Some Love for Boys, Please

When reporting on schools it’s customary for the news media to focus on the problems of women and ethnic minorities – as if academic deficits occur only among girls and minorities (not Asians of course!). Typical are these two stories:
College graduation rates rise, but racial gaps persist and men still out-earn women
Seattle schools have biggest white-black achievement gap in state

There’s a group missing in the usual reports: boys – and when boys are mentioned it’s usually only as another way to show the problems suffered by the favored minorities. For example, in this summary of a report released by the Schott Foundation for Public Education (italics added by me): “the national public high school graduation rates are 59 percent for Black male students, 65 percent for Latino males, and 80 percent for White, non-Latino males. The gap between Black and White male students increased from 19 percentage points in the 2009-2010 school year to an estimated 21 percentage points in the 2012-2013 school year.”

However, boys by themselves deserve attention. Boys are a group that, compared to others, is actually NOT doing well. Look at three metrics:

High school graduation rates In Seattle public schools, there’s a nearly ten percent gap in the graduation rate for girls versus boys (for the class of 2018 86.4% of girls graduated, 76.9% of boys graduated).
High school dropout rates In Seattle public schools, the dropout rate for boys seems to be about double that for girls (for the class of 2018, 11% boys versus 5.5% girls).
College degrees awarded For the 2015/16 academic year, about 60% of bachelor and master’s degrees went to women.

Guys are simply falling behind these days. Some say that boys, by their natures, are at a disadvantage in a classroom environment. For perspective I love to imagine what it was like to be a human in a pre-agriculture world; when boys from age five or so were taken off on hunts with the older males acting as teachers, passing along the intricacies of stalking and killing game – or stealing horses from the neighboring tribe. That is the evolutionary heritage for males, and it doesn’t seem well-suited to life in a classroom or office. I especially remember a winter afternoon when my wife and I turned our very young son loose in the backyard for the first time. Almost immediately he picked up a stick and bounced it in his hand as if looking for the balance point, cocked his arm and tossed the stick as far as he could, point-first as if it were a spear. Apparently this was totally instinctive; it’s nothing I taught him to do.

schools may be more girl-friendly. Girls tend to be more self-disciplined (perhaps because of how they are socialized), and good at sitting and listening, something many small boys find hard, says Francesca Borgonovi, senior analyst at the OECD. “Boys are too often seen as deficient girls,” says Gijsbert Stoet, a psychologist at Leeds Beckett University.

Why are boys falling behind at school?

Schools appear to value most highly the skills that girls excel at. And a boy who learns that he is a failure or a problem is unlikely to enjoy school. Failure in the classroom leads to the emotion boys fear above all others—shame. Shame, in turn, leads to lower self-esteem and disconnection from the school community. By the time high school rolls around, boys are at greater risk for academic problems, truancy, and dropping out altogether.

Why Boys Struggle with School

Some schools don’t seem to see the problem. Seattle Public Schools doesn’t even track graduation rates, dropout rates, or academic deficits by gender. There’s lots of tracking by ethnic group, but gender is ignored. I spent a lot of time online looking at Seattle schools data. You can see the typical presentation here: 2017-18 District Scorecard. See the table on page 2. It shows ‘Disaggregated Student Outcomes’ by eight different ethnicities. No reporting by gender. I sent a letter to each member of the school board asking about this, and didn’t get a single reply. (Data by gender for Seattle schools, reported earlier in this post, is available from the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.)

The Bottom Line
It’s one thing that boys do relatively poorly in school. The fact that the problem is hidden behind a smoke screen, at least in Seattle, is a different issue.

My opinion: it’s a matter of calculation by the progressive mind. There’s political profit in flogging academic deficits for ethnic groups: ethnic groups get automatic sympathy, and they tend to be politically organized. Boys? Not so much.