grade level. There were no gender gaps reported on the math or science sections of the exam. (Of the dozen or so articles that appeared in the New York Post lamenting the dismal performance of New York City students, the question of gender was never raised, outside of reporting the raw data.)

Additional studies show that girls, on average, also have better grades in high school and college and are more likely to be enrolled in accelerated or advanced-placement classes. Boys are much more likely to be held back, diagnosed with a learning disability or put in a remedial or special education class. College admission and graduate rates for girls have soared since 1950. They now constitute the majority of college students and college graduates. And girls earned 57.2 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in 2000; boys earned 42.8 percent.

All in all, this adds up to a rather bleak picture for boys, unless one considers college entrance scores and studies that look at the success of adult men and women. Those who wish to address the issue of educational inequity for boys are caught between the empirical data, which shows very real gender gaps for young boys and college-age men, and the perception that boys can't be doing so terribly, if adult men are still doing relatively well, or at least outperforming women.

Boys continue to outperform girls on the SAT, which is a requirement for admission to the majority of American universities. In 2000, girls scored, on average, 38 fewer points than boys overall (35 points on the math portion; 3 on the verbal). Similar gaps also show up on the PSAT, the SAT II, the ACT and the Graduate Entrance Exam, and though girls are more likely to take advanced-placement classes, boys are more likely to achieve the higher scores needed to attain college credit for these classes. And once they are in the workplace, men still earn more than women (although that gap is closing) and represent the majority of CEOs, politicians and high-wage earners in all industrialized countries.

There have been any number of recent books on what is described by some as a looming educational crisis for boys and men, including many that focus on the special needs and challenges of boys, particularly in adolescence. But a full-blown campaign to reempower boys seems a long way off, possibly because those who concur that boys need help cannot agree on the source of their educational problems or the appropriate methods of relief. While the girl empowerment campaign united women from very different backgrounds and philosophies -- academics like Carol Gilligan, popular writers like Mary Pipher, journalists like Anna Quindlen and Peggy Orenstein, political organizations like the National Organization of Women and researchers in the American Association of University Women -- there is nowhere near this kind of unity in the movement to help boys. In fact, many of the leaders in the movement to empower boys are actively fighting each other.

Harvard professor Carol Gilligan, author of the 1982 book "In a Different Voice," is widely credited with (and, by her critics, denounced for) kick-starting the girl empowerment movement. She was among the first to argue that women experience relationships, morality and communication differently than men, and are therefore silenced in a culture in which the male experience stands in for the universal human experience.

Some of Gilligan's early critics took exception to her so-called difference feminism, fearing that any theory that relied on essential gender difference could be used to rationalize discrimination against women. But it's difficult to overstate just how big a star Gilligan is in the field of gender studies: Throughout the '80s and '90s she was routinely awarded major honors; in 1997 she received the Heinz award for "transforming the paradigm of what it means to be human" and in 2001, Jane Fonda donated $12.5 million to fund a chair at Harvard in Gilligan's name.

In 1990, Gilligan applied her theories of women's psychological development to explain the underachievement of girls. She claimed that girls experience a crisis of confidence in early adolescence, which leads them to become less assertive and outspoken and more uncertain about their futures. To many people, Gilligan's work became the core around which to build a national movement to reform education.

Gilligan's concern for adolescent girls was almost immediately picked up and shared by educators, journalists, parents, teachers and popular writers, including clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, whose bestselling "Reviving Ophelia" claimed that America's sexualized, lookist, media-saturated "girl poisoning" culture led post-feminist American girls to be "much more oppressed" than ever before. Pipher blamed this oppression for girls' alleged low self-esteem, suicides, self-mutilation and low math scores. ("Just as planes and ships disappear into the Bermuda Triangle," wrote Pipher, "so do the selves of girls go down in droves.") Critics, like Hoff Sommers, pointed out that some of these problems -- especially suicide and behavior disorders -- overwhelmingly affected more boys than girls.

But more important, Gilligan's claim led other researchers to try to prove with empirical data that girls were being harmed by sexism in the schools. In 1991, the American Association of University Women released a report, "Schools Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," which purported to confirm Gilligan's thesis that girls suffer a crisis of self-esteem during adolescence that leaves them much less confident in their abilities. This was followed in 1992 by another AAUW study, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," which placed the responsibility for girls' underachievement directly on the sexist attitudes of educators -- in public and private schools -- who failed to provide girls with adequate classroom attention.

The AAUW studies almost immediately became a battleground in the p.c. wars. They were heavily attacked by Hoff Sommers and others, who claimed that they were tendentious and riddled with methodological errors. But the studies were publicized by popular journalists and writers and their recommendations lobbied for by powerful national women's organizations.

In the end, the view that society was shortchanging girls prevailed. Advocates for girls succeeded in putting pressure on Congress to pass the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act, which provided millions of dollars in support for programs aimed at correcting sexism in the classroom, including special math and science programs for girls, sensitivity workshops for educators and new textbooks that corrected gender stereotypes (i.e., women as nurses, men as doctors).

Eventually, many of the leaders of the movement to empower girls joined their critics in calling for new research into how to remedy educational and social inequities for boys. In fact, Gilligan launched a three-year study called "The Harvard Project on Women's Psychology, Boy's Development and the Culture of Manhood" in 1995.

By the end of the '90s, a passel of boy-centered books were published. But unlike many of the girl-centered books published earlier in the decade, many of these authors actively disagreed with one another. On one side were old-school feminists and their sympathizers, who believed that boys, like girls before them, were victims of patriarchal definitions of masculinity. These thinkers -- including Gilligan (for whom the learning differences between the sexes are the result of patriarchy, not biology) and, to some extent William Pollack, the author of 1998's "Real Boys" -- see the salvation of boys in reconstructing outmoded notions of masculinity, in much the same way that feminists once agitated to reconstruct society's definitions and expectations of femininity.

Others, like Michael Gurian, author of "The Wonder of Boys" and the just-released "The Wonder of Girls," argue that boys and girls learn in fundamentally different ways, and that academic success and personal happiness for children of both genders can be achieved only by returning to traditional notions of sex and gender. Hoff Sommers adds, in "The War Against Boys," that boys have been the victims of feminists like Gilligan (and to some extent, boy advocates like Pollack), whose outmoded disdain for patriarchy and capitalism have "pathologized" what she considers to be normal masculinity.

Scholars like Gurian, Gilligan, Hoff Sommers and Pollack also disagree about who, if anyone, is to blame for boys' poor academic performance: Were boys actually villainized in the process of empowering girls? Are gender differences hard-wired? If so, how does one explain the extraordinary progress of girls in math, science and higher education -- areas where they are supposedly destined to show weakness?

Without agreement on the origins of the crisis, these scholars also cannot agree on how to deal with the crisis. Once again, the debate questions whether gender differences in learning are deeply ingrained or sheer mythology. Some suggest that reading curricula be more "masculine" in order to engage boys; others say that boys must be encouraged to embrace their "feminine" side. There are even advocates who call for a return to single-sex education, a debate that should sound familiar to anyone who followed the girls education debate.

It used to be accepted wisdom that boys and girls learned differently: Boys were thought to be better at spatial reasoning, abstract concepts and deductive reasoning, while girls had an easier time with concrete detail, intuition and evaluation, and inductive reasoning.

Researchers like Hoff Sommers tend to agree with the theory that gender differences that affect learning are hard-wired and should be considered in dealing with the learning delays of boys. She maintains, for instance, that reading preferences are gender specific, and that the current English curriculum favors the reading tastes of girls, an inequity that has led to the lower scores of boys in reading literacy.

"Our English classes are strongly feminized, even in boys schools," says Hoff Sommers. "We want literature to make boys more sensitive. But I'm not sure that we need to invest in literature as a form of therapy."

She points out that a majority of English teachers still assign fiction in the classroom, while she believes that boys prefer nonfiction. (In the PISA study, girls and boys were asked to self-report on the kind of reading materials they preferred. Boys reported reading more comic books, Web pages and newspapers, while girls read more novels.)

"Boys love adventure stories with male heroes," says Hoff Sommers. "Many would love books by Stephen Ambrose and Tom Clancy. Since they are so far behind in reading, why not give them texts they enjoy? Some teachers are promoting political correctness at the expense of the basic literacy of their male students.

"My own son had to struggle through Amy Tan's 'Joy Luck Club' when he was in the 10th grade," she adds. "It has some attractive features, but it is full of annoying psychobabble about women and their self-esteem struggles. He disliked it. If teachers are going to assign books in popular literature, they should consider the needs and interests of boys."

Another advocate of "guy lit" is Jon Scieszka, author of such children's books as "Stinky Cheese Man" and founder of Guys Read, a nonprofit literacy program for boys. On his Web site, Scieszka writes, "There are literacy programs for adults, for students of English as a second language, for women, and for prison inmates. There are no literacy programs for boys."

Scieszka goes on to recommend what he considers to be "guy books." His choices for elementary school boys include David Macaulay, the author of the "How Things Work" series, classic authors of the strange, like Roald Dahl and Daniel Pinkwater, and Lemony Snicket, author of the wildly popular new series "A Series of Unfortunate Events." Teenage boys are advised to read Alan Moore, the author of popular literary graphic novels like "From Hell" and "Watchman"; while adult men get, of course, Gurian and William Pollack. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Scieszka lamented the popularity with English teachers of books like "Little House on the Prairie," which he says boys find boring.

Some believers in genetic gender differences go even further, suggesting that classrooms, as well as lesson plans, need to be boy-friendly.

A significant concern, says Mortenson, is the fact that 85 percent of elementary school teachers are female. This imbalance, he says, is compounded by the fact that the percentage of children living in single-parent families headed by women is growing, leaving more and more boys without significant male figures in daily life. Mortenson now suggests that little boys may need an entirely different kind of teaching style altogether, one that emphasizes physical activity over traditional sedentary desk learning.

"We need targeted programs for little boys incorporated in the K through 12 system," he says. "We know that boys are, on average, at least a year behind girls in maturity levels. Maybe you have different start dates for kindergarten.

"If I were teaching," says Mortenson, "I would get boys out of the classroom. Take them to a swamp, dig through the muck, look for pollywogs. Then maybe take them back and have them look at pond water through slides and write up a lab report. They need hands-on activities. They get bored and distracted if you ask them to sit down and reading a chapter and writing up a paragraph -- the kind of work that girls excel at."

Michael Gurian takes the idea of single sex learning even further. In his 1998 book "A Fine Young Man," Gurian proposes that we do away with Title IX, the provision that prohibits discrimination in public education based on gender. To support his argument, he maintains that gender differences, unlike racial differences, are so great as to nearly constitute a different species altogether.

"There are no structural brain differences between the physiologies of the races except for the most cosmetic kind," he wrote. "Between males and females, there are at least seven structural brain differences."

Gurian proposes, among other things, that boys and girls be taught in single-sex classrooms for math, science and language arts, then spend afternoons in co-educational classes.

But the move to single-sex education in the United States, especially for boys, is likely to be next to impossible to accomplish politically. Though a handful of public charter schools for boys -- usually poor African-Americans -- have been attempted, most have been vetoed or shut down soon after opening. And witness the protest raised over the Young Women's Leadership Academy, a girls-only public school in East Harlem: Although the school is still in operation, both the ACLU and the National Organization for Women are suing the district on the basis that public funds should not be used to segregate students by gender. Meanwhile, the chancellor of New York City schools has rejected requests to fund a similar school for boys, on the basis that the girls school made up for past gender inequities in education.

Carol Gilligan is not convinced that the educational problems of boys are due to hard-wired biological differences. Instead, she suggests that the gender differences in education are caused by culture and psychology.

"We know there is nothing innately different in children's learning abilities," she says. "We used to say that difficulty in math and science was innate to womanhood. Well, it turns out that it is not. Over the past 10 years, we started paying attention to girls' development in math and sciences, formally and informally, and -- behold! -- the gender gap disappeared."

Gilligan acknowledges that no causal studies have been done to link the girl empowerment movement to the improved academic performance of girls, but points out that the closing of the gender gap in math and science coincided with the years of the feminist movement. And while critics still debate whether these gaps were already closing in 1990, when the girl empowerment movement took off, there is no question that girls' academic performance -- particularly in math, science, and college enrollment -- improved enormously in the years between 1970 and 2001.

While this fact alone may not prove the effectiveness of the gender equity in education movement, it certainly suggests strong support for the argument that historical gender gaps in achievement are not an inevitable product of biology, and therefore, with the proper attention, can be resolved.

In her own research on boys, Gilligan claims to have found that boys, like girls, experience a crisis of self-confidence, though this change comes earlier for boys -- around age 4 to 5, coincidentally the exact moment when children are first introduced to school and reading. Gilligan attributes much of this anxiety to the forced separation of boys from their mothers under patriarchy, which leaves them alienated from their emotions and anything in the culture that is associated with feminity.

In American culture, says Gilligan, children learn to associate math and science with masculinity; knowledge of the human world and emotional lives are associated with femininity. But, she says, "to be fully human, you need to understand both worlds." Gilligan does not believe that boys need their own reading lists; change, she says, does not come from segregation of curricula or teaching style. In fostering the empowerment of girls, she says, "we began by telling girls that math and science are interesting. Now we need to tell boys that reading -- that emotion -- is interesting."

Hoff Sommers derides Gilligan's theory for seeming to attribute pathology to normal children and suggests that the literal separation of children from their fathers, not the metaphorical separation from their mothers, can better explain the overall problems suffered by boys in relation to school performance, aggression and arrest.

All agree, however, that any significant impact on a gender gap in learning will require political action. Certainly that was true when it came to girls.

Gilligan believes that part of the difficulty in lobbying for change for boys can be attributed to men's squeamishness when asked to embrace traits that have traditionally been associated with women. "Within patriarchy," says Gilligan, "manhood is privileged over womanhood. So it's easier at first to talk about elevating girls to the level of men. When you start to challenge the patriarchal notion of manhood, you can ruffle men's feathers. It's easier to be relaxed about girls becoming scientists, but boys who show feminine traits are still called 'sissy,' or 'queer.'"

But others, like Mortenson and Hoff Sommers, believe that boys are not getting the support they need because American politicians and educators are still, as Hoff Sommers put it, "mired in p.c. concerns" that lead them to discriminate against boys -- for being boys.

"Politically, it's very difficult to get support for boys," says Mortenson. "I started writing about boys in 1995, and for the first four years, I was widely ignored. It takes an awful long time to changed the mentality that girls are the universal victims of gender discrimination."

Says Hoff Sommers, "I've spoken with members of Congress, and they have told me that they can't do anything about it until there is a concerned constituency. That is something that has to be created by the media.

"It's easier to create concern for girls' issues, because there are so many journalists lending support -- Anna Quindlen, Natalie Angier, Katie Couric," she claims. "The journalists were key players in the movement to empower girls. I think they got carried away and shortchanged boys in the process."

It is somewhat astonishing to hear that boys can't get the attention of politicians and journalists, even though the majority of politicians and journalists are men. Perhaps that is part of the problem: It is difficult to convince adults that boys are in a crisis that could affect their educational and economic future when those adults look around and find men in positions of power.

Mortenson acknowledges that "college-educated men get more bang for their buck." But, he says, not enough men are going to college, and in the current economy, "the only people who make it are the ones who have a college education."

He also points out that the vast majority of organizations that have the membership base and political clout to lobby on gender issues are women's organizations, which are a good 30 years ahead of men in organization.

Says Mortenson, "One problem facing boys is that adult men have nowhere near the interest or the organizational structure to support boys on the level that adult women have provided for girls. There are simply no equivalent male organizations."

It is most often the women at Mortenson's lectures who express concern about the problems facing boys. "If we ever do anything about the boy crisis," he says, "women will deal with it, because they will realize that it is in their self-interest to engage boys in education."

With so many competing theories, it's impossible to tell exactly what that engagement will look like. The debate about boys' education mirrors many of the larger debates about American education: Do we need "tougher standards," mandatory testing, character education and strict discipline? Or do we need smaller classrooms, individual attention and encouragement of creative and critical thinking?

Gender gaps in education -- unlike the more pressing and intractable gaps associated with parental involvement, race and class -- have proved to be surprisingly bridgeable, at least when it comes to girls. The remarkable progress of girls in academic achievement and higher education over the last 30 years demonstrates that their delays and difficulties were not inevitable. It is fair to assume that boys have the same potential for catching up. What remains to be seen, however, is whether their plight can motivate adults to agree on a plan of action and finally get it off the ground.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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