Are Boys Falling Behind in Academics? Part I.
by Bleuer, Jeanne C. - Walz, Garry R.
For many years, gender equity has pertained primarily to improving education
and career opportunities for females. In a highly controversial report
published by the American Association of University Women, How Schools
Shortchange Girls (AAUW, 1992), researchers presented evidence that girls
were not receiving the same quality or even quantity of education as boys.
Recent studies, however, provide evidence that boys no longer hold the
advantage. As Diane Ravitch, former Director of the U.S. Department of
Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement, stated in Sommers
(2000, p.22), "The AAUW report [How Schools Shortchange Girls] was just
completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the
time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might
have been the right story 20 years earlier, but coming out when it did
it was like calling a wedding a funeral... There were all these special
programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys."
Based on an extensive analysis of data from the National Longitudinal
Study (NLS), the High School & Beyond (HSB), and the National Education
Longitudinal Study (NELS), Riordan (1998) concluded there is no evidence
for a one-way gender gap favoring males beyond 1992 in public secondary
schools. As of 1992, females possess a significant advantage on most central
educational outcome indicators. Boys, rather than girls, are now on the
short end of the gender gap in many secondary school outcomes.
This digest will present a brief overview of recent research on trends
in gender differences at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels of education
and offer suggestions for actions that counselors and counselor educators
can take to help ensure that all students' educational and developmental
needs are met.
GENDER DIFFERENCES AT THE K-12 LEVEL
Kleinfeld (1998) argues that the findings reported by the AAUW were
based on a selective review of the research and that findings contrary
to the report's message were suppressed. She reports that, from grade school
through college, females currently receive higher grades and obtain higher
class ranks. They also receive more honors in every field except science
"On standardized achievement tests, females typically surpass males
in writing ability, reading achievement, and certain other verbal skills
while males surpass females in science and mathematics. In the general
population of males and females, however, sex differences in achievement
tests are typically small - except for the big female advantage in writing"
(Kleinfeld, 1998, p.12).
Sommers (2000, pp. 24-25) reports that, "The representation of American
girls as apprehensive and academically diminished is not true to the facts.
Girls, allegedly so timorous and lacking in confidence, now outnumber boys
in student government, in honor societies, on school newspapers, and even
in debating clubs. Only in sports are the boys still ahead, and women's
groups are targeting the sports gap with a vengeance...Girls read more
books. They outperform males on tests of artistic and musical ability.
More girls than boys study abroad."
"Conversely, more boys than girls are suspended from school. More are
held back and more drop out. Boys are three times as likely as girls to
be enrolled in special education programs and four times as likely to be
diagnosed with ADHD" (Sommers, p. 25). "The over-representation of males
in special education classes and in virtually every other category of emotional,
behavioral, or neurological impairment is undisputed" (Kleinfeld, pp.20-21).
Given the above information, a logical question that arises is, "If
differences in the performance of males and females in the general population
are small, why do more males end up at the top in science and mathematics
- and, at the same time, more males appear at the bottom of the barrel
in schools, labeled as impaired and assigned to special education classes?"
According to Kleinfeld (1998, p. 20) the answer to this question is, "...
greater variability among males means that more academic stars, those at
the extreme right end of the normal curve, are apt to be males. But this
variability also means that more males will be at the extreme left of the
normal curve, academic duds." The basic point, however, is that "The greater
number of males at the top in fields like mathematics and science does
not necessarily mean that the schools are shortchanging girls. The greater
number of males at the bottom in classes for children with learning disabilities
does not mean that the schools are shortchanging boys. Males are more variable
on many physical and neurological dimensions" (Kleinfeld, 1998, p.23).
In the 1980's, high school girls were far less likely than boys to take
science and mathematics classes (Bae & Smith, 1997). As Kleinfeld (1998,
p. 27) points out, "for women to have opportunities for high level achievement
in science and mathematics, they need to take demanding courses in high
school...Females now take as many high school classes in mathematics and
science as males do. In advanced placement classes in mathematics and science,
the gender gap is narrowing." The following table illustrates how females
have caught up with or surpassed males in high school course enrollment
in mathematics and science (from a sample of 1994 high school graduates).
See Tables at end of Digest
One of the more controversial issues addressed by the AAUW (1992) report
was based on "call out" research, i.e., a study of the extent to which
boys vs. girls call out answers to questions which teachers pose to the
class. The report concluded that boys called out answers more frequently
than girls. Further, they reported that teachers' typical reaction to boys
was to listen to the comment, while girls were usually told, "Please raise
your hand if you want to speak" (p. 68).
Both Sommers (1994) and Kleinfeld (1996) report that "the research on
which these dramatic findings were based has strangely disappeared" (Kleinfeld,
1998, p. 41). Kleinfeld goes on to explain that, aside from this, many
studies of classroom interaction are flawed in that: 1) They assume that
teacher attention is linked to achievement; 2) There is often a lack of
distinction between academic questions and reprimands in defining getting
attention from the teacher; and 3) because such studies are expensive,
it is difficult to get a large, representative sample of students, thus
many studies have been conducted in classrooms where females are suspected
to be at a disadvantage (e.g., high school math and science, law school).
GENDER DIFFERENCES AT THE POSTSECONDARY LEVEL
A 1999 U.S. News and World Report article reported that, at an increasing
rate, college-student populations in all types of postsecondary institutions
have higher proportions of women, while young men are tending toward lucrative
early employment and economic independence. The article points out that
the process begins in high school where girls are concentrating on college
preparation and boys are being recruited by high-technology companies.
Kleinfeld (1998, p. 29) also emphasized that at the postsecondary level
" ...a gender gap exists and is increasing. But this gender gap clearly
favors females. Women have become the majority of college students - especially
in the African-American population - and women earn the majority of bachelor's
and master's degrees." The following table illustrates this trend.
See table 2 at end of Digest
In terms of advanced college degrees, more women than men are graduating
from college and going on to get master's degrees (Chronicle of Higher
Education Almanac Issue, 1997). "In 1995,...women won 55 percent of the
bachelor's degrees and 55 percent of the master's degrees. Among African-Americans,
the gender gap in favor of females is far larger. In 1995, African-American
men won only 36 percent of bachelor's degrees and only 34 percent of master's
degrees. The shortchanged group is not female - it is African-American
males" (Kleinfeld, 1998, p. 31).
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR COUNSELORS AND COUNSELOR EDUCATORS
To address the emerging gender equity gap that threatens the academic
achievement of boys, counselors and counselor educators should:
1) Expand the sources of literature reviews and critically examine all
ostensible research claims.
2) Assign a priority to preparing counselors to respond to the developmental
needs of boys.
3) Provide more mentoring male role models and activity learning opportunities
in classroom and counseling activities.
4) Take a more public stand against biased research and incorrectly
interpreted findings regarding the needs of both boys and girls.
5) Speak up for the most at risk of all sub-populations - adolescent
African American males.
Part II of this digest will further expand the ways in which counselors
and counselor educators can address boys' academic needs.
American Association of University Women. (1992). How schools shortchange
girls: A study of major findings on girls and education. Washington , DC:
AAUW Educational Foundation, The Wellesley College Center for Research
Brendan, K. I. (1999, February 8). Where the boys aren't. U.S. News
and World Report, 126(46), 46-50, 53-55.
Bae., Y., & Smith, T. M. (1997). Women in mathematics and science.
Findings from "The Condition of Education, 1997," No. 11. Washington, DC:
National Center for Education Statistics (ED). (ERIC Document Reproduction
No. ED 412 137)
Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue. (1997, August 29).
Epstein, D., Elwood, J., Hey, V., & Maw, J. (Eds.). (1998). Failing
Boys? Issues in Gender and Achievement. Florence, KY: Taylor & Francis.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 457 046)
Kleinfeld, J. (1998). The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls: Social
Science in the Service of Deception. Washington, D.C.: Women's Freedom
Network. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 423 210)
Riordan, C. (1998, January). Gender Gap Trends in Public Secondary Schools:
1972 to 1992. Paper presented at annual meeting of the American Sociological
Association, San Francisco, CA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.
ED 434 171)
Sommers, C.H. (2000). The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is
Harming Our Young Men. New York: Simon and Schuster.
High School Courses Males Females
Algebra I 65% 68%
Geometry 68% 72%
Algebra II 55% 62%
Trigonometry 17% 17%
Analysis/pre-calculus 16% 18%
Calculus 9% 9%
Biology 92% 95%
Chemistry 53% 59%
Physics 27% 22%
from Kleinfeld (1998, p.28)
Proportion of Women Enrolled in College
Racial and Ethnic Group 1976 1990 1995
White 47% 56% 55%
African-American 55% 61% 62%
Hispanic 45% 55% 56%
American Indian 51% 58% 58%
Asian 45% 48% 49%
All 47% 55% 56%
From Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue (1997, p.18)