Stop Avoiding the Issue of Failing Boys

March 6, 2009

Hardly a month goes by without another major foundation or education advocacy group reminding us of the peril our country faces if we don't send more students to college. The International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that the United States is slipping fast in international rankings. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, we rank no better than 10th in higher education attainment. Most striking among the measures is the "survival rate," the measurement of enrolled students who actually earn diplomas. Our students rank at the bottom of the developed world.

Visit the Web sites of the prominent foundations -- Gates, Lumina, Broad -- and you will see the same message that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and corporate leaders such as Intel's Craig Barrett have been warning about for years: We need to broaden the college pipeline, and do it quickly. The latest study pointing out our educational weaknesses – and offering solutions – arrived earlier this month from the respected MDRC, which offered the Obama administration a 15-point plan for turning things around.

Interestingly, however, there's something all these groups studiously avoid talking about. These U.S. education numbers look bad primarily because the schools are failing boys. For the most part, those awful high school graduation numbers are driven by boys, not girls (32 percent of boys drop out, compared to 25 percent of girls). And the lackluster college graduation rates are due primarily to men floundering in college (men earn about 42 percent of four-year degrees). Given that men are far more likely to major in math and science – a special worry for the technical industries -- the chamber should be particularly concerned about men falling behind.

But the gender angle never gets mentioned. Popular, well-thought-out solutions, which include strengthening the high school curriculum, building better after-school programs and making college more affordable, skirt the obvious solution of reaching out to failing boys specifically. As for MDRC's 15-point plan – gender didn't get a mention.

Those omissions are striking, given that boosting the number of men earning college degrees should be the low-hanging-fruit remedy. Why the silence? The boys issue gets skipped because it has become a controversy; one of those he said/she said spats where the dialogue becomes downright unpleasant. In cases like this, the easy tactic is to steer clear. Interestingly, only in the United States is the boys issue considered so controversial. Countries such as Britain and Australia have been openly confronting the problem for years. There, the boy troubles are an issue to be studied and remedied, not something to squabble about.

All this gives our new education secretary, Arne Duncan, an opportunity: Why not do what Australia did and launch a federal probe into the boy problems? Duncan has the ideal vehicle, the freshly unveiled $15 billion grant program to reward initiatives that draw academic achievements from students less inclined to succeed. That would include boys.

In fairness to Duncan, he needs to know what he would be getting himself into. Why is this considered a controversy? That question can't be answered with absolute precision, but from years of reporting on this issue I have picked up on two threads. The first arose in 1992 when the American Association of University Women released a report about girls being shortchanged in schools, in part because teachers paid more attention to hyperactive boys jumping up to wave their hands in the air: Call on me! I was one of many education reporters who wrote about the report uncritically. That was a mistake. Hindsight tells us the schools-favor-boys research was shaky.

Regardless, the AAUW report unleashed a save-the-girls juggernaut. That girls' crusade ended up doing a lot of good by boosting female participation in advanced math and science classes. Today, girls dominate most of those courses. But the flawed research left behind an unfortunate legacy. Boys, who clearly needed the help more than girls, once again got ignored.

The second thread emerged in 2000 with the release of Christina Hoff Sommers' book, The War Against Boys. Sommers expertly laid out the case that boys, not girls, were suffering in school. Given that she was one of the first to tackle this issue, combined with the fact that The Atlantic serialized the book, Sommers had a unique opportunity to set the agenda about boys. Had Sommers stuck with her solid argument that boys were in trouble and then proposed solutions, it is conceivable the U.S. Department of Education would have launched a national investigation, identified the problems and funded experiments to arrest boys' academic slide. Today, the United States today could rank with Australia at the forefront of fashioning solutions to help boys.

But that's not how things played out. Instead of focusing solely on boys, Sommers devoted most her book to attacking feminists, blaming them for the boy troubles. Naturally, the feminists fought back, fingering Sommers as the tip of the spear of what they dubbed a "backlash" movement, those pushing back against the hard-won gains of women. Who could blame the feminists? After all, the book's subtitle was, How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.

Since then, everything's been pretty much downhill. If boys are suffering any problems, argue feminists, those problems are limited to minority boys and rooted in racism and poverty, not gender.

Higher education leaders, who feel they are blameless in the boy troubles and have reaped the benefits of ever-rising numbers of female applicants, look the other way. That is proving to be a mistake. High-tuition second and third-tier private colleges that tolerated significant gender imbalances are now under stress from the recession. Today, they may be wishing they had stepped forward to try to solve the male college pipeline problem, which goes well beyond poor and minority boys.

Elite colleges generally don’t suffer gender imbalances, especially those offering boys admissions preferences. Plus, their faculties remain fixated on the Larry Summers fiasco at Harvard. His musings over why fewer women occupy top academic spots politicized campus gender issues, leaving professors likely to embrace the viewpoints of the feminists, who argue that women, not men, are the aggrieved parties in higher education.

Given all this, it’s easy to understand why groups such as Gates and the U.S. Chamber prefer to duck. Who can blame them? Problem is, ducking does nothing to solve the very problem they raise, the slipping status of the United States as an educated workforce – a phenomenon driven mostly by boys. Secretary Duncan, you have a unique opportunity to get us beyond this political divide. Settle this issue once and for all. Boosting college graduation rates is an issue too important to be mired in this controversy.

Bio

Richard Whitmire, president of the National Education Writers Association, blogs at whyboysfail.com

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