Is it time we addressed the need for affirmative action programs for men? What's that you say? Preposterous? Men still tend to out-earn women for the same work. They overwhelmingly outnumber women as CEOs, members of Congress and in just about every other prestige career.
True enough. But consider what statistics tell us about trends in male and female educational attainment. It ain't pretty, boys. For those who are concerned about the future of this country, the red flags are up.
Women earn high school degrees at higher rates than men, and they earn more college and post-graduate degrees as well. That holds true for all races and ethnicities. While women have used the last few decades to advance in educational attainment, men have slipped.
Young women today are better educated than their mothers. That shouldn't surprise anyone. I'm certainly a beneficiary of a society more enlightened about women's potential. But American young men today are less well educated than their father's generation, according to a study tracking education attainment from 1940 to 2008. This is a societal shift that cannot be ignored.
By now, we're all accustomed to plaints and bromides about the state of American education. The controversial documentary "Waiting for Superman" is simply the latest in a long line of vehicles decrying the state of U.S. public education, particularly urban school districts.
But the unheard subtext to all this hand wringing is that boys are in trouble. As one participant in a College Board study of American education noted, "Our young men are the canary in the national coal mine." As vice president of the D.C.-based College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, Ronald Williams attends many a college graduation ceremony. He notes the clickety-clack of high heels across the stage floor as graduate after graduate crosses to accept her diploma. Increasingly, Williams is aware of the dearth of men.
Researchers are starting look into the ways our schools are failing certain students more than others. There are a lot of factors at play: race, class, and poverty both urban and rural. And, of course, there is the impact of broken families and single-parent households. Academics and administrators are trying to understand the way all these things affect the attitudes and expectations of the young, especially young men.
In the most troubled school districts, however, reflecting on these issues is a luxury they can't afford. Here is how one former K-12 superintendent framed the issue to Williams: If you have 30-some schools and 16 are being threatened with being taken over by the state, you don't have time to figure out which part of the population is messing up.
Still, some points of consensus are emerging about the difficulties boys face in school.
One is that schools are punishing "boy behavior" harshly and ineffectively. From a young age, boys tend to have excessive energy and more trouble settling down. Speaking loudly, not being able to focus and follow instructions, and the like tend to get a kid in trouble in school. Research has shown that boys are twice as likely as girls to be suspended, labeled learning disabled or diagnosed with attention deficit or attention deficit hyperactivity.
Others studies seek to unravel how particularly for African American and Latino teenagers, school becomes a "pipeline to prison" rather than to college. Disciplinary measures often cast boys to the street (out-of-school suspension) rather than imposing penalties in school, which can lead to delinquency and juvenile detention. It's a pretty well-worn path that has helped the U.S. achieve some of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
President Barack Obama targeted 2020 as the date by which the U.S. should regain its marker as the nation with the highest percentage of postsecondary degrees. But it should be blatantly obvious that a nation only educating half of its population to its potential can't advance, much less reclaim, past global prominence in academic standards.
We Americans like to criticize other societies for how they "treat their women." We smugly opine that a society that keeps girls out of school and forbids women from working outside the home (think radical Islam) is wasting half of its talent.
But what if, even inadvertently, the land of opportunity is essentially doing the same thing to its young men?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.