John Leo

How do you get your opinions on Page One of The Washington Post? Do you phone the editor and say, "Here's what I think ..." No. You type up your thoughts and label them a "report" or "study." Reports and studies are authoritative. So they have a shot at the front page, even if they lack report-like qualities such as fresh evidence and independent research.

This has just happened to "The Truth About Boys and Girls," a few debunking thoughts about the education of boys by Sara Mead of a Washington think tank called Education Sector. Mead doesn't like the rising consensus that boys are in trouble in our schools. She thinks it's "hysteria," linked to "Americans' deepest insecurities, ambivalences and fears about changing gender roles."

Many of us, however, think it's linked to the fact that boys drop out of school more often, are left back a grade more frequently, are suspended or expelled more often, are more discouraged and less optimistic about their education than girls, and now account for only about 44 percent of the students at colleges, with the number apparently destined to head even lower in the years ahead.

After 15 years of announcing that girls are being shortchanged in education, the mainstream media and some educrats have at last looked at some obvious evidence that girls are doing well while boys are lagging. Major media outlets have signed on to the new mandate to pay more attention to boys. A Newsweek cover story in January carried the headline, "The Boy Crisis. At every level of education, they're falling behind. What to do?"

Mead dismisses this rising consensus by announcing that boys are doing well and they seem to be doing poorly only because girls are doing better. This ought to have provoked some media interest, since virtually nobody made this argument during the long frenzy over the "shortchanging" of girls. That frenzy produced the expensive and one-sided Gender Equity Act at a time (we now realize) that girls were actually doing quite well in relation to boys.

Alas, if one big media outlet falls for a "report," others will too. So "CBS News With Bob Schieffer" said, "New report finds it's a myth that boys are falling behind in school." Lori Leibovich chimed in at Salon.com with "Shocker! 'Boy Crisis' in education is overblown," and Bonnie Erbe at Scripps Howard announced that the whole issue is now closed. "So much for the boy crisis," she wrote.

Mead's procedure was to rely almost exclusively on samples from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tracks performance in reading, math and other subjects among students in grades 4, 8 and 12. She highlights the areas where boys are doing well and downplays areas where they do poorly.

Thus the good news: Fourth-grade boys did better than on the previous two NAEP reading assessments. In math, boys in grades 4 and 8 have improved on the main NAEP (there is a long-term NAEP as well) and did significantly better last year then ever before. In general, boys outperform girls in math and science, while girls do better in reading and writing. Boys score significantly higher than girls on both the verbal and math subtests of the SAT. Mead writes: "Overall, there has been no radical or recent decline in boys' performance relative to girls."

The bad news is that by the 12th grade, the performance of boys is worse than in earlier grades. Boys' achievement in reading fell during the 1990s and early 2000s. Last year in math, the males in grade 12 did better than in 1990 and 1992, but worse than in 1996. In science the 12th-grade boys declined since 1996 as well. On the long-term NAEP, the boys in grade 12 are doing about as well as in 1970, but their performance has been declining since the late 1980s. Girls are more likely to take college-prep course, more likely to plan to graduate from a four-year college and are less likely to drop out of college once they get there.

Isn't concern for the prospects of boys a legitimate issue rather than "hysteria"? Michael Gurian, an author who thinks boys are in trouble, was permitted a brief burst of muted dissent in the Post. He said the report "missed the cumulative nature of the problems boys face." The blog "The Other Charlotte" said this about Mead's essay: "Naturally the elites are pooh-poohing the 'boy crisis' because it interferes with their victimologist view that the real 'crisis' facing boys is that they're not enough like girls." Could be. More actual journalism, please, and fewer "reports."


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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