National Post

Wednesday, December 16, 1998

School boys losing in battle of the sexes

Tamar Lewin
The New York Times

No one's calling for affirmative action for boys just yet.

But given the fact girls are becoming an ever larger majority at most U.S. colleges, many educators are beginning to think boys should get more attention.

For several years, the conventional wisdom -- reinforced by a steady drumbeat of stories stressing female victimhood -- has been that girls are shortchanged in school, getting less attention from their teachers than boys and gradually losing their self-esteem as they enter adolescence.

By all kinds of measures, though, girls rule in school. They have better grades, higher reading and writing scores, higher class ranks and more school honors.

Boys are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, be put in special education, be diagnosed with learning disabilities and be put on behavior-modifying medication like Ritalin. As teenagers, they are also far more likely than girls to commit suicide.

"The myth that the schools shortchange girls is dangerously wrong because it has diverted policy attention from the group at genuine education risk -- African-American boys," said Judith Kleinfeld, a University of Alaska professor, in a paper earlier this year that found schools put boys at more of a disadvantage than girls. "This is the group that scores lowest on virtually every educational measure."

The idea that boys need more help than girls do is slowly gaining currency in the U.S. "Just recently, people are beginning to be willing to think about boys' problems," Ms. Kleinfeld said.

No one denies the status of women remains a real issue in society. Despite the flood of women into business and the professions over the last two decades, women are underrepresented in corporate boardrooms, science labs and partnerships at law firms.

Boys still dominate the nation's technical and engineering schools, and obtain higher scores on many standardized tests -- although those gaps are narrowing.

But some educators say the boys-versus-girls bean-counting has gone too far, that those gaps have become small enough that they are unimportant, especially when measured against the very large racial differences in educational achievement.

"They're saying that more girls take biology and chemistry, but uh-oh, there's more boys in physics," said Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "This is not an alarm bell ringing in the night," she said. "What we should be concerned about is the racial disparities. There's a four-year gap between blacks and whites on the national tests. The average black 17-year-old scores the same as the average white 13-year-old. That's a crisis, not gender."

Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College, takes a middle road, stressing that both sexes have unique problems schools should address.

"It's not either-or, and we shouldn't always see things as the crisis du jour," he said. "We can do better by boys. We need to do a lot better with regard to racial and socioeconomic differences, and that doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention to the special needs of girls."

The furor over gender equity was kindled in 1992 by the release of a study by the American Association of University Women, which presented the situation as dire. "This report brings to light the pervasive inequalities that have made girls second-class students in America's schools," said Alice McKee, the AAUW Educational Foundation president at the time.

The report stimulated debate on teacher training and gender equity, experiments with single-sex math and science classes and new interest in girls' schools, including new efforts like the Young Women's Leadership Academy in New York's Harlem.

But based on extensive re-examination of the AAUW data and findings, Ms. Kleinfeld's paper found the report shoddy, biased and incorrect. She wrote: "In the view of elementary and high school students, the young people who sit in the classroom year after year and observe what is going on, both boys and girls agree: Schools favor girls. Teachers think girls are smarter, like being around them more and hold higher expectations for them."

Copyright Southam Inc. All right reserved.