How Boys Lost Out to Girl Power

New York Times, By Tamar Lewin, 12 December 1998

No one's calling for affirmative action for boys just yet.

But given the fact that girls are becoming an ever larger majority at most American colleges, many educators are beginning to think boys should get more attention.

For several years, the conventional wisdom -- reinforced by a steady drumbeat of stories stressing female victimhood -- has been that girls are shortchanged in school, getting less attention from their teachers than boys and gradually losing their self-esteem as they enter adolescence.

By all kinds of measures, though, girls rule in school. They have better grades, higher reading and writing scores, higher class ranks and more school honors, and they are more likely than boys to take Advanced Placement exams in English, social studies and foreign languages.

Boys are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, be put in special education, be diagnosed with learning disabilities and be put on behavior-modifying medication like Ritalin. As teenagers, they are also far more likely than girls to commit suicide.

"The myth that the schools shortchange girls is dangerously wrong because it has diverted policy attention from the group at genuine education risk -- African-American boys," said Judith Kleinfeld, a University of Alaska professor, in a paper earlier this year that found that schools put boys at more of a disadvantage than girls. "This is the group that scores lowest on virtually every educational measure. This is the group where an enormous gap does exist between males and females. But the African-American gender gap favors females.

"The idea that boys need more help than girls do is slowly gaining currency nationally. "Something is changing," Ms. Kleinfeld said. "Just recently, people are beginning to be willing to think about boys' problems."

No one denies that the status of women remains a real issue in society. Despite the flood of women into business and the professions over the last two decades, women are underrepresented in corporate boardrooms, science labs and partnerships at law firms. And even in school, sexual harassment remains a problem.

Boys still dominate the nation's technical and engineering schools, and obtain higher scores on many standardized tests -- although those gaps are narrowing.
But some educators say the boys-versus-girls bean-counting has gone too far, that those gaps have become small enough that they are unimportant, especially when measured against the very large racial differences in educational achievement.

"They're saying that more girls take biology and chemistry, but uh-oh, there's more boys in physics," said Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"This is not an alarm bell ringing in the night," she said. "What we should be concerned about is the racial disparities. There's a four-year gap between blacks and whites on the national tests. The average black
17-year-old scores the same as the average white 13-year-old. That's a crisis, not gender."

Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College, takes a middle road, stressing that both sexes have unique problems that schools should address.

"It's not either-or, and we shouldn't always see things as the crisis du jour," he said. "We can do better by boys. We need to do a lot better with regard to racial and socioeconomic differences, and that doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention to the special needs of girls."

The furor over gender equity was kindled in 1992 by the release of a study by the American Association of University Women, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," which declared that girls face bias from preschool through high school in textbooks, tests and teachers.

The association presented the situation as dire. "This report brings to light the pervasive inequalities that have made girls second-class students in America's schools," said Alice McKee, the AAUW Educational Foundation president at the time. "Girls and boys enter school roughly equal in ability. Twelve years later, girls have fallen behind in key areas. Whether one looks at achievement scores, curriculum design or teacher-student interaction, it's clear that our schools are shortchanging America's girls."

The report stimulated debate on teacher training and gender equity, experiments with single-sex math and science classes and new interest in girls' schools, including new efforts like the Young Women's Leadership Academy in New York's Harlem.

But based on extensive re-examination of the AAUW data and findings, Ms. Kleinfeld's paper found the report shoddy, biased and simply incorrect. She wrote: "In the view of elementary and high school students, the young people who sit in the classroom year after year and observe what is going on, both boys and girls agree: Schools favor girls. Teachers think girls are smarter, like being around them more and hold higher expectations for them."

Ms. Ravitch also believes that the AAUW report was grounded more in gender politics than educational reality.

"That first AAUW report was just completely wrong," she said. "What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might have been the right story 20 years earlier, but coming out when it did, it was like calling a wedding a funeral. It was phony, it dominated the news for years and it was harmful. There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys."

Janice Weinman, executive director of the AAUW, defends the report. " 'How Schools Shortchange Girls' was a wake-up call," she said. "I think it's because of that report that girls made progress in math and science."

Others have also found it valuable.

"To my mind, it was a good thing that the AAUW got us to worry about girls, because there is no question in my mind that women in classrooms were treated with less respect and interest than boys," said Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, a policy group in Colorado.

"The boy-girl problem is much deeper than education, it's a civic
responsibility problem. When I was a university president, dealing with discipline cases where someone was being expelled or suspended, it was always boys. I don't remember a single girl. We need to teach boys responsibility. That's why sexual harassment is still a problem. Boy-girl differences are still important, but they pale in comparison to the big differences in education, which are due to race and class." This fall, the AAUW issued a follow-up report, talking about girls' gains, as well as the areas where boys lag.

"I agree, the issue shouldn't be boys versus girls," Ms. Weinman said. "It should be equity and excellence for everyone. And we're not stuck in the same groove, singing the same song. Our follow-up report said number one, that girls had made real progress; number two, that boys had not made that kind of progress in the fields where they lag, and number three, that we should look at subgroups, like Hispanic girls or African-American boys, to determine where there are particular needs."

But even the new report emphasized a growing technology gap that leaves girls less equipped for skilled computer jobs, calling technology the new boy's club.
"It's a significant problem, and we're very concerned about it," Ms. Weinman said. "And it's true, we're the American Association of University Women, and our mission is to look at education for girls and women."