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U.S. Lagging in Paying Attention to Gender Gaps

(This piece is also running today in The Dallas Morning News; link requires registration)

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Richard Whitmire: What's behind education's 'boy problems'?

Oregon recently announced that 6,800 high school seniors were at risk of being denied diplomas because they were unable to pass the state reading test. Here's a fact that wasn't included in the news: 3,900 of those students are males, 2,900 females.

An oddity? Probably not, given that boys continue to fall behind girls in reading, according to a 50-state survey released earlier this year by the Center on Education Policy.

These academic gender gaps are not limited to Oregon, or to the United States. Students and families in the United Kingdom learned last month the results of national exams. Leading the headlines were growing gender gaps, with girls pulling even further ahead of boys.

You can find similar newspaper stories about boys falling behind in many Western countries. Despite various theories that attempt to explain this puzzling phenomenon, nobody is absolutely certain why it is happening.

The country paying the least attention to this slide in academic achievement is the United States. That's odd, considering our gender gaps are every bit as bad: 62 percent of all community college graduates are female, 57 percent of those earning bachelor's degrees are girls.

Despite the national push from the White House, Education Department and governors to boost post-secondary education—a recognition that some study and training after high school has become more important, even for blue-collar jobs traditionally held by men—little is being done in the United States to correct the flagging academic achievement and ambition among our sons.

The lag among males is most easily glimpsed in a generational comparison: Men in the United States in their 50s and 60s rank at the top worldwide in college degrees earned. By contrast, men in their 20s and 30s rank only ninth in the world. What happened in that generation?

The drop in education achievement among males has been laid bare by the recent recession, which disproportionately impacted less-educated workers. Today, a fifth of males in prime working ages are not working, a phenomenon with broad impact, especially on marriage rates and out-of-wedlock child bearing. Who wants to marry a man who has limited potential to support a household?

And yet, despite these problems, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education have done little in the way of exploring the source of the problem and identifying solutions.

Out of desperation, many local school districts have launched their own initiatives in the form of single-sex education. Their logic: If we teach in boy-friendly ways, boys will re-engage with school. But that may be wishful thinking. The science behind gender-based learning differences is highly unsettled.

In the long run, single-sex schools may—or may not—produce gains for boys. If they fail, there's no back-up plan.

For the most part, pro-education foundations have been oddly quiet on the issue of boys falling behind. Why stir up gender controversies?

The College Board has done some excellent work about the most egregious boy problems—minority males, especially African-Americans, who have fallen alarmingly behind their female counterparts. But this is not a problem limited to minorities. The setbacks seen among white boys from blue-collar families are significant.

Look closely and you'll find plenty of white middle-class boys struggling as well. Their woes are masked by the plethora of second- and third-tier colleges more than willing to admit slacker male freshmen if their parents can pay full tuition.

The real challenge is determining what has gone awry with all boys: What is happening with white, brown, and black boys that can be broadly addressed with common solutions?

That kind of research can arise from only one source, the U.S. Department of Education. That's its job.

Launching research into the boy troubles will inevitably stir up unwelcome controversies. But if the Obama administration is serious about boosting the United States up from our middle-of-the-pack standing on education attainment—and there are important competitive reasons for sticking with that goal—the controversies can't be avoided.

Richard Whitmire is the author of Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind and may be contacted through www.thebeeeater.com.

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