Boys Are At The Back Of The Class Boys are lagging behind girls in school; on average, they get worse grades, take fewer advanced classes and are less likely to graduate. To find out why boys are taking a back seat in education, host Michel Martin speaks with Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of 'The War Against Boys.'

Boys Are At The Back Of The Class

Boys Are At The Back Of The Class

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Boys are lagging behind girls in school; on average, they get worse grades, take fewer advanced classes and are less likely to graduate. To find out why boys are taking a back seat in education, host Michel Martin speaks with Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of 'The War Against Boys.'


Now we turn to an important and sensitive issue in education. If you follow the news in education or you find yourself around schools at just about every level, then you will probably have noticed that there are major gaps opening up between girls and boys, with boys on average falling behind girls in grades, in participation in advanced classes, and graduation rates.

You might have seen that girls now are in the majority of Associate's, Bachelor's and Master's degrees. And now there's a new study that offers a perspective about why that is. We're going to talk about this for the rest of the program today. In a few minutes we're going to bring in a panel of educators who are also fathers of boys. But we start with Christina Hoff Sommers.

She's been raising concerns about the problems facing boys in American education for some years now. She recently wrote a commentary titled "The Boys at the Back" for the New York Times where she cited the new research. She's also the author of the book "The War Against Boys," and she's resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: Pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: The so-called achievement gap is so - between boys and girls - is so well reported now, I don't think we really need to plow that ground. But just by way of example for people who don't follow this, by 2003, for example, there were 135 females for every 100 males who graduated from college. So I just wanted to start by asking you, as you pointed out in your piece, when you started writing about this about 12 years ago, not a lot of other people were.

SOMMERS: That's right.

MARTIN: So I wanted to get - to ask, why did you start writing about this? What did you notice? What got you started?

SOMMERS: Well, I had been studying statistics in education. I was originally a philosophy professor, but I started to write about children and education, and boys and girls. And at the time there was a lot of concern about the short-changed girl. Groups like the AAUW had quite properly pointed to deficits with the girls in education, specifically in math and science.

And they did a lot to help girls. However, at the same time boys were put on a back burner and they have not improved. And in a time like ours, a knowledge-based economy, it is essential to have education beyond high school. Girls are getting it, boys are not.

MARTIN: What does this new study, which was published in the Journal of Human Resources, say about why boys are having trouble? What does it add to the conversation?

SOMMERS: This was a fascinating study for those of us who have just been so concerned at the mystery of male underachievement and I think they may have put their finger on it. They show that as early as kindergarten, boys suffer from grading bias from teachers. And what they did is they looked at a very interesting data set from the Department of Education that followed about 17,000 children from kindergarten through eighth grade.

And these children were tested on their knowledge, of math, science, reading, and the teachers, without knowing their test score, evaluated their proficiency and also evaluated on them on their comportment. Well, it turned out the teachers both for reading, for math as well as science, they gave the boys lower grades than their test scores predicted, far lower grades.

And it turned out, these three economists, two from the University of Georgia, and one from Columbia University, were able to show that teachers factor their attitude toward the child's comportment into the grade. And it's one thing to do this in high school when kids have to be good citizens, but this starts at kindergarten. And so I raise the question, you know, shouldn't we do something to help boys? Shouldn't we meet them half way because I think most parents know little boys entering school are less mature than their female counterparts?

MARTIN: Well, you raise the point in your piece that this has particular consequences for Black and Latino boys who have been a focus of a lot of attention by educators recently or sort of kind of by people who are observing this. Not just educators, but anybody who really cares about, you know, this issue. Why do you think it seems to have a particular effect for Black and Latino boys? Any thoughts?

SOMMERS: Well, I think that a lot of these little boys - well, it's White boys too. If we look at suspension rates, it's all boys. It's 70 percent of the kids who were suspending are boys and there's been just an exponential growth in the number of kids suspended since the 1980s, and a disproportionate numbers of children of color.

But there's simply an intolerance for high spiritedness among little boys and maybe the teachers come to the classroom - it's understandable that they prefer children who sit still. Girls are better at paying attention, sitting still, and so it's just that boys are going to suffer and I think African-American or Latino boys, from all the data we have, suffer most acutely from simply intolerance of antics and high spiritedness and misbehavior.

MARTIN: How do you respond to people who say that this is actually - it's not that boys are being discriminated against, if I can use that? I know it's a heavy-handed term, I'm just going to use it for now. But this is really more of a corrective, that girls were largely shut out of education for really most of our history and that history is just catching up and that it's just leveling the playing field. How do you respond to that?

SOMMERS: Right. I'm somewhat sympathetic to that because I can understand someone looks at the history of education where women were so long the have-nots, and finally women are getting ahead and suddenly people are complaining about the boys. Where were the complaints when women were behind? Very good question. But I say this as someone who became a feminist many years ago because I did not appreciate favoritism and male chauvinism. But the answer to favoritism and male chauvinism is not to turn tables and practice it against little boys and men.

It's basic fairness. And I think that our schools have done a lot to meet girls halfway, to strengthen them, specifically in math and science. Why don't we try that with boys, strengthen their reading and writing skills, make school more fun, engage them. And I'm not saying - we're not going to be able to turn them into girls. There have been efforts to try to transform gender and liberate them from their masculinity.

Most of these have not worked. What seems to work are lots of examples we have from the British where you channel that energy. You channel that sort of hyperactive spirit toward good ends.

MARTIN: Does this suggest, and we're going to hear, again, in a couple of minutes we're going to bring more voices into the conversation including two educators and a former prosecutor, who've been observing this, and are also parents of boys for some time. But does this suggest that sex-segregated education is something that ought to be revived? I mean, sex-segregated education is something that's pretty much disappeared except in some very isolated cases, mostly private schools.

There's only two all-male colleges left in the United States, for example, and I think there are seven all-female colleges.

SOMMERS: It may turn out, judged from what we're learning from the British and the Australians, that separating kids temporarily, not totally sex-segregated education, but to have special classes for girls and boys. It may be the way to go, and in fact far from being something from the past it may be cutting-edge, and we're seeing lots of good effects with special reading and writing classes for boys, and math and science classes for girls.

And these are - right now we have 500 such programs in American public schools. No Child Left Behind allowed for the possibility of experiments with single-sex education largely because of input from Hillary Clinton and Kay Bailey Hutchison.

MARTIN: Just briefly, before we take our break, and I believe you're going to stay with us and we're happy about that, but your book, "The War Against Boys," came out 12 years ago. It was subtitled, "How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men." I know you've changed the subtitle for an upcoming edition, but I have to ask has your attitude changed? I mean, is it your view that feminism is the problem. Or is it - what is - is it that feminism is the problem here?

SOMMERS: Yeah, I never meant to indict the feminist movement. I meant misguided, sort of hard-lined male intolerant feminism, but I don't think most feminists are that way. And I think that that subtitle led many people to just close their mind to the message of my book. And so I certainly didn't want to do that. So I've changed it to, "How Misguided Policies," and I think there are many policies that are harming young men and it's not the fault of feminists.

MARTIN: You have two boys yourself?

SOMMERS: Yes, I do.

MARTIN: They're grown men now?

SOMMERS: They're grown men.

MARTIN: They're young men now. Did you, if you don't mind my asking, did you see this in their education? Did you feel that there was just something, as an educator yourself, there was something not right, there was something sort of in the system that was kind of working against them?

SOMMERS: I did see them, especially for my younger boy, just a lot of intolerance for high spiritedness. He got in trouble once on a school trip just because he jumped up and touched an awning, and this child was incapable of walking by an awning and not jumping up and - I mean, little things in schools where they weren't allowed to play tag and dodge ball. And I began to see they'd eliminated recess.

He was at a private Jewish day school and there was no recess, so he organized football games in during lunch and they were always arguing back and forth with the teachers about whether or not that was OK. And I was shocked and I think many parents don't realize how little time there is now for physical activity in school.

Now, girls need recess and physical activity, but boys, it's an absolute necessity.

MARTIN: Christina Hoff Sommers is the author of "The War Against Boys." She's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. That's a conservative think tank. She recently wrote about the so-called achievement gap between girls and boys for the New York Times Opinionator blog. She's going to be staying with us for a parenting roundtable, so we hope you will stay with us too. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And as I said, please stay with us.


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