The boy problem

So, I gave a quick hit this weekend to Richard Reeves new book on our boy problem, but as I said, it deserves it’s own post.  I cannot recommend highly enough the conversation between Reeves and Derek Thompson (and seriously, if you listen to podcasts, you’ve got to subscribe to Plain English). Here’s from the transcript:

Thompson: And so give me some specific examples, where are boys struggling? Where is the data that you’re pointing to?

Reeves: Well, the three main areas I look at are education—I know that’s something that you’ve written a lot about Derek, and you’ve written a couple of very good pieces, one in particular on the growing gap in college and college campuses where we’re seeing like 60 percent of the students on college campuses and rising being female. And so we’re seeing very big gender gaps in education. And in fact, the gender gap in getting a four-year college degree in the U.S. now is wider than it was in 1972 when Title IX was passed to help girls and women. In 1972, it was about 13 percentage points more likely that a guy would be getting a degree than a woman. Now it’s flipped to 15 percentage points more likely that a woman is going to get it. So, bluntly put, gender inequality in higher education in the U.S. is wider today than when Title IX was passed, but the other way around. And then we’re seeing it among the top-scoring-GPA high school students, two thirds of them are girls, big differences in high school graduation rates and so on.

Then on the work front, and it’s important I think here, this is going to be true generally, but to add kind of nuances to who we’re talking about. Most men in the U.S. today earn less than most men did in 1979…

And then in the family, what we’re seeing is a really big increase in the number of fathers who are not in a close relationship with their children. For all kinds of complicated reasons around family instability and so on, too. But at heart I think because of the incredibly positive challenge that’s been made to the role of men as breadwinner, protector, provider by the successes of the women’s movement. But the result of that has been to leave particularly the least powerful men somewhat adrift and disconnected very much from their own children. And that’s bad for them, it’s bad for the moms, and it’s bad for the kids…

Thompson: Overall as I was reading your book and trying to find some way to synthesize what I saw as these struggles of some boys and men in America, it seemed to me that there’s this idea, somewhat controversial, of a success sequence. And if you go across a success sequence, men seem less likely to succeed in high school. Then less likely to take advanced classes in high school, then less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to drop out of high school. Then less likely to go to college. If they go to college, more likely to drop out, less likely to graduate from school. And then over the last 50 years, as you’re pointing out in the labor force, this is partly cashing out in the fact that they’re more likely to drop out of the job search entirely. The activity rate or participation rate of prime-age men has gone down consistently with every single decade. So that’s sort of how I conceive of the problems that we’re talking about. Is this happening in the U.S. only, or are you touching on global themes here?

 

Reeves: Far and large, I think this is an international trend. That’s one of the reasons I think we have to pay close attention to it, because if it was just a peculiarity of the U.S., you might say, “Oh, what’s weird about our education system? Can we go and learn? Maybe let’s go and see what they’re doing in France or Finland or South Africa or Australia.” But the basic trends are pretty similar everywhere. The U.S. does stand out a little bit for the extent to which men have lost ground economically. It’s not like men have done amazingly well in those other countries, but they’ve at least made some ground. We haven’t seen this sort of backsliding quite the same way elsewhere, but the basic pattern you’ve just described or this pipeline basically of just like a—it’s like a domino all the way through. Right from the beginning actually from pre-K or even like 2 years old all the way through to the 20s.

And you say that’s why young men are more likely to be living at home with their parents in their late 20s than women are, et cetera. And so I do think there’s this kind of sense of a causal chain running all the way through, but there’s also deep cultural questions as to why that should be the case. I think the question as to why it’s happening is a different one. But the fact that it’s happening in pretty much the same way, in pretty much every advanced economy. Again, big caveat, this is only a conversation you can be having really in pretty advanced economies. In most of the rest of the world, the statements we made earlier about gender equality really being about girls and women is still true. If I’m in Afghanistan, I’m not making this argument. But in advanced economies, the conversation has changed.

In the Atlantic, Reeves makes a compelling case that we should literally start boys in school one year after the girls.  Yes, sounds crazy, but there’s lots of good data and logic behind this:

The reason little boys wear almost all of the red shirts is not mysterious; the fact that boys mature later than girls is one known to every parent, and certainly to every teacher. According to a Rand survey, teachers are three times more likely to delay entry for their own sons than their own daughters. The maturity gap is now demonstrated conclusively by neuroscience: Brain development follows a different trajectory for boys than it does for girls. But this fact is entirely ignored in broader education policy, even as boys fall further behind girls in the classroom.

On almost every measure of educational success from pre-K to postgrad, boys and young men now lag well behind their female classmates. The trend is so pronounced that it can result only from structural problems. [emphases mine] Affluent parents and elite schools are tackling the issue by giving boys more time. But in fact it is boys from poorer backgrounds who struggle the most in the classroom, and these boys, who could benefit most from the gift of time, are the ones least likely to receive it. Public schools usually follow an industrial model, enrolling children automatically based on their birth date. Administrators in the public system rarely have the luxury of conversations with parents about school readiness…

A proposal to give a boost to boys may sound odd to some, given the inequities that many girls and women still face. But I am betting on our ability to think two thoughts at once. There is much still to be done to promote female representation in politics and corporate leadership, for example. But as to education, boys and men are the ones who need the most help. And it’s not an issue only for them. When schools fail boys, those boys grow into men lacking the skills to flourish in the workplace, to be strong partners, or to be good providers for their children. Giving boys the gift of time will help create a better society not just for men, but for women and children too…

Once boys begin school, they almost immediately start falling behind girls. A 6-percentage-point gender gap in reading proficiency in fourth grade widens to an 11-percentage-point gap by the end of eighth grade. In a study drawing on scores across the country, Sean Reardon, a sociologist and education professor at Stanford, found no overall gender difference in math in grades three through eight, but a big one in English. “In virtually every school district in the U.S., female students outperformed male students on ELA [English Language Arts] tests,” he writes. “In the average district, the gap is … roughly two-thirds of a grade level.”

By high school, the female advantage has become entrenched. The most common high-school grade for girls is now an A; for boys, it is a B. Twice as many girls as boys are in the top 10 percent of students ranked by GPA, and twice as many boys as girls are among those with the lowest grades. It’s an international pattern: Across economically advanced nations, boys are 50 percent more likely than girls to fail at all three key school subjects: math, reading, and science. In the U.S., almost one in five boys does not graduate high school on time, compared with one in 10 girls—the rate for boys is about the same as that for students from low-income families.

The basic trend is clear—at every age, on almost every educational metric, across the world, girls are leaving boys in the dust. Among many of the parents I know, a shorthand explanation has developed to explain the struggles of an adolescent child to stay on track, especially academically: “He’s a boy.”…

But I believe the biggest reason for boys’ classroom struggles is simply that male brains develop more slowly than female brains—or at least those parts of the brain that enable success in the classroom. The gaps in brain development are clearly visible around the age of 5, and they persist through elementary and middle school. (As Margaret Mead wrote of a classroom of middle schoolers: “You’d think you were in a group of very young women and little boys.”)

The brain-development trajectories of boys and girls diverge further, and most dramatically, as adolescence progresses—with the widest gaps around the age of 16 or 17. I hardly need to say that these are crucial years for educational achievement.

Really thought-provoking stuff.  Working closely with the NCSU Park Scholars– the very highest achievers at NC State– it’s definitely notable that our incoming classes are around 2-1 girls.  And it’s because at the far end of the tail of high school achievement– like everywhere else– girls are way out-performing boys.

Obviously, the redshirt all the boys approach is a very dramatic solution, but, regardless, these are important conversations we need to be having that do not detract from the fact that on a society level we also need to be deeply concerned about true equality for women.  (Life is complex and nuanced, despite what you might believe from twitter).  

Advertisement

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to The boy problem

  1. Laura says:

    2 things: 1- I’m not a big fan of looking at most things as a zero-sum game, but isn’t the economy kind of that. I.e, if women are making more money, doesn’t it make sense that men are making less? 2- all of the male student rubrics presented are grade based – I’m curious if there was any data on how standardized testing compared?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: