American boys are “in crisis.” We’ve been told this for years. We fear the downward creep for boys extends to men. It’s a cultural crisis, we believe, that demands a society-wide response.
But what if it just isn’t true?
Quietly, without anywhere near the fanfare that has greeted the claim that boys have become the weaker, worse-off sex, serious researchers have been arguing for years that boys — a lot of boys, at least — are doing just fine. That — as long as they’re white and from educated families, at least — they’re not dropping behind girls. That when push comes to shove, they still outperform and outearn their female counterparts once they enter the labor market. That the real issue — the real “crisis” in America — is one of class (income and education level), not gender.
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Now comes a major new report that ought to get some noisy attention. Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann, sociologists at Columbia and Ohio State universities respectively, spent 10 years digging through all the data on boys’ and girls’ academic achievement, trying to figure out what’s true and what’s false in the boy-crisis story. Drawing together all the best research, they found that, indeed, girls now take more advanced college-preparatory classes than boys, and earn higher grades in those classes. They go on to earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men.
Yet they also found that the academic discrepancy isn’t new. Surprisingly enough, girls have been outperforming boys in school for a century — so much so, Buchmann tells me, that when the first U.S. colleges and universities began admitting young women and quickly saw that they were winning the lion’s share of academic honors, some actually reversed their co-educational policies. What has changed, they say, isn’t the relative status of boys (a devaluing of maleness in the classroom) or a feminization of education (that much cursed need to shut up and sit still) or a dearth of men in the teaching profession (boys, it turns out, do equally well with female and male teachers). Instead, they say, there has come to be a real discrepancy in boys’ and girls’ attitudes and effort — backed up by the messages that boys and girls are getting about academic achievement at home.
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Girls, it turns out, spend more time studying than boys do and are more likely to say that good grades are very important to them. Boys, on the other hand, particularly if they’re from working-class or low-income backgrounds, often suffer socially if they work hard to get good grades. They’re considered “fags” if they do the things that are associated with higher academic performance — participate in music, art or drama, for example. And while girls are hearing the message loud and clear that their hard work in school will lead to success in college and, later, in the workplace, that lesson just isn’t getting through to boys, particularly boys whose fathers didn’t go to college.
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“When you look for differences among boys, rather than just differences between boys and girls, the boys who are achieving well are different. They’re more likely to come from families where a father is involved and the father is highly educated and has a white-collar job. The fathers are so important because they help boys understand that being a man isn’t just about acting tough or showing physical prowess but that academic achievement is something that’s very desirable for men, and they make that connection between doing well in school and doing well in today’s economy,” Buchmann says. “These boys haven’t gotten the message or have gotten the wrong message about what it takes to be successful.”
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How to fix this? Ten years of research shows that change won’t come through all-male classrooms or more male teachers or a more boy-centric curriculum, the authors say. We need instead to change our schools so that they consistently promote a culture of high academic achievement — a goal that should be obvious but is clearly lacking in many of our sports-obsessed learning institutions. Schools need to promote that culture consistently and evenly for all students. Set high standards and expect students to reach them — and provide extra support for those who need it.
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The idea isn’t, then, to pit boys’ needs against those of girls or view one gender’s success as a zero-sum game that requires the relative failure of the other. “If we just throw our hands up in the air and say this is just a crisis affecting all boys, that just guarantees that we’re not thinking clearly about what we need to do to solve the ‘crisis,’ ” Buchmann says. The solution is rather to realize that a rising tide of educational expectation will raise all boats. And that a dummy culture drags everyone down.