Study disputes a 'boy crisis' in education

WASHINGTON — Both boys and girls are doing better in school, so there's no reason to fear that school systems favor girls at boys' expense, a women's advocacy group says in a study to be released Tuesday.

It's the freshest argument in the boys vs. girls debate in education, one in which the group, the American Association of University Women, has been a major player.

Having said in an influential 1992 study that the education system worked against girls, it now argues that the real crisis is racial and economic disparities, not gender.

"The mythology of the boy crisis continues to be influential" said Catherine Hill, the association's director of research. One reason, she added, is that "people feel uncomfortable with the success of girls and women."

High school girls are getting better grades than boys, but from 1990 to 2005 both genders have improved their average GPAs, the study found. Men are also earning more college degrees today than in the 1970s, although women are earning more degrees than men.

"Educational achievement is not a zero-sum game, in which a gain for one group results in a corresponding loss for the other," the AAUW study concluded.

On the college testing front, boys have a slight advantage in both the math and the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, according to the new analysis, titled "Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education."

On the ACT, girls score better in English and reading while boys score better in math and science, the study found. SAT scores have risen for both sexes since 1994 and the boy vs. girl gaps are small — three-to-eight points on the verbal test.

By comparison, differences between the average SAT verbal scores of white and African-American students are on the order of 100 points. So are those between students whose families are in the top and bottom third in income.

Michael Gurian, author of "The Minds of Boys," an influential book on boys' educational disadvantages published in 2005, agreed that ethnic and income differences are more powerful than gender. But he called the new study a "straw-man argument" that distracts from the fact that boys are still falling behind.

Gurian, who describes himself on his Web site as a "social philosopher and family therapist," faults classrooms run for the "female brain model," in which almost all learning is through reading and writing.

Schools do a better job of educating girls than boys, agreed Christina Sommers, author of "The War Against Boys," a 2000 book influential in the classroom gender wars.

Sommers blamed "the misguided advocacy of groups like the AAUW" for contributing to the disparity with its 1992 finding that girls were disadvantaged in school. To do so, "They covered up the problems with boys," she said.

At Southern Senior High School in Harwood, Md., two teachers said they'd seen differences in the way boys and girls learn.

Boys quickly respond to questions without thinking about their answers, Spanish teacher Meredith McMahan said. Girls, however, absorb what the teacher is saying first, she said.

When it comes to disciplinary behavior, both boys and girls are equally well-behaved or disobedient, she said.

Caprice West, a special education teacher at the same school, said in the high school's general population, girls are more likely to ask for help in class. They're pushed harder to excel in math and science than boys are in reading and writing.

"It's harder for [boys] to catch up later in the game," said West.


Read the AAUW study (.pdf).