Tweaking the boy crisis

Posted: Jul 05, 2006 12:00 AM

America's "boy crisis" has been canceled.

It was all hype, we're now told by Education Sector, a nonpartisan education research group.

In a new study titled "The Truth About Boys and Girls," researcher Sara Mead concludes that the failing-boys mantra was politically motivated hooey advanced by anti-feminist pundits and others who cherry-picked data to advance their own ideological agendas.

Boys aren't so much in crisis, says Mead, who analyzed data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They're just not doing very well. That is, middle- and upper-class white boys generally are doing fine, while blacks, Hispanics and the poor (some of whom surely are white) are doing badly to terribly.

We have a class and race problem, in other words, not a boy problem. Maybe.

Mead seems most concerned that education funds might be misdirected in response to recent noises that school programs are unfriendly to males and that teaching styles should be adjusted to accommodate brain differences - and, hence, learning styles - in males and females.

The study, though filled with intriguing information - not much of which undermines the case of males-doing-badly - seems mostly aimed at halting trends away from policies that were put in place to advance girls. Mead makes clear that any disagreement with her conclusions constitutes Neanderthal "hysteria."

"While most of society has finally embraced the idea of equality for women," she writes, "the idea that women might actually surpass men in some areas (even as they remain behind in others) seems hard for many people to swallow."

Fine. Let's call a truce for the moment on who is or isn't politically motivated, and take a look at the data. It is apparently true that boys do pretty well in elementary and middle school but tend to go wobbly in high school and college.

We may need to give social scientists a few more decades to pin down possible reasons for that, but I'm willing to bet my two cents on a combination of testosterone and a lack of disciplined guidance from fathers. A subject worthy of research not addressed in this study might be the correlation between poor academic performance among these same black, Hispanic and impoverished boys and the absence of fathers in the home.

Meanwhile, here are some of the statistics that say "not a crisis," just "not that great."

Only 65 percent of boys who start high school graduate four years later, compared with 72 percent of girls; 42 percent of boys are suspended from school at least once before age 17, compared with 24 percent of girls. (This is the most alarming statistic in the Mead study and deserves a closer look.)

Elementary-school boys are more likely than girls to be held back a year, while high school boys' achievement is declining in most subjects (although it may be improving in math).

A "substantial" percentage of boys are diagnosed with disabilities, while boys comprise two-thirds of special education students, as well as 80 percent of those diagnosed with emotional disturbances or autism. Boys also are two and a half times as likely as girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Mead notes that while these are troubling statistics, they don't tell the whole story. With what seems like relief, she adds that the number of girls with disabilities is growing, so it's not just a "boy issue."

She finds further consolation in the fact that though boys are not doing as well as girls in many categories, overall academic achievement and attainment for boys is higher than it's ever been. And, "while academic performance for minority boys is often shockingly low, it's not getting worse." Phew.

In fairness, Mead may be right that the "crisis" rhetoric has served its useful purpose. Nevertheless, defining "crisis" down doesn't alter the fact that girls are doing better, while boys (except for the luckiest white boys) are lagging. However you cut it, degrees of bad are still bad.

Moreover, the declining status of boys - or the ascent of girls, if you prefer - is at least in part the product of political pressures that led to policy changes and cultural adjustments that have benefited girls. No one wishes to take away those accomplishments or to turn back the clock on girls.

That we might wish to exercise the same political clout in the interest of our sons and our nation's future fathers isn't a symptom of political one-upmanship, but a necessary search for balance.

No matter how much we tweak the data, one reliable truth is that successful women will always want to meet and mate with successful men. At this rate, they will be hard-pressed to find them.