Boys' crisis? What boys' crisis?

A new report from the American Association of University Women suggests that when it comes to crises in American education, ethnicity and economics play a larger role than gender.

Published May 20, 2008 6:50PM (EDT)

There are a couple of questions in life that seem like they'll never be fully resolved. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which is better, Coke or Pepsi? Which group is having the bigger educational "crisis," boys or girls?

As many of you are probably aware, back in 1992 the American Association of University Women came out with a report called "How Schools Shortchange Girls" that provoked a national debate about gender inequities in the classroom. Partially as a result, some people began to argue that the emphasis on girls was leaving boys in the dust -- hence books like Christina Hoff Sommers' "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men," published in 2000. The "girls' crisis," these critics argued, was leading to a "boys' crisis." According to their logic, these crises made for a zero-sum equation -- if one gender went up, the other must go down.

But the AAUW (along with groups like the American Council on Education) thinks these critics are wrong. The AAUW just published a new report called "Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Equity in Education" (executive summary here) that concludes that there is no "boys' crisis." Rather, as the New York Times explains, "the largest disparities in educational achievement are not between boys and girls, but between those of different races, ethnicities and income levels."

To reach this conclusion, as the Washington Post describes, the AAUW examined "40 years of data on achievement from fourth grade to college and for the first time analyzed gender differences between economic and ethnic categories." (If you want to learn more about the report's specific conclusions and the methods used to find them, the full report is here.) It found, among other things, that girls outperform boys in some areas, boys outperform girls in others, but that one gender does not seem to be harming the other. As for the specific question of whether boys are being hurt by the past 15 years' educational trends, the study points out that the number of boys graduating from high school and college is at an all-time high. It also suggests that "perhaps the most compelling argument against a boys' crisis is that men continue to outearn women in the workplace."

With gender issues and education being as touchy as they are these days, I doubt this report will change much -- but I think the real takeaway here is that we need to focus more on disadvantages caused by economics and ethnicity, rather than creating tit-for-tat crises based on gender. After all, as a whole, the American educational system needs help. To quote from the report's executive summary (written by Barbara O'Connor, president of AAUW's Educational Foundation):

"It is a testament to the success of the efforts by AAUW and others that the gender equity debate has taken a new twist in which boys are cast as the disadvantaged gender. 'Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education' makes clear that girls' gains have not come at the expense of boys. In addition, the report goes beyond gender to look at other factors that influence student achievement -- specifically family income level and race/ethnicity -- and finds that many girls as well as boys are not acquiring the educational skills needed to succeed in the 21st-century economy. This report illustrates that while educational trends for both girls and boys are generally positive, disparities by race/ethnicity and family income level exist and are critical to understanding the landscape of education in America today."

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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