Stop Worrying About Girls Versus Boys, Public Education Sucks for Everyone

teachers pet

By Cathy Reisenwitz –

New research suggests that the supposed boys crisis in education isn’t actually a trend, but rather that the gap between male and female scholastic achievement has persisted over the last 100 years. This of course casts doubt on the contention of writers such as Christina Hoff Sommers who claim public educators have begun waging a “war against boys” on behalf of girls. Instead, it seems that girls have always been socialized to be easier to educate.

Of course what everyone seems to be missing is that arguing over which gender the public education system screws worst kind of ignores the fact is that the public education system screws every child. When 60% of high school seniors can’t read at a “proficient” level, does it really matter that a few more boys than girls are functionally illiterate?

By inventing a war on boys, conservatives and teachers unions both win. Conservatives get to blame something on their favorite boogeyman: feminism. In this case it’s a war on boys which doesn’t even exist. What conservatives rightly point to is that the way we teach boys to act, rebellious, loud, fidgety, is fundamentally incompatible with the way we teach students in public schools. Conservatives could look at the way teachers unions have fought education reform which might lead to competition, and resulting greater diversity in teaching styles and environments. But instead they blame feminism, which is at best tangentially related to public education’s problems.

The subtitle of Sommers’ book is “How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.” But evidence that feminism had any impact on public education until the 1970’s is scarce. The research suggests that the “trend” of boys trailing girls in educational achievement is far older than feminist policies in the classroom. The authors of the new research found that girls exhibit superior average social and behavioral skills than boys beginning as early as kindergarten. This is correlated with higher average grades at each stage of school, leading to a higher likelihood of earning a degree for girls.

In fact, research indicates that sexism, not feminism, is behind lower male achievement. Thomas DiPrete, a sociology professor at Columbia University, has published work showing that:

Boys have historically been trained to think that they needn’t obey rules or work hard because men used to be able to drop out of high school and still earn wages comparable to better-educated women, thanks to jobs in fields like manufacturing, construction and travel. That’s not the case anymore.

In addition, a 2010 journal paper found that many boys did not know that they were likely to need a college degree. Gender stereotypes, peer pressure to conform to them, and lack of information may be limiting boys’ likelihood of attending college.

The fact that girls are socialized to sit down, be quiet and pay attention, while boys are not makes all the difference in their performance in school, which impacts their likelihood of attending and graduating from college. This isn’t a feminist conspiracy. It’s how teaching works (or, fails to) right now.

Writer Soraya Chemaly read the study and what she wants to know is, so what?

Higher academic achievement has not made a substantive dent in the fact that fidgety boys grow up to be fidgety men who dominate every sector of the public sphere. Men continue to earn more, accrue more wealth within their peer groups, and be the vast majority of political leaders, religious leaders, and corporate executives in every industry. Instead of asking hard questions about socialization and why girls’ academic performance has not resulted in a shift in power, we are still talking about a “boy crisis” in education.

Rather than looking at feminism, those concerned with boys’ educational attainment might instead look at education itself, as well as a changing economic landscape.

Fighting over who’s to blame for boys’ failure in school totally misses the bigger, more important questions at play here. First, it must be acknowledged that, as Chemaly notes, performance in school isn’t positively associated with power, prestige, or income. Perhaps that’s because school doesn’t teach what’s necessary for earning them. Instead, education works more like box which must be checked on one’s way to becoming eligible for positions of leadership.

And while girls are checking the college-degree check box more and more, boys are falling behind. Educational attainment skyrocketed starting in the 1950’s, and rising on through the 1970’s. In 1950, half of young adults aged between 25 and 29 were high school graduates. In 1960, a quarter of students dropped out of high school. Today, 90% of 25 to 29-year-olds hold a high school diploma.

While now pretty much everyone graduates high school, the same still isn’t true of college. For people born after 1950, the rate at which men graduate college has stagnated, while women’s college completion rates have grown and grown.

The last time men graduated from college more than women is 1970, when the rates were 20 percent for men and 14 percent for women. Now, women’s college enrollment exceeds men’s by a ratio of 1.4 to 1. For every two men who earned a college degree in 2010, three women did the same.

There was a time when a college degree wasn’t a requirement for a middle-class living. That time has passed. The first-world has moved from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy, where the need for raw strength and low- to mid-level skills has been replaced with the need for high-skill individuals with the ability to focus.

The men who do get college degrees have the opportunity to attain positions of power, and are more likely to do so than the women who get degrees. The men who don’t are likely to end up in prison or unemployed. Between 2007 and 2009, men disproportionately lost their jobs, to the point some called the period a “man-cession.” Those men with no college degree were far harder hit by job losses as construction and manufacturing contracted further.

It’s not feminism’s fault that someone who sits down, shuts up and pays attention is easier to educate than someone who won’t. Nor is it feminism’s fault that those are exactly the skills necessary to earn a bachelor’s degree. Nor is it feminism’s fault that in today’s economy, a bachelor’s degree is required to earn a decent living. Instead of blaming feminism, thinkers like Sommers would be better off thinking of ways to socialize boys more like girls, so they can be equally prepared for the rigors of education and the requirements of the modern world.

5 thoughts on “Stop Worrying About Girls Versus Boys, Public Education Sucks for Everyone

  • March 18, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    You’ve always said that libertarians should check their privilege enough to concern themselves with race and gender issues. You even said on Fox News that school choice should be a libertarian issue for black voters, so I’m shocked that you’re actively advocating that we be dismissive to the needs of these children. I agree with some of what you said. Girls have an easier time sitting still than boys, but our classroom structure is not an unchangeable fact of nature. It is a result of cultural and government forces which C-Hoff-Sommers addresses very well despite socially enforced ignorance on the subject.

    Schools that are better suited to boys learning needs has tremendous demand. We could have them in a free market. Many children and families are getting hurt as a result of not having them. This is a libertarian issue even if we don’t acknowledge a gender advocacy gap.

    The implication of these explanations being dismissed by Americans who tell others to check their privilege is indicative to something I can’t fully identify, but if anyone knows what it is then please post a reply to my comment.

  • July 9, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Boys are not trained to be “loud and rebellious”. Nor are they socialized to not follow rules because they – as young children – look forward to a career as a high school dropout earning “wages comparable to better educated women”. This is all nonsense.

    Boys are NATURALLY more independent then women. This is not from “socialization”, but evolution. Women, being more vulnerable (particularly when pregnant or with young children), did not evolve to have an independent and rebellious mindset. Men, on the other hand, naturally fit that role as hunters and providers. It’s the same reason a woman seeks a man that causes her to feel “safe”, while men do not seek the same from women.

    The school system is gender neutral, but gender neutrality in the way it has been implemented IS a “war on boys”.

    “The fact that girls are socialized to sit down, be quiet and pay attention, while boys are not makes all the difference in their performance in school”

    It’s quite clear that you – and all the psychologists you cite – have no recognition of the fact that boys are indeed socialized the same as girls for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months a year. Or just don’t care that you are simultaneously claiming that the education system is gender neutral, but socialization by that system is not. Because you start with your conclusion that women are oppressed by sexism, and allow no evidence to dissuade you, you HAVE to find the answer for male issues in that same sexism, no matter what.

  • May 22, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Ms. Reisenwitz is absolutely right that public education (PE) is gender neutral, that is, it stinks for both sexes.

    PE will continue to stink, will inevitably deteriorate, because the money to fund it is grabbed at gun point at tax time from those who have earned it but who have absolutely no input into how it is spent.

    No matter how bad their performance has been, everyone on the PE payroll, teachers and administrators, will receive the same fat paycheck next year and will look forward to the same fat pension when they retire. So is it any wonder that PE stinks? No. it’s totally logical.

    (If you doubt that their paychecks are fat, take a look at any chart, over time, of salaries and pensions in public schools. It will be an eye opener.)

    PE is a nasty bureaucratic nightmare for parents trying to do the tough job of raising kids. And this is a nightmare from which there is no waking up.

  • May 13, 2014 at 3:41 am

    Considering how many college entrants require remediation in Math and English, it has to be said that the creeping demand for college degrees is largely a side-effect of the deteriorating quality of government K-12 education.

  • May 13, 2014 at 3:38 am

    If the problems are at least a hundred years old, perhaps teacher’s unions aren’t so much to blame, as the entire system of having government monopolies instead of a genuinely free market?

    Yale Historian Bernard Bailyn, asked to do some research and provide suggestions for improvement in the field of “History of American Education,” observed that such departments were responsible to Departments of Education, rather than Departments of History, and it showed. First off, they focus almost exclusively on schools, and particularly on government schools, when American education, particularly in the early years, was almost entirely a non-school activity. Most families taught their children to read; some taught arithmetic; the wealthier families had small libraries and tutors. Apprenticeships were common, and instruction was part of the arrangement. Libraries were heavily utilized; Americans were expected to take responsibility for their own education. Most “Histories of American Education” capture none of this, since they are designed to promote the idea of professional education within a government monopoly.

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