"Leaving Boys Behind" leaves race behind

Studies about "gender gaps" do talk about race -- why don't the headlines?

By Lynn Harris
April 19, 2006 7:52PM (UTC)
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Today, the Manhattan Institute released a study called "Leaving Boys Behind" that highlights the following finding: Approximately 72 percent of girls in the high school class of '03 -- versus 65 percent of the boys -- actually graduated. The New York Times, under the headline "Boys Are No Match for Girls in Completing High School," notes that this gender gap is "far more pronounced among minorities."

We've argued plenty on Salon.com about the matter of the gender gap in education. And the main thing that's really, truly new about this study is that it's apparently among the first to compile data by district and state as well as race. There are just two things I want to underscore for now: one, that such titles and headlines -- while I realize none should be expected to tell the whole story in 10 words -- misplace the focus. Yes, we do need to figure out what boys and girls need to do their best in school -- or, at very least, to stay there. But you don't need to dig far into the study to find that, by its count, the national graduation rate for Hispanic students is a shocking 53 percent -- and for African-American students 55 percent -- compared with 78 percent for whites.


People, that is just over half; when you slice it that way, the difference between the have-diplomas and have-nots is even more pronounced. The study's conclusion states clearly -- before discussing the matter of gender, which it does in terms of race -- that "it is important for policymakers and the public to understand that only about 70 percent of all students and a little more than half of Hispanic and African-American students graduate from high school." So why don't these titles or headlines trumpet the "race gap"? If they did, at the very least, anyone with "gender gap" fatigue might be prompted to actually read what follows.

The Times also notes that graduation rates have long been "slippery topics" in education, in part because the data itself can be slippery in the first place. Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, while not disputing that low graduation rates across the board are cause for alarm, argue -- using census rather than school-district data -- that this study, as the Times paraphrased, "seriously exaggerates the problem." This disagreement, the Times continues, is not only about different data sets. "It also mirrors political differences between the conservative Manhattan Institute, which favors school choice, and the liberal Economic Policy Institute, which has strong ties to unions."

So my second point is this: Whether or not the Manhattan Institute is "exaggerating," there's some irony here. The organization making even more dire pronouncements is the one more closely aligned with the political party that seems to be less interested in making things right.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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