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American Boys Falling Behind Foreign Competition


America’s neglect of its young men, specifically its failure to address the gender gap in education, may be hurting its international competitiveness. That’s the implication of Christina Hoff Summers’ excellent new piece in the Atlantic.

We’ve known for some time that more girls are going to college than boys, but the disparity actually begins much earlier in life. Primary schools are set up in ways that put boys at a disadvantage from day one: boys are often punished for being restless and competitive in class or wanting to play games outside, despite the fact that this learning style is better suited to males than the quiet, static learning that dominates the American classroom. This probably contributes to the fact that boys are less likely to graduate high school and even less likely to receive a bachelor’s degree. Given that a college degree has become a near-requirement for obtaining a high-paying job, this is a serious problem.

Fortunately, there are some ideas to address this issue, particularly in the area of vocational education. Hoff Summers points toward one particularly promising example in Massachusetts:

Massachusetts has a network of 26 academically rigorous vocational-technical high schools serving 27,000 male and female students. Students in magnet schools…take traditional academic courses but spend half their time apprenticing in a field of their choice. These include computer repair, telecommunications networking, carpentry, early childhood education, plumbing, heating, refrigeration, and cosmetology. As Pathways reports, these schools have some of the state’s highest graduation and college matriculation rates, and close to 96 percent pass the states’ rigorous high-stakes graduation test.

Blackstone Valley Tech in Upton, Massachusetts, should be studied by anyone looking for solutions to the boy problem.  It is working wonders with girls (who comprise 44 percent of the student body), but its success with boys is astonishing.

As Summers notes, there is considerable institutional resistance to such programs, in part due to misguided concerns that it privileges male education at the expense of girls. Meanwhile, this approach is already making headway in a number of other countries:

Young men in Great Britain, Australia, and Canada have also fallen behind. But in stark contrast to the United States, these countries are energetically, even desperately, looking for ways to help boys improve. Why? They view widespread male underachievement as a national threat: A country with too many languishing males risks losing its economic edge. So these nations have established dozens of boy-focused commissions, task forces, and working groups. Using evidence and not ideology as their guide, officials in these countries don’t hesitate to recommend sex-specific solutions. The British Parliamentary Boys’ Reading Commission urges, “Every teacher should have an up-to-date knowledge of reading material that will appeal to disengaged boys.” A Canadian report on improving boys’ literacy recommends active classrooms “that capitalize on the boys’ spirit of competition”— games, contests, debates. An Australian study found that adolescent males, across racial and socioeconomic lines, shared a common complaint, “School doesn’t offer the courses that most boys want to do, mainly courses and course work that prepare them for employment.”

These countries are a step ahead; they’re actively looking for ways to solve the problem, while many of the education establishment in the US don’t even want to acknowledge it. For America to stay competitive, it will need to ensure that its young men are getting the education they need to thrive in the workforce. We should be following the progress of these programs abroad and looking for ways to imitate those that have the greatest impact.

[Punished child image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • The Raving Jock

    Very interesting; here in the UK, the introduction of a new top-level grade has helped males: they dominate the top grades in the more rigorous subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry and economics. However, the introduction of the new grading was not in response to the problem of male underachievement, it was rather in response to grade inflation whih brings me to my next point.
    The watering down of course content fails to challenge the very top (of which boys are disproportionately represented) which can lead to lower levels of engagement.
    The solution, I believe, would be to ensure that high school is a far more challenging environment which leads to a clearer seperation of abilities but sadly the prevailing dogma (in both politics and teaching) is that ‘no child can be left behind’ which leads to a one-size-fits-all education which ends up watering down the curriculum. This, and a failure to demonstrate lessons in a more applied empirical context, has lead to relatively greater level of detachment in boys.
    Even in younger age groups where university-educated females outnumber their male counterparts, it is still male innovation which continues to push the boundaries of economic growth. That, in itself, is a strong enough reason to introduce the changes necessary to address the gap.

    • Fred

      Boy are you right. Unfortunately, in America your attitude would be labeled as “elitism” i.e., the moron’s race card.

    • Corlyss

      “The watering down of course content fails to challenge the very top”
      No question you’re right.

      Unfortunately, the object of the school system today is to foster social goals, not really to educate. The old way was rote, discipline, and testing for verification. All that’s been discredited as “creating winners and losers, which leads to self-esteem problems for the less adept (losers).” So now we have a system where everyone is a loser, everyone is taught to feel good about him or herself regardless of whether there’s any reason to, and we graduate generations of touchy-feely citizens who feel others’ pain, want to be nice, helpful, and uncritical (because criticality underscores differences and observation of differences can be painful to others), wouldn’t think of distinguishing themselves from their peers, and can’t find their bums with both hands. I wouldn’t give you a nickel for the average graduate of high school today.

  • Anthony

    The above is a very important issue and at least 20 years old if not more. Issue also now is mixed with intellectual mobility constraints of economy (the skill of being able to learn new skills as the occasion demands). U.S. boys are definitely being short changed in the information age (where all purpose skills that depend on language mastery are rewarded yet teaching methods are leaving many behind). The answers are not only vocational-technical schools but perhaps rethinking both pedagogical and curriculum systems beginning at K-8 on through 9-12.

  • Corlyss

    When I was in public school, there were already too many women in education. It’s become one of those nurturing professions “suitable for women.” The profession, which now deals with much younger kids than was typical when I entered the system, is estrogen-besotted. Women and men think and communicate differently. With the raising of women’s consciousness in the 60s and 70s about the evils of patriarchy, women tend to think boys and men would be much much better if they were remade everso slightly in women’s more feminine and collegial kumbya-singing everybody-join-hands image. A good move might be to get more men in the profession. I don’t see it happening tho’.

    • Kavanna

      The joke is the idea that there’s any patriarchy to fight.

      Patriarchy — kings, popes, bishops, dukes and lords, powerful patres familias — has been dying in the West for centuries — really, since the Reformation. In the US, patriarchy has been no more than residual since around the time of World War One, when women obtained the vote.

      For the last 40 years or so, we’ve been under the sway of leftist feminism, with its ritual incantations of victimhood and oppression. While the patriarchy they think they’re fighting is imaginary, they have done much damage to equal relationships between men and women.

      Whoever thought that in 2013, life in America would be subject to such PC thought control and denial?

      • Corlyss

        “The joke is the idea that there’s any patriarchy to fight.”

        Excellent point. They wouldn’t be the left if they weren’t flogging 200 year old bêtes noires that long ago ceased to be issues. I mean, look at the union movement, an anachronistic bunch of whiners if ever there was one. They’re all still trying to fix problems of the 1840s. The only thing that gives their lives meaning and justification.

  • Fat_Man

    When my son turned 5 (he is 26 now) we went to sign him up for a soccer team. We found out that there girls team and co-ed teams. Clearly boys teams are sexist. Face-palm.

    • Anthony

      Wow, I’m pretty liberal, and from my vantage point, it’s pretty obvious that single gender sports leagues are a very bad idea.

  • Anthony

    I think single gender classrooms might be a possible remedy. Male teachers, moreover, are in a better position to control rowdy boys. When I was in school, I always liked the fact that most of the male teachers I had were better at controlling students, gasp… even better at controlling me. If I acted up, they tended to come down hard, but unlike many of the female teachers – who tended to take it personally and would sometimes be angry for an entire day – they wouldn’t stay angry for very long provided that I continued to behave.

    Single gender classrooms might be helpful in light of the fact that a lot of bad behavior, especially in the middle and early high schools years, comes from a desire to impress members of the opposite sex.

    I went to what most people would call a good suburban high school, and I can say without a doubt that at LEAST half of my time there was wasted. The amount of worksheets – i.e., fill in the the blank – that we had to do was staggering and pathetic. These kinds of activities are more akin to incarceration than education. Professor Mead is spot on when he says that there needs to be a way for students who have mastered the material to get out of school more quickly.

  • Anthony

    Actively look for ways to solve problem – culturally in America families, neighborhoods, communities, etc. must make boys socio-economic concern at all levels of social organization (recreation, education, socialization, employment, and familial).

    • Jim__L

      Treating everyone as a special interest is what got us into trouble in the first place.

      Just remove the laws that hold boys back, and we’ll be fine.

      • Anthony

        Too simplistic and culturally narrow. Thanks.

        • Jim__L

          If by that you mean you’re unhappy that the approach doesn’t leave sociologists and policy wanks with much to do, that’s certainly true.

          Look on the bright side, though — you’re still welcome to spend your own time on whatever hobbies you like.

          • Anthony

            Jim, the word I presume you mean is “wonks” but none of your reply entered my initial response (which by the way remains). So, let’s end this; the wonderful thing about America is we can disagree (we have a different world view) and maintain comity I’m done.

  • Jim__L

    American society has for forty-plus years criminalized the practice of men looking after our own interests.

    Affirmative action made some degree of overshoot inevitable. Hopefully we can minimize that, by repealing those laws.

    As long as the focus of the social order is on advancing groups as groups, men should have no qualms about advancing ourselves as a group.

    The only alternative is for our social order to emphasize true equality, which sounds like a good strategy to me.

  • Kavanna

    It’s a sad truth rarely acknowledged, that other countries are reforming and advancing themselves in ways that America could once, but can no longer.

  • Jane the Actuary

    It’s sad that, in many ways, the debate treats boys’ vs. girls’ success as a zero-sum game. Who earns more? Is it “allowed” to adjust for work hours, careers chosen, etc.? Whose learning styles should the classroom favor? Or, acknowledging the 60%/40% discrepancy, does it actually impact wages on average? Any boy who isn’t living up to his potential because of the way the classroom and curriculum is structured, should be helped — as should any girl.

    More stats here:

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