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Education Reporter

Taking the Boy Crisis in Education Seriously:
How School Choice Can Boost Achievement Among Boys and Girls

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For more than three decades Congress has answered, "How high?" to the feminist command to jump, and provided millions in funding for the Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA). If legislation passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee in July 2006 was any sign, this year will be no exception despite the fact that the only inequity girls experience is being superior to boys on nearly every indicator of academic excellence.

The 33-year-old Women's Educational Equity Act, reauthorized in the No Child Left Behind Act, claims that "teaching and learning practices in the United States are frequently inequitable as such practices relate to women and girls. . . ." Since its inception, Congress has appropriated as much as $10 million annually for research, curriculum development and teaching strategies to promote "gender equity." However, what may have been appropriate decades ago is no longer the case. Boys, not girls, are being left behind by our nation's schools.

Girls surpass boys in reading, writing, civics and the arts. Girls get better grades and more honors; they have higher aspirations, are more engaged in school and are more likely to graduate from high school and college. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to be suspended or expelled, need special education, smoke, drink and do drugs, repeat a grade, commit suicide, become incarcerated, leave school without attaining literacy, drop out of school or be unemployed. Marginal advantages in math and science for boys pale compared to the sheer advantage girls enjoy throughout school.

Boys are in trouble. Yet despite glaring inequities, the tired myth of the shortchanged girl remains strong enough to seize another $2.9 million from taxpayers last year for an outdated federal program. Even more unfortunate is how the myth of inequity is wielded to oppose real reforms that help boys and girls.

The reality is that far too many boys, particularly among minorities, fall behind along the way toward adulthood and do not recover. This is no "manufactured" crisis or "backlash against the women's movement," as two feminist authors recently opined. Moreover, recognizing the problem and seeking solutions to the problems facing our boys in no way harms girls' prospects. The object of formal education, after all, is to help boys and girls live up to their potential.

To achieve equality of opportunity for all young people, the nation must finally bury the myth of shortchanged girls and the special-interest programs that propagate female victimhood. Secondly, it must take seriously the plight of boys by embracing strategies and systems that allow boys and girls to excel — in particular, by encouraging a greater diversity of educational methods and innovation through school choice.

A look at the facts

Last year, a paper published by Education Sector, a new think tank, declared that the "current boy crisis hype and the debate around it are based more on hopes and fears than on evidence." However, the paper quoted statistics that painted a different picture than its conclusions: boys trail girls in most indicators of academic excellence including school engagement, achievement scores, and graduation rates at the secondary and postsecondary levels. The achievement gap in reading and writing — foundational skills in the information age — between boys and girls is alarming. Even more disturbing is the number of boys who fall behind in school, become involved in destructive behavior and drop out. Despite marginal leads in math and science, the overall picture of academic achievement shows boys, not girls, on the short side of "frequently inequitable."

Academic Achievement in K-12

In general, girls are more engaged and ambitious in school. They are more likely to get good grades. Girls are more likely to be in gifted and talented classes and to take Advanced Placement exams. They are more likely to do their homework. Girls have higher hopes and ambitions for school. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to get Ds and Fs, and the gap has widened since 1996. Boys are also more likely to repeat a grade.

Engagement after School

A survey of high-school seniors found girls were more likely to participate in music and performing arts activities, academic clubs, student council or government, and join the newspaper or yearbook. Girls were also more likely to participate in community affairs or volunteer at least once or twice per month. The only extracurricular activity boys were more likely to participate in was athletics.

Another survey of high-school sophomores found girls are more likely to perform community service, take a music, art or language class, read at least three hours a week of nonschool reading, and talk on the phone. Boys are more likely to work on hobbies, drive or ride around, visit with friends, play sports, watch television, and play video games. The percentage of students who spend three or more hours a day watching television is higher for boys. The largest gap between girls' and boys' television watching habits was for those who said they watched six or more hours of television daily: 22% of boys and 15% of girls.

Course Taking and Achievement

While there is some diversity in course-taking preferences, on balance, neither sex dominates in terms of taking rigorous classes. Contrary to the myth of the shortchanged girl, girls do not shy away from math, science or other challenging subjects. Girls receive on average slightly more Carnegie units in English, history, advanced math (algebra or higher), biology, and chemistry than boys, while boys take slightly more general science, physics, lower math (less than algebra), and computer classes. Girls are much more likely to take foreign language and art classes while boys take more technical courses.

In terms of achievement, girls hold a significant advantage in reading and writing while boys hold a marginal advantage in math and science.

On NAEP tests, boys and girls as student subgroups score differently. Girls score significantly better on reading, writing, and arts tests and slightly better on civics tests at all three grade levels. Boys score slightly higher in math, science, geography and U.S. history. The most pronounced differences in scores, which favor female students, occur in reading, writing, and the arts in the 8th and 12th grades.

Analysis of the 2005 NAEP scores reveals a startling fact: A third of 12th-grade boys scored below the basic level. These boys cannot read a newspaper and understand what they are reading.

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Illiteracy is a problem even among sons of white, middle-class households according to research by Judith Kleinfeld, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Alaska. She found that nearly a quarter of high-school seniors who are the sons of white, college-educated parents score below the basic level on NAEP, whereas only 6% of girls with the same background scored below basic. A similar disparity exists for Hispanic students: 34% of sons of college-educated parents scored below basic while 19% of daughters of college-educated parents scored as low. In grades K-3, boys are just a tiny bit behind girls in reading but by high school the difference between male and female literacy is large and, for many, tragic.

High School Graduation

Girls graduate from high school at higher rates than boys. The disparity is highest among minority students.

College Attendance

In high school, young women are more likely to aspire to go to college. They are also more likely to enroll in post-secondary education right after high school and to complete their post-secondary education. All together, women attain 58% of college degrees and outnumber men in the number of associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees. Only among doctorate degree earners do men slightly outnumber women.

That the division of degrees is not split evenly between the sexes is not the problem. Yearly fluctuations in the percentage of degree earners by sex would be natural. Assuming that neither sex is smarter as a group than the other, college aptitude should be similar. The growing imbalance suggests there are college-capable men who are not going to college or, if they are, they are dropping out before graduation. Given the different prospects for those who obtain a college degree and those who do not, concern for these young men failing to graduate college should replace the regular hand-wringing over the fact that fewer women choose to major in engineering and math while in college.

In college, women are awarded half of the bachelor's degrees in math, 60% of biological/life sciences degrees, a fifth of engineering degrees, and more than a quarter of computer science degrees. While some, including the proponents of WEEA, think these percentages should be higher, little attention is paid to the fact that women are awarded 77% of the degrees in education, 61% of the degrees in accounting, 78% of the degrees in psychology and 84% of the degrees in the health professions. Where is the dismay over the inequitable distribution of men in these fields?

Although the once proclaimed and now debunked How Schools Shortchange Girls maintains a postmortem life on the Web, it can no longer conceal the facts about girls' achievements and boys' struggles: that girls equal or surpass boys on nearly every indicator of academic excellence, and too many boys are falling behind and not catching up. Even Newsweek and other mainstream media outlets have broken the news. While feminists and politicians continue to cling to old myths, the nation must face these facts for the sake of its future.

It is time to face the facts: boys, not girls, are falling behind. However, this recognition is only the first step. The public-education system must embrace innovation and encourage the replication of strategies that help boys and girls reach their potential. The most effective way to encourage innovative practices and meet the special needs of individuals is to support choice in education. By allowing families to choose schools, students can enroll in the environment where they can flourish. In some instances, a single-sex school or a co-educational school with single-sex classrooms will be appropriate. Since different strategies work for different students, parents should decide. By enacting charter-school laws, tax incentives, and scholarship programs, each state can spur innovative practices while giving every girl or boy the chance to succeed.

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