We’re celebrating our 5th Anniversary this year. We know a lot can happen in five years, and we’re proud to have done our part in shaping education reform over the years. So, over the next few weeks, we’ll be reflecting on some of our past work just to see how far it’s come: What drew our analysts to the work? How have the issues evolved? And what’s next? Our “retrospective series” reveals what our analysts had to say.
The Truth About Boys and Girls (June 2006)
After decades spent worrying about how schools “shortchange girls,” the eyes of the nation’s education commentariat are increasingly fixed on how they shortchange boys. In 2006 alone, a Newsweek cover story, a major New Republic article, a long article in Esquire, a “Today” show segment, and numerous op-eds have informed the public that boys are falling behind girls in elementary and secondary school and are increasingly outnumbered on college campuses. Stories like these still pop up today — five years later.
But the truth is far different from what these accounts suggest. The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse; it’s good news about girls doing better. The Truth About Boys and Girls, written by former Education Sector analyst Sara Mead (now at Bellwether Education Partners), takes a careful look at the evidence and argues the boy crisis hype is overblown and benefits neither boys nor girls.
Education Sector: What drew you to this issue in the first place?
Sara Mead: In 2005 there were a spate of articles about a “boy crisis” in education—a cover story by Peg Tyre in Newsweek, a big piece by Richard Whitmire in The New Republic, and a big article in Esquire. When I read the articles, there were a few things that didn’t click to me. In particular, some of the articles made statements about how No Child Left Behind and education reform were affecting boys, and those statements didn’t actually reflect the reality of what those policies actually do. Also, I was skeptical of some of the claims about “brain science” and how “boys and girls learn differently”—not because I’m automatically skeptical of the idea that there are gender differences in the brain, but because I had learned from Dan Willingham and some of my experience in early childhood to generally be skeptical when people make claims about the implications of “brain science” for educational practice.
So I started looking into the data and research that was out there—both on trends in boys’ and girls’ achievement over time, and on gender and learning. And I found that the actual data on boys’ achievement over time supported a different narrative than the popular press accounts were presenting. While press accounts were suggesting a dramatic downturn in boys’ achievement, the data showed that boys had actually been improving over time on a variety of measures: Elementary school-aged boys had made significant progress in reading and math; and older boys were doing better on math as well as a host of social indicators, such as involvement in risky behaviors. Boys weren’t suddenly doing worse than in the past, but they were now doing worse than girls on some measures, because girls had made significant improvements in educational achievement and especially attainment since the 1970s. That seemed really important: The gap is still a cause for concern, but in order to address it effectively, educators, parents, and policymakers need to accurately understand WHY there is a gap; and talking about a “boy crisis” seemed to muddy the issue in ways that weren’t helpful to that.
ES: How has this issue evolved since your report came out? Anything surprise you?
SM: Well, the economic challenges of the past few years have really cast a light on this issue, because young men who lack higher education credentials (not to mention young men without high school diplomas) are really taking a hit in the current labor market. And this is a serious problem. At the same time, women’s share of college enrollments and graduates, which had been steadily increasing year to year—until women comprised about 57% of college students—has stabilized; gender gaps in college-going have ceased to grow in the past two years, perhaps partly also due to the economy.
Those factors are both important, but outside of that I haven’t seen a lot of evolution in the conversation about how boys and girls are doing in school. Conversations about how to help boys do better still seem to focus a great deal on controversial or silly topics—such as “gender-based” learning strategies that often reflect misguided understandings of what research actually says, and have little evidence they actually work; whether skewed gender ratios in higher education contributed to “hook-up” culture on college campuses; or whether women are willing to marry men who have less education than they do (given that in 29% of couples the wife has more education than the man, I’d say the answer is probably yes). These things are a lot more fun to talk about than the harder questions of how we actually make schools work effectively for populations of kids they’ve never done a great job of serving (including many boys, particularly from Latino and African American background). But ultimately, if we want to improve results for boys, that’s a more productive line of focus.
ES: Over the course of the next 5 years, how do you expect this issue to develop? Where are the opportunities to continue research?
SM: Well, the exciting thing is that, as Richard Whitmire and the Education Trust have documented, we are seeing examples of schools that are making real progress to narrow achievement gaps for low-income and disadvantaged students they serve—and in the process are also significantly narrowing or wiping out achievement gaps between boys and girls. The problem is that we have far too few of those types of schools, so we need to identify what works in effective models, and work to replicate and grow them to scale. Scaling success is probably the biggest challenge in education generally right now.
I also think we need to look at how to inculcate some of the strategies that some of these schools use into more middle class and suburban schools—which evidence shows are in many case also failing certain subsets of students, who are disproportionately boys.
And I do think that we need to take seriously what’s happening to families—particularly the rise in unmarried motherhood among lower-income white and Hispanic families and what that means for kids—and the relationship between those trends and some of the educational and employment challenges we see for young men. But those are really complicated issues that involve interplay between education and other social and workforce factors.