The American Association of University Women released a report this week attempting to debunk concerns that have been raised about educational outcomes for boys. The AAUW report received significant press coverage, including articles in the WSJ and NYT.
But the AAUW report simply debunks a strawman — er, I mean — strawperson. The report defines its opponents in this way: “many people remain uncomfortable with the educational and professional advances of girls and women, especially when they threaten to outdistance their male peers.” Really? What experts or policymakers have articulated that view? The report never identifies or quotes its opponents, so we left with only the Scarecrow as our imaginary adversary.
Once this stawperson is built, it’s easy for the report to knock it down. The authors argue that there’s no “boy crisis” because boys have not declined or have made gradual gains in educational outcomes over the last few decades. And the gap between outcomes for girls and boys has not grown significantly larger.
This is all true, as far as it goes, but it does not address the actual claims that are made about problems with the education of boys. For example, Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys claims: “It’s a bad time to be a boy in America… Girls are outperforming boys academically, and girls’ self-esteem is no different from boys’. Boys lag behind girls in reading and writing ability, and they are less likely to go to college.” Sommers doesn’t say that boys are getting worse or that the gap with girls is growing. She only says that boys are under-performing and deserve greater attention.
Nothing in the new AAUW report refutes those claims. In fact, the evidence in the report clearly supports Sommers’ thesis. If we look at 17-year-olds, who are the end-product of our K-12 system, we find that boys trail girls by 14 points on the most recent administration of the Long-Term NAEP in 2004 (See Figure 1 in AAUW). In 1971 boys trailed by 12 points. And in 2004 boys were 1 point lower than they were in 1971.
In math the historic advantage that boys have had is disappearing. In 1978 17-year-old boys led girls by 7 points on the math NAEP, while in 2004 they led by 3 points. (See Figure 2 in AAUW) Both boys and girls made small improvements since 1978, but none since 1973.
Boys also clearly lag girls in high school graduation rates. According to a study I did with Marcus Winters, 65% of the boys in the class of 2003 graduated with a regular diploma versus 72% of girls. Boys also lag girls in the rate at which they attend and graduate from college. While boys exceed girls in going to prison, suicide, and violent deaths.
It takes extraordinary effort by the AAUW authors to spin all of this as refuting a boy crisis. They focus on how the gap is not always growing larger and that boys are sometimes making gains along with girls. They also try to divert attention by saying that the gaps by race/ethnicity and income are more severe. But no amount of spinning can obscure the basic fact that boys are doing quite poorly in our educational system and deserve some extra attention.