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September 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 1

Special Report / Do We Really Have a “Boy Crisis”?

  1. Today's classrooms are too structured, ignoring boys' energetic natures and their need for physical movement.
  2. Today's classrooms are not structured enough, ignoring boys' competitive natures and their need for discipline.
  3. Misguided feminism has skewed societal attitudes and discredited boys' natural strengths.
  4. The myths of masculinity have crippled boys' emotional and intellectual growth.
  5. None of the above—boys aren't really falling behind at all.
If you chose (e), you'll find support in The Evidence Suggests Otherwise: The Truth About Boys and Girls. Written by Education Sector senior policy analyst Sara Mead, this report examines trends in achievement and education attainment and concludes that the recent surge of concern about boys' academic performance has been misguided. Fueled by the news media, the perception of a “boy crisis” has been embraced by those seeking to advance various education agendas. Proposals for making schools more boy-friendly, the report asserts, often “align suspiciously well with educational and ideological beliefs the individuals promoting them had long before boys were making national headlines.”

NAEP Scores: No Dramatic Changes

  • In reading, the achievement of both 4th grade and 8th grade boys has improved since 1992, although the achievement of 12th grade boys appears to have declined or remained flat.
  • In math, boys of all ages and races are scoring as high as or higher than they ever have.
  • When compared with girls' performance, boys' performance has shown no radical or recent decline. Boys score higher in some areas, girls in others.

Education Attainment: Gains for Both Boys and Girls

  • Elementary school boys are more likely than girls to be held back a grade. But this gap is getting smaller.
  • Boys are more likely than girls to drop out of high school.
  • More girls than boys take college entrance exams. But boys continue to score higher on both the verbal and math sections of the SAT.
  • Female high school graduates are more likely than males to enroll in college and to graduate. But as with many trends, this one does not indicate bad news: “Men's higher-education attainment is not declining; it's increasing, albeit at a slower rate than that of women.”

Gaps That Should Concern Us

The report recommends that rather than focusing on the overall “boy crisis,” education policymakers should pay attention to the gaps among students of different races and classes. “There are groups of boys for whom ‘crisis' is not too strong a term”—black and Hispanic boys. Although the gaps in NAEP scores among students of different races and classes are generally improving, they are still much larger than the gaps between students of different genders—anywhere from two to five times as big.
Another group of boys who merit attention are those who have been diagnosed with disabilities. In the past 30 years, the numbers of boys labeled as learning disabled or as having ADHD has “exploded”; boys now make up two-thirds of students in special education.
Policymakers should also be concerned about another important gap—that between older and younger students. The NAEP scores of 12th graders have declined for both boys and girls. According to the report, high schools need to be fixed—not just to meet the needs of boys, but to meet the needs of all students.

The Appropriate Response

How should policymakers, educators, and parents respond to current concerns about the “boy crisis”? The report offers several recommendations.
First, don't panic. Boys are doing fine. Be skeptical of silver-bullet answers, such as expanding single-sex schooling or funding new federal programs aimed at improving boys' achievement. The factors affecting achievement are complex, and simplistic solutions are unlikely to work.
Second, focus attention where it is really needed. Closing significant gaps by income and race will help both boys and girls. Concentrating on improving high schools, where achievement seems to be stagnant or declining, will also yield more benefits than worrying about gender gaps.
Finally, support and fund additional research about differences in boys' and girls' learning. More conclusive evidence about the factors contributing to gender differences will lead to a more informed discussion and more effective instructional approaches for all students.
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