Boys: Second-Class Citizens Where Education Is Concerned
[guest post by JVW]
Over at City Journal, Kay S. Hymowitz has one of her typically insightful takes on the short-changing of boys in educational systems — not just here in the U.S., but in countries throughout the world — as education bureaucracies everywhere seem to have been captured by feminist dogma. Her work builds upon (as she acknowledges) the excellent research done by Christina Hoff Sommers and Richard Whitmire over the past couple of decades. It’s a long essay, but if you are at all interested in education policy in this country, especially in a child’s formative years, I encourage to take the time to give it a thoughtful reading. Let me pull out some sample paragraphs to see if that entices you. First, her opening:
According to the Tao of blue-state T-shirts—the sort that every nine-year-old soccer-playing girl in my Brooklyn neighborhood wears—“The Future Is Female.” On college campuses, that future has arrived. Women are now 60 percent of college graduates, men a mere 40 percent. This gender gap is not new—among college grads, the ratio has moved in women’s favor since the early 1980s—but it has reached a record extent, and people are paying attention.
I mentioned back in 2019 that the frivolous Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had taken up the whole “future is female” line in her ridiculous Presidential campaign, and wondered what her teenage sons must have thought about the vote of confidence from mom. Hopefully they won’t carry a life-long grudge against her.
Let’s continue on with Ms. Hymowitz’s compelling research (I don’t have the energy to restore the multiple links in her excellent piece, so I’m counting on all of you to read it for yourself and delve into further explorations):
Consider some specifics. Boys have lower grades than girls throughout their primary and secondary school years. They have more behavior problems. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder; to wind up in special-education classes; and to be held back, be suspended, or drop out. Hence, they’re less likely to graduate from high school. In fact, the high school graduation gap between girls and boys is within a hair of the gap between poor and middle-class kids. Along with their subpar overall college graduation numbers, boys now constitute a minority of M.A.s and Ph.D.s and of medical and law students.
This trend isn’t an example of some peculiar American dysfunction. Boys’ lagging school outcomes show up everywhere, from the enlightened Nordics to the hidebound Gulf States. An OECD survey, based on a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measure of 64 countries, summarized the situation this way: boys “are less likely than girls to attain basic proficiency in core subjects, report investing less time and effort on schoolwork, and express more negative attitudes to school.” Boys get lower grades and attend university less often than girls across the developed world—and increasingly in developing countries, too: one 2019 survey cited studies confirming a gap in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and Oman, among other places. True, in parts of the Third World, girls often don’t complete elementary school, so it’s rare to see them eclipsing their brothers. But in every place where girls do have the opportunity, they’re doing exactly that.
It’s a long-held belief that girls excel in language skills while boys do better in math. This is generally true, but the gaps have only been closed in one direction:
Reading is where girls really trounce boys. Their superiority in “language arts” is the largest and most persistent finding in all the gender-gap data relevant to school performance. In teacher–student assessments in the early grades, the girl–boy gap in reading is more than 300 percent larger than the white–black reading gap. Controlling for family and school characteristics, the racial gap declines considerably, but controlling for those characteristics makes no difference to the reading gender gap. Standardized reading tests in later grades confirm teachers’ judgment: girls consistently outperform boys. Fordham Foundation president Michael Petrilli traced the NAEP reading scores of college grads in their mid-twenties back through their school years. In the graduating class of 2013, 42 percent of females had scored proficient in reading, while only 33 percent of male students did. When those students were in eighth grade, the gap was much the same: 57 percent of students scoring at NAEP proficiency in reading were girls. In fourth grade, the gap was again similar: 54 percent of students scoring proficient were girls.
The reading gender gap is nearly universal: girls outperformed boys by an average of 38 points across OECD countries in the PISA 2012 survey—the equivalent of one year of school—as they’ve done consistently throughout all the PISA cycles since. In another survey of fourth-graders, girls topped boys in reading in 48 out of 50 countries and tied in the other two. We might use this syllogism: “Good readers go to college; girls are good readers; ergo. . . .” In Why Boys Fail, Richard Whitmire had another snappy way of summing up the gap: “The world has gotten more verbal; boys haven’t.”
[. . .]
What about math, which most people might assume would be an easy win for the male team? That’s only sort of true. Boys’ math tests register higher scores than those of girls as early as kindergarten. Boys of all racial and ethnic groups outperform girls on standardized math tests like the NAEP and the SAT. Their advantage is particularly strong in subjects requiring the highest levels of math reasoning, like calculus and physics. A paper in the journal Intelligence found boy seventh-graders three times as likely as girls in that grade to score in the top 5 percent—that is, above 700—on the math SAT. Further, even though girls are signing up for advanced placement math in far greater numbers than in the past, they remain underrepresented among the highest achievers on those tests.
However, it’s complicated. Boys’ math scores exhibit what psychologists call the “male variability hypothesis.” On a range of abilities (IQ tests included), interests, and personality traits, no mean difference exists between the sexes, but male scores are disproportionately very high and very low. During the 1980s, girls narrowed the historical math gap at the highest levels from a ratio of 13 to 1 to roughly 2.8 to 1; since 1990, that ratio has stayed more or less stable. But the high-level gap still exists, and it holds in international exams in 38 countries. (This is the opposite of reading tests, where boys cluster around the extreme end of the low tail.)
Having established these general notions, supported through research, Ms. Hymowitz then proceeds to take apart the trendy progressive dogma which has permeated education theory for the past couple of generations that there is no difference in the developing brains of young girls and young boys. She blows apart the theory that issues girls have traditionally had with math are because it isn’t be taught correctly to them, while boys’ struggles with language is because they are imbued with a sense of toxic masculinity at a young age and are thus too rambunctious for proper instruction. Ms. Hymowitz is having none of that:
Many of the most widely quoted social scientists studying boys’ academic status rely on gender theory as a starting premise. If boys are falling behind, it must be because of “the messages [they] receive about how to be masculine,” as gender reporter Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times puts it. Those messages, which come from families, institutions, and peer culture, are implicitly anti-school, on this view. “[B]oys’ achievement has come to be seen as incompatible with performing masculinity in normative ways,” explain a trio of Ohio State University scholars. “Hegemonic masculinity,” the term researchers use to describe the phenomenon, is marked by “stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression.” Clearly, the last thing boys under the sway of hegemonic masculinity want to do is sit politely in a classroom listening to their teacher—usually a woman—and then go straight home to study for the next day’s math test.
[. . .]
There’s compelling reason to think that a more genetic—or, in the derogatory terminology of gender theory, “essentialist”—explanation for boys’ disadvantage is at work. Signs of boys’ relative verbal delay show up way before hegemonic masculinity could infect their minds. On average, girls start talking earlier than boys. At 16 months, girls have a vocabulary of 95 words, while boys’ vocabulary is, on average, only 25. Boys make up more than 70 percent of late talkers and just 30 percent of early talkers. They produce word combinations, on average, three months later than girls. As they grow older, boys are at greater risk of developing language problems like dyslexia and stuttering. Gender theorists have an answer for that: they say that mothers talk more to their infant daughters than they do to their sons. But only limited evidence exists for that claim; a much-cited 2014 study finding that mothers respond more to baby girl vocalizations at birth and at one month involved only 33 mothers and their preterm infants. Other studies show no difference in mothers’ treatment of their babies by sex.
So there you have it; it’s all mom’s fault. Joking aside, there actually may be fundamental differences in the male and female brains:
Occam’s razor suggests a more commonsense conclusion, which happens to be where much of the recent science on gender differences is heading. Though neuroscience was once committed to the notion of the androgynous brain, the discipline has, in recent decades, piled up examples of male–female differences. This research coalesces around the conclusion that while brain anatomy in the sexes is very similar, sex hormones and sex chromosomes affect cognitive development. Most suggestively, researchers have found that girls’ brains establish connections and “prune” unused brain circuitry earlier and faster than boys, so their brains work more efficiently.
Anyway, this is as far as I am going to go because I do want everyone to read the entire essay for themselves. Kay Hymowitz is one of my favorite writers on the topic of education (can you tell?) and I am grateful that someone like her is out fighting the good fight on behalf of all of our kids, especially those who don’t have ready-made political lobbies behind them.