"What do you expect? He’s a boy!"
If you have a son you hear this refrain a lot — people employ it to explain everything from sloppy personal habits to lackluster grades to the jacket that goes missing over and over again.
“Boy brain!” people quip when a teen side-swipes the family car (with the other family car), or dashes out of the house leaving the front door wide open, or, after being nagged for years about his grades, confesses during his first semester at a mediocre college that he wishes he’d worked harder in high school.
But it’s not funny, not really, that so many of our boys stop reading books, perform poorly in school , and worse — drop out, abuse drugs, and languish in prison. Of course, girls aren't perfect, either, but statistics make the case for a yawning gender gap: girls consistently out perform boys in school; boys are far more likely than girls to repeat a grade or drop out, and boys are twice as likely to end up in juvenile detention. Girls now earn 60 percent of college degrees, and the gap is even wider for minorities: black women are nearly twice as likely to receive a college degree as their male counterparts, for example.
The boy crisis has received plenty of attention: there are entire books on the subject, including The Trouble With Boys, by Peg Tyre and Richard Whitmire’s, Why Boys Fail.
Now the issue is in the public eye again because of a recent article published in the The Journal of Human Resources, which found that, beginning in kindergarten, behavior is a major factor in how teachers assign grades. Since boys don’t behave as well as girls, they receive lower grades than their test scores would predict.
In other words, from their earliest school years boys receive grades based in part on “non-cognitive” skills that girls develop much earlier, including the ability to sit still, pay attention, participate and demonstrate knowledge in the classroom, and generally show a positive attitude toward learning.
The implication of this research is that, because of these non-cognitive lags, boys fall behind in school early and never really catch up. As one of the study authors told Christina Hoff Sommers, “If grade disparities emerge this early on, it’s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned.”
These findings are important: we clearly need to create more academic environments that take into account differences in boys’ learning styles, as Hoff Summers suggests. It’s also important, as Sara Mead points out in in Education Week, that we help boys develop essential non-cognitive skills that will serve them — not just in school but in every aspect of life.
Mind the (gender) gap
Still, for all the research that’s being done on the gender gap, it strikes me that we haven’t gotten to the bottom of this issue yet. I found this observation by a college professor, writing in response to Hoff Sommer’s article, particularly disturbing:
“…Most of my female students are hungry! Hungry for success, hungry for knowledge, hungry for whatever they need to get where they want to go. My female students track me down for meetings, advice and tips on how to get where they want to go. They ask all the right questions and are seriously thinking about their futures. This includes white, Black, Asian American and Latino female students.
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