Student performance: males versus females
Women's advocacy groups have waged an intense media campaign to promote the idea that "schools shortchange girls." Their goal has been to convince the public that women are "victims" of an unfair educational system and that they deserve special treatment, extra funding, and heightened policy attention. Their sophisticated public-relations campaign has succeeded. The idea that girls are shortchanged by schools has become the common wisdom-what people take for granted, without a thought concerning whether or not it is true.
This idea that girls are not well served by our schools-that gender differences in performance result from institutional unfairness-received its greatest boost from a highly publicized report, How Schools Shortchange Girls: A Study of Major Findings on Girls and Education. Published in 1992 by the respected organization, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), along with a survey of self-esteem and aspirations among boys and girls, the AAUW report quickly became the basis for countless newspaper articles, magazine features, books, and university courses on gender and education. While a few voices challenged the report's findings-notably Christina Hoff Sommers, in Who Stole Feminism?-the mainstream media for the most part ignored dissenting views. The AAUW report makes three principal claims: First, girls fall behind boys in science and mathematics; second, girls participate less than boys in class or, as it is said, are "silenced" in the classroom; and third, girls suffer a major de- . cline in self-esteem at adolescence while adolescent boys gain in self-esteem. As the AAUW Executive Summary declares:
The educational system is not meeting girls' needs. Girls and boys enter school roughly equal in measured ability. Twelve years l later, girls have fallen behind their male classmates in key areas such as higher-level mathematics and measures of self-esteem.
And, in the 1998 study Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children, the AAUW claimed that a gender gap was opening up in the field of computer science. "The failure to include girls in advanced-level computer science courses threatens to make women bystanders in the technological 21st century." Again, the accusation received great attention while dissenting opinions were ignored. Certainly, the AAUW has done women and the nation a service in drawing attention to the gender gap in science and mathematics and in encouraging an array of policies and programs designed to boost female performance in these fields. But most of the other findings of the AAUW are either misleading or false, and even its findings on the math and science gap need to be put into perspective. Indeed, the fact is that policy makers should be as concerned about the educational progress of boys as girls. For it is boys, not girls, who lag behind in verbal skills, who are falling behind in college attendance, and who believe that schools are hostile to them. As the eminent researcher Jere Brophy reminds us, in a chapter written for the classic study Gender Influences In Classroom Interaction, neither boys nor girls have a lock on school success (or failure): Claims that one sex or the other is not being taught effectively in our schools have been frequent and often impassioned. From early in the century, criticism was usually focused on the treatment of boys, especially at the elementary level. Critics noted that boys received lower grades in all subjects and lower achievement test scores in reading and language arts. They insisted that these sex differences occurred because the schools were "too feminine" or the "overwhelmingly female" teachers were unable to meet boys' learning needs effectively.
Not so long ago, it was boys who were viewed as victims of the school system; today, it is the girls. The remedy proposed then was to encourage adult males to go into elementary school teaching; the remedy proposed today is a plethora of special policies and programs designed to help girls succeed. But the truth is, then as now, that males and females bring different developmental patterns, strengths, weaknesses, and interests to school, not that schools engage in institutional discrimination requiring national policy attention.
Who makes the grades?
If schools were shortchanging females, such gender discrimination should be easy to spot. Schools give clear and measurable rewards grades, class rank, and academic honors and prizes. And these rewards are not inconsequential. They help determine who gains admission to selective colleges and graduate schools and who lands the best jobs. Which group-males or females-receives a disproportionate share of the school's institutional rewards? The answer is undisputed: females.
From grade school through graduate school, females receive higher grades, even in mathematics and the sciences. They also receive more academic honors in every field except science and mathematics. The female advantage in grades appears in virtually every study. In their essay, "Grades, Accomplishments and Correlates," which was published in Gender and Fair Assessment, Carol Dwyer and Linda Johnson put the matter clearly:
Data from a wide variety of sources and educational settings show that females in all ethnic groups tend to earn higher grades in school than do males, across different ages and eras, and across different subject matter disciplines. Many researchers in past times and today consider this to be such an obvious fact that they treat it as axiomatic.... Modern reviews of the subject are unanimous in their finding of higher grades for females.
In a nationally representative longitudinal study of the high school class of 1992, discussed by Dwyer and Johnson, it was found that high-school girls outdistanced boys in making the honor roll, in getting elected to a class office, and in receiving writing awards and other academic honors. In the academic arena, boys outdistanced girls only in awards in science and mathematics competitions.
More recently, a 1998 report sponsored by the Horatio Alger Association came up with the same female grade advantage-this time a gap far larger than reported in earlier studies. In a survey of 1,195 randomly selected high-school students, one-third of the girls said that they had gotten "mostly A's on their last report card" compared to less than one-fifth of the boys. The students in the Horatio Alger study were divided into three groups: "Successful Students," who were doing well in school, "Strivers," who were working hard, and "Alienated Students," who were bitter and disillusioned. Of the successful students, two-thirds were girls; of the strivers, 55 percent were girls; of the alienated, 70 percent were boys.
Mathematics and science honors are the single area of male advantage, but females are catching up. Take performance on the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a contest notable for producing winners who later receive the Nobel Prize. Westinghouse finalists used to be overwhelmingly male. From 1950 through 1959, for example, only 22 percent of the top 40 finalists were female. In the late 1990s, in contrast, close to 40 percent of the top 40 finalists were female; in 1997, the proportion of female finalists was 45 percent.
Testing males and females
Even though girls surpass boys in school grades, that does not necessarily mean they are learning more. Grades, after all, depend not only on how much students know but also on conformity to institutional demands, such as whether students follow the teacher's directions and turn in assignments on time. Scores on standardized tests provide a measure of school achievement less influenced by such subjective matters. The research on gender differences in achievement test scores is complex and voluminous. But the Educational Testing Service recently consolidated numerous studies of nationally representative samples of twelfth graders on a variety of standardized tests, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. The final report, Gender and Fair Assessment, published by Lawrence Erlbaum in 1997, shows a clear pattern. Neither males nor females emerge as victors or victims; each group has its own distinctive strengths and weaknesses.
In a nutshell: On standardized achievement tests of basic school skills, females surpass males in writing ability and reading achievement while males surpass females in science and mathematics. Generally, these gender differences are small. The one exception is the significant female advantage in writing skills. Indeed, the female advantage on standardized tests of reading and writing achievement substantially outstrips the male advantage on standardized tests of science and mathematics.
As for the male advantage in mathematics and science, it is shrinking. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has measured the knowledge of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds in mathematics and science for over 20 years. In mathematics, the gender gap among 17-year-olds has declined significantly since the 1970s and no longer reaches statistical significance. In science, the gender gap has also declined.
In the general population then the mathematics and science gap is small. Another way of measuring gender inequality, however, is to see whether males or females dominate the top of each field. Are the conspicuous achievers, who for better or worse contribute most to our images of success, mostly male or female? Among students who take the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and Advanced Placement (AP) Tests in mathematics and science, men do score substantially higher than women, especially in such areas as physics. Why?
The fundamental reason has less to do with bias than with a peculiarity of males as a group. On many human characteristics, not just math and physics, males display greater variability than females. This fact is well-known to researchers, and it goes a long way toward explaining what many in the public find disturbing, the greater number of males who end up at the top in most fields.
Bell-shaped curves with the identical averages can take
different forms-high and peaked (low variability) or broad and I spreading
The greater variability of means that males more often appear in the far right-hand tail of the curve, among the top talent. This occurs even when male and female averages in the general population are the same. (Where males score higher on the average, as they do in science and mathematics, the male advantage in the far right-hand tail becomes even more extreme.) The practical result is that, in fields with small numbers of people, such as physics, few women will appear in the far right-hand tail, with the Albert Einsteins, Richard Feynmans, or Stephen Hawkings. This is unfortunate for women. But, as we shall see, this pattern has an unfortunate result for men as well. The greater variability of males means that more males also end up at the extreme left of the normal curve-the failures.
Do schools shortchange boys?
In virtually every category of educational, emotional, behavioral, and neurological impairment, males are overrepresented. Reviewing the literature on this phenomenon, Diane Halpern points out, in "Sex Differences in Intelligence," published in the American Psychologist, that "males are overrepresented at the low-ability end of many distributions, including the following examples: mental retardation (some types), majority of attention deficit disorders, delayed speech, dyslexia (even allowing for possible referral bias), stuttering, and learning disabilities, and emotional disturbances." Even the AAUW report acknowledges that "boys outnumber girls in special educational programs by startling percentages." According l to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than double the number of males compared to females are enrolled in special-education programs.
The AAUW report predictably attributes such gender differences to school discrimination: Teachers are biased against badly behaved boys. The mislabeling of active boys may be part of the explanation. It may be true that too many boys are prescribed drugs like Ritalin to make them easier to control in class. But biology is also part of the explanation.
Gender differences appear long before children enter school and even before birth. As the physician Ruth Nass points out, in "Sex Differences in Learning Abilities and Disabilities," published in Annals of Dyslexia, obstetrical complications such as toxemia are more common with male fetuses (1.7:1) as is aburptio (2:1), spontaneous abortion (1.4:1), and birth trauma (1.8:1). Dyslexia, a reading and language disorder that has enormous impact on school success, and autism are both four times more common among males. Males are more apt to display virtually every neuro-developmental and psychiatric disorder of childhood.
The point is this: Just as the greater number of males at the top in science and mathematics does not necessarily mean that the schools are shortchanging girls, so too the greater number of males at the bottom in special-education classes does not necessarily mean that the schools are shortchanging boys. The fact is that males are more variable than females on many neurological dimensions.
While schools may not cause such gender differences, they may still have a significant role to play in ensuring that both sexes have the opportunity to develop a broad range of intellectual skills. Schools need to be attentive to the problems of males and females. Teachers should make sure that boys in the early grades who lag developmentally in reading skills, are not stigmatized as "slow learners" and assigned to classes where they receive lower-quality instruction. Teachers should also avoid labeling unruly boys as suffering from "attention deficit disorder" and prescribing drugs that depress their nervous systems and ability to learn. By the same token, girls should be encouraged to take mathematics and science courses and to participate in these classes more.
Mathematics and science education for girls has indeed improved. The National Science Foundation and other government agencies, private foundations, and universities have developed and funded an array of gender-equity programs designed to encourage young women in mathematics and the sciences. The Program for Women and Girls at the National Science Foundation alone has an annual budget of $9 million a year for such efforts. No comparable programs have targeted boys' academic deficiencies in, for example, reading and writing. And no program has been created to boost college attendance among males.
The policy that does the most to boost female achievement in math and science was, in fact, not designed specifically for girls. That policy is stricter requirements for high-school graduation. In the 1980s, high-school girls were far less likely than boys to take science and mathematics classes. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, this particular gender gap has closed. Female high-school students now take as many mathematics and science classes as males do. The exception is physics: In 1994, 27 percent of males compared to 22 percent of females took a course in physics. But females surpassed males in taking courses in chemistry, algebra, geometry, precalculus, and biology. In trigonometry and calculus, the percentages of males and females are the same.
Increasing numbers of females are also enrolling in Advanced Placement (AP) courses in mathematics and science. We see again the familiar pattern of gender strengths and weaknesses. A greater proportion of the total number of students who take demanding AP examinations are female. More females take AP English and language tests while more males take AP mathematics and science tests. But since the proportion of females taking AP mathematics and science tests is increasing, we are also seeing an increase in the total number of talented, high-achieving women in mathematics and science.
American women are actually making more progress in mathematics and the sciences than these historical analyses reveal. The reason is the increasing number of students from other countries, overwhelmingly male, who now receive doctorates from American universities. In 1994, more than one-third of all American doctorates and almost one-half of all mathematics and science doctorates went to students who were not American citizens. Among these foreign students, males outnumber females by more than three to one. By considering only the doctorates awarded to American citizens and resident aliens in recent years, we can see that the gender gap in doctoral degrees has almost closed. American women received 45 percent of all doctoral degrees in 1994. In the biological sciences, American women received 43 percent of the doctorates. Large gender gaps remain in mathematics, where American women received 24 percent of the doctorates, and in the physical sciences, where they received 22 percent of doctorates.
The federal government and private foundations have devoted considerable resources to closing the gender gap in mathematics and the physical sciences. What most people do not realize is just how few people this particular gender gap affects. In 1994, for example, only 450 American men received doctorates in mathematics compared to 146 American women. In the physical sciences, 2,335 American men received doctorates compared to 659 American women. The doctoral gender gap in mathematics and the physical sciences, in essence, affects the careers and prospects of fewer than 2,000 women each year. In a country of more than 265 million people, the math and science gender gap is far from a monumental social problem.
What most women want are professional degrees, not doctoral degrees in mathematics and the physical sciences. A 1996 study of college freshmen, done by the Higher Education Institute, shows that twice as many women (more than 20 percent) sought professional occupations compared to men (less than 10 percent). Almost the same proportion of men and women sought careers in the biological and natural sciences. A large gender gap did occur in engineering and the computer sciences, fast becoming the new frontier in gender-gap lobbying. But the significance of this new gap is hardly what the AAUW in its 1998 study Gender Gaps claims. That few women take advanced-level computer-science classes does not, as the report asserts, mean that women are not taking advantage of the new technologies in the work place. You don't need to take a computer-science course in order to work with computers any more than you need to be a car mechanic to drive a car. Besides, that more women prefer to be attorneys than cubicle-confined Dilberts hardly seems a social problem of great moment.
If girls make higher grades in school, get higher ranks in class, receive more academic honors, surpass boys on standardized tests in two subjects (reading and writing) and lag only a little behind in two other subjects (mathematics and science), enter and graduate from college in greater numbers than boys, attain more master's degrees, and are closing the gap in more advanced degrees, then what is the basis for the charge that schools shortchange girls? A fair judge might look at the evidence and call it a draw: Females do better in some academic areas and males do better in others.
Well, as it happens, the AAUW's charge that schools shortchange girls is based not on such objective and comprehensive measures of educational attainment but instead on soft criteria, like the supposed "silencing" of girls in the classroom. The AAUNV report emphasizes dramatic, highly publicized findings by David and Myra Sadker who claim that "research spanning the past twenty years consistently reveals that males receive more teacher attention than do females.'' According to the AAUW report, the Sadkers "report that boys in one study of elementary and middle school students called out answers eight times more often than girls did." Even more inflammatory, the study supposedly found that when boy s called out comments in class, the teacher usually listened; but when girls called out comments, the teacher socialized them into good girl" behavior, making such comments as, "Please raise your hand if you want to speak."
The Sadkers' findings, if true, are indeed shocking, and the media have spread them with a vengeance. The problem is that the research on which these dramatic findings are based has strangely disappeared. When Christina Hoff Sommers pointed this out in Who Stole Feminism?, I was quite disturbed. Like many others, I had emphasized the Sadkers' work in my own university teaching. Is it possible for a study simply to disappear into thin air? Apparently it is: When I telephoned David Sadker to ask him for a copy of the research, he could not locate one.
Leaving aside the Sadkers' lost study, what other evidence do we have that teachers give more attention to boys or even that boys talk more in the classroom? This may seem like a straightforward question, but it actually contains a tangle of murky issues. First, the question carries a hidden assumption-that differences in teacher attention actually influence how much students learn. No study has shown that talking in class or getting attention from the teacher makes any difference in student achievement. Certainly, the objective criteria documenting the higher achievement of females-e.g., grades, test scores, college attendance-suggest otherwise.
Second, the meaning of 'getting attention from the teacher" is unclear. Suppose, for example, that a teacher asks a fourth grade boy a question in class. Is this a genuine academic question, which will help him learn the material? Or is the teacher's question actually a reprimand in disguise? The teacher may see that the boy is acting up and use the question to get him back on task.
Third, we do not have large, representative studies that objectively describe what goes on in different classrooms, different subject areas, and different locales. To get stable and reliable observational measures, a well-trained researcher must sit in the classroom for many hours and count who talks, who asks questions, and who answers questions. We have no such comprehensive studies.
Most classroom-interaction studies, especially in recent years, have been conducted in classrooms where females are suspected to be, and may well be, at a disadvantage. These are high-school mathematics and science classrooms, subjects in which females do not do as well, and law-school classrooms, where aggressive classroom questioning, the "Socratic method," has been considered crucial to preparing students for combative legal discourse. The research on gender interaction in the classroom does not feature studies conducted in literature classes or in foreign language classes, areas of female strength. In these classrooms, girls may well participate more than boys.
What the research does show is that sex differences in classroom participation, as measured by observers, are small and inconsistent. Some studies show teachers favoring boys while others show teachers favoring girls. The classic study Gender Influences in Classroom Interaction, published in 1985, presents the results of the leading researchers who have examined patterns of classroom talk at a time when social expectations for girls were more stereotyped than they are today. In their Overview, Janet Lindow, Cora Marrett, and Louise Cherry Wilkinson summarize the basic pattern. "Research conducted in elementary school classrooms shows rather consistently that teachers give more attention to boys than to girls although there is also research to the contrary. However, much of the contact with boys tends to be negative; it is managerial and disciplinary in nature." No consistent evidence was found that teachers give more academic attention to boys.
Observational studies of gender differences in classroom participation are difficult to conduct and interpret. But we have another valuable source of information on teacher favoritism-the perceptions of the students themselves. Research on student views of teacher bias---which the AAUW commissioned but did not release--- yields clear and consistent findings. In the views of elementary- and high-school students, teachers do show favoritism. But they are biased against boys.
I discovered that gaining access to the data is difficult. While the AAUW's How Schools Shortchange Girls can be easily ordered for $16.95 by dialing an 800 number, obtaining the unpublished research on student views takes weeks of telephoning and a payment of $85.00. In Who Stole Feminism?, Christina Hoff Sommers reports a similar experience. Even more shocking is that she was asked to sign the following statement before she could get the report "Please send a statement outlining how you plan to use the survey instrument and results, along with your payment for the full research report. If your review and analysis of the data results in a possible publication or presentation, that use of data must receive advance approval from the AAUW.
Boys and girls reported receiving virtually identical amounts of attention-59 percent of girls and 57 percent of boys said that they "get called on often" in class. When asked specifically about teacher bias, boys and girls saw some bias, but the discrimination was directed against the boys: 59 percent of boys and 57 percent of girls said that teachers called more often on girls. When asked, "Who does the teacher pay more attention to?," 64 percent of boys and 57 percent of girls again said the preferred group was girls.
In short, the research on classroom interaction does not show any pattern of consistent teacher favoritism toward either boys or girls. Boys do get more attention in elementary schools, usually for disciplinary reasons. But we have no clear evidence that boys get more academic attention, and we have no clear evidence that talking in class boosts academic achievement. A few areas, such as participation in mathematics and science classrooms and law-school classrooms, may be exceptions. The field of classroom-participation research has become so politicized, however, that any data must be scrutinized with great care.
Self-esteem: girls versus boys
Another highly publicized AAUW message-that adolescent girls have lower self-esteem than boys-rests on equally shaky grounds. But the commercial success of psychologist Mary Pipher's pop-feminist book, Revivi1lg Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, fueled parents' worries about the self-esteem of their daughters, reinforcing the AAUW's message. (That Pipher's conclusions were based on her clinical practice with disturbed girls went unnoticed.) Now so often aired, on "Oprah" and the "Today" show, and in Time and Newsweek, this message has become the received wisdom. Everyone now knows that girls have lower self-esteem than boys. Everyone now knows that girls suffer a severe drop in self-esteem at adolescence, that boys gain in self-assurance as they age while girls lose the vitality and sense of self they displayed in childhood. But is it true? :.
A careful review of the literature on gender, adolescence, and self-esteem reveals a picture far different from the message of the AAUW report. First, self-esteem itself turns out to be a muddled concept. No study shows that adolescent self-esteem depends on success in school; rather, it is rooted in friendships and physical appearance. Second, boys and girls (and young people from different ethnic groups) turn out to have quite different areas of proficiency in mind when they respond to vague questions such as, "I like most things about myself" (an item in the AAUW study of self-esteem). For example, Avril Thorne and Qhyrrae Michaelieu reported in Child Development that high and rising self-esteem among adolescent females was linked to memories about attempting to help female friends. High and rising self-esteem among adolescent males, in contrast, was linked to success in asserting themselves with male friends. Low and decreasing self-esteem among adolescent females was rooted in failing to win approval from friends while decreasing self-esteem among adolescent males was rooted in romantic failures. Other research shows the same. For most adolescents, school success is hardly paramount in their sense of self-worth.
On the vague and general questions that many surveys use to measure self-esteem, boys indeed are apt to score higher than girls. But the differences tend to be quite small and can be explained, in part, by the tendency of boys to choose the extreme response categories on multiple-choice questions. The Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls, released in 1997, and ballyhooed in the press as showing once again that adolescent girls lag behind adolescent boys in self-esteem, is a recent illustration.
What this survey actually shows is unreasonably high levels of self-confidence in both boys and girls, though boys are more apt to give extreme responses. But if the "strongly agree" and "somewhat agree" categories are added together, the much-lamented self-esteem gap disappears. As an example, on the question, "I feel that I have a number of good qualities," 70 percent of boys "strongly agree" and 67 percent of girls "strongly agree." If we add the category "somewhat agree," we find that exactly 87 percent of girls and 87 percent of boys believe that they "have a number of good qualities." This is the stuff of which the self-esteem gap is made!
In fact, problems with the concept of self-esteem have become so obvious that even feminist researchers have quietly retracted the original charge of a gender gap. This is evident in the much- publicized study, The Girls' Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female. The report was published in 1998 by the National Council for Research on Women, a coalition of 78 women's studies programs and women s research organizations, including the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. The Girls' Report criticizes the very concept of self-esteem, though in prose so turgid that it is difficult to make out: "In popular discussion, as well as in much of the research literature, the complex and dynamic process of identity development is too often collapsed into an oversimplified concept of self-esteem, which is typically framed as an internal, psychological phenomenon or a static entity-someone has a lot or a little."
This pychobabble is obviously no more than a screen for the report's embarrassing failure to replicate earlier assertions of low self-confidence among teenage girls. The most careful research acknowledged in The Girls' Report, done by University of Denver psychologist Susan Harter, shows no gender differences in the self-esteem of adolescents. Harter examined "lack of voice in approximately 900 boys and girls from grades 6 through 12. Contrary to the feminist argument that "voice" declines for females as they enter adolescence, Harter finds that "there is no evidence in our data for loss of voice among adolescent females as a group.... We have also found no evidence for gender differences favoring males." (emphasis in original)
Nor does Harter find that girls, any more than boys, are likely to suppress their opinions in school because they don't want to seem smart and aggressive. "Once again, we found no gender difference supporting the claims that this is merely a problem for girls," concludes Harter. "Anecdotal reports from within the high school suggest that certain boys are fearful of being considered 'nerds,' 'corks,' or 'brains' if they are too smart, risking peer rejection." Some girls and some boys do lack self- confidence, Harter emphasizes, but this is an individual problem. "Reviving Ophelia is certainly a worthy goal," she tartly concludes, "however, Hamlet also displayed serious problems of indecision and lack of voice."
For many years, Metropolitan Life has supported studies of important issues facing the public schools. In 1997, their report focused on gender issues, based on a nationally representative sample of 1,306 students from grades 7 through 12 and 1,035 teachers in grades 6 through 12. The report concludes bluntly
°1) contrary to the commonly held view that boys are at an advantage over girls in school, girls appear to have an advantage over boys in terms of their future plans, teachers' expectations, everyday experiences at school and interactions in the classroom;
°2) minority girls hold the most optimistic views of the future and are the group most likely to focus on educational goals;
°3) minority boys are the most likely to feel discouraged about the future and the least interested in getting a good education; and
°4) teachers nationwide view girls as higher achievers and more likely to succeed than boys.
The report received no attention from the media.
What's the harm?
But so what, a sensible person might say. What harm has been done by emphasizing-overemphasizing-the problems faced by females in education? After all, women have been at a historical disadvantage. Girls do lag behind in science and mathematics, at least at the top. All those federal programs for boosting female academic performance, such as summer programs that introduce minority girls to scientific fields, can't be a bad thing.
The harm is this: In their zeal to advance the interests of women and their own organizational interests, the AAUW and other feminist advocacy groups have distorted the achievements of women and the experience of girls and boys in schools. True, many of these groups are retracting some of their previous positions, acknowledging that the gap in adolescent self-esteem may not exist and that the math gap is, in fact, closing. But they are searching for new areas of female victimization, such as the low numbers of females in engineering and computer sciences. Meanwhile, resources and attention are drawn away from the group that the schools truly fail, African-American males. Unfortunately, the feminist agenda, because it is pushed so strongly and receives so much attention from media elites, distracts us from the real problem of low educational achievement among African-American males and boys more generally.
Recently, I was on a panel with several school counselors. The first question to the panel was the AAUW chestnut, "What can we do to help girls, who suffer such a loss of self-esteem at adolescence?" The first speaker, a school counselor, launched into a fiery description of the emotional problems of teenage girls. Adolescents she knew had changed from vital children who spoke their minds to bored and passive teenagers. This counselor was not aware that she was repeating chapter and verse from the AAUW report. These ideas were just in the air, promoted for years in teacher education workshops and university courses (such as the courses I myself taught).
I came next on the panel. Should I flat out contradict this counselor and tell the teachers in the audience that the research actually shows no differences in adolescent boys and girls in self- esteem, that this research has been politicized to serve a feminist agenda? As diplomatically as I could, I did so. The school counselor's reaction astonished me.
"I'm so glad you said that!" she proclaimed with fervent relief. "I know that boys have problems, too. But we just don't give the boys much attention." Other teachers chimed in. "Come to think of it, I have four suicidal adolescents in my classes this year, and all four are boys," one teacher said. "Get the word out," said the sole male teacher at the workshop. "We're too busy to read the professional literature. We didn't know this."
Teachers have limited attention, time, and energy. Schools are hectic, crowded worlds. Teachers are honing in on the problems of girls-and they are overlooking the problems of boys.