The American Association of University Women has long downplayed the school problems of boys, arguing instead that the education establishment victimizes girls, in what it calls an “unacknowledged tragedy.” So it is unsurprising that the AAUW’s latest report, “Where the Girls Are,” argues against the “myth” that boys are falling behind girls in school. The Washington Post summarized the report’s findings in a page-one headline: NO CRISIS FOR BOYS IN SCHOOL, STUDY SAYS.
The AAUW has been down this road before. Its 1992 report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” was a powerful and effective—though mostly false—lobbying effort for “gender equity.” As education scholar Diane Ravitch commented, the report “ginned up a non-existent crisis” in girls’ education. The report contained almost no new research and was essentially a rehash of old and dubious studies assembled to support its thesis. Yet the mainstream press reported the story with enormous excitement and little skepticism. BIAS AGAINST GIRLS IS FOUND RIFE IN SCHOOL, WITH LASTING DAMAGE, trumpeted the front page of the New York Times, though neither the text of the highly politicized report nor the cherry-picked research behind it justified that characterization.
Then as now, relevant statistics showed boys in more academic trouble than girls. Boys are much more likely to repeat a grade and to be given Ritalin for attention deficit disorder. They are twice as likely to wind up in special education. By 1992, the percentage of college students and graduates who were men had been declining for years, a fact that the AAUW ignored and education reporters mostly failed to notice for much of the ensuing decade. In recent years, research and media attention have swung decisively in favor of paying more attention to the predicaments of boys—a development that apparently rankles the AAUW. This time around, the AAUW does mention in passing that women have earned 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. over the past two decades, and that the average female high school student has a significantly higher grade-point average (3.09) than the average male (2.86).
But the new report also argues that the increasing success of girls has not come at the expense of boys, and that both girls and boys are improving their school performance. The organization that contended fiercely in 1992 that schools were doing great harm to girls now says: “The past few decades have seen remarkable gains for girls and boys in education, and no evidence indicates a crisis for boys in particular.” The report argues that the “crisis of boys” is more properly viewed as a problem among minority children and students from low-income families. Yet as the website Power Line points out, “the study held racial, ethnic, and economic factors constant and still found that boys under-performed in key respects. So whatever is true of minority and low-income students, academic success is also linked to gender, with girls performing significantly better than boys.” Indeed, the report acknowledges as much, noting that more Asian-American and white degree-earners are women than men (the ratios are 54 to 46 percent among Asian-Americans and 56 to 44 among whites). The disparities among Hispanics and blacks are even worse: women account for 59 percent of Hispanic undergraduates and for 64 percent of black ones.
Though “Where the Girls Are” doesn’t add much to the conversation, the report does make one strong point: that concern about the gaps between racial groups is more warranted than concern about gaps between the sexes. African-Americans and Hispanics lag far behind whites and Asian-Americans on every measure of school performance. The AAUW breezed past this point in 1992; it may be raising it now only to deflect attention from the plight of boys. But whatever the AAUW’s motive, the facts speak for themselves.