The trouble with "The Trouble With Boys"

Look around you--everywhere, even on the front page of the New York Times, boys are failing. Young men are in trouble. And everyone's trying to figure out why.

Or so we and many others thought (see here, here, and here) until last month when Sara Mead jolted those riding the "The Trouble With Boys" bandwagon with her study, The Evidence Suggests Otherwise: The Truth About Boys and Girls. In it, she contends that "The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse; it's good news about girls doing better."

She cites NAEP data showing that, over the past 35 years, boys as a group haven't gained or lost ground to girls on test scores. And she answers those who worry that women are flooding college campuses, leaving men outside the gates, by arguing that more men are in college today than ever--it's just that women had more ground to gain, and they've done that. (For more, see here.)

Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys, and Michael Gurian, author of The Minds of Boys, wasted no time in firing back (see here and here). Like Mead, both cite NAEP data and use their best culture war language to argue that boys are in desperate straits. Sommers points to minority males' deplorable track record on NAEP and how much better minority girls are doing. Gurian claims that Mead overlooks the larger cultural forces at play against males.

Because both sides draw on the same data sources, the average observer may well wonder who's right.

The existing evidence isn't likely to resolve the debate-though Mead has some things to answer for. A little international perspective might help, however. Neither Mead nor Sommers consider the Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRL) assessment, which shows that fourth-grade boys' scores in each participating country trailed those of fourth-grade girls in 2001. This raises an interesting question that neither wonk wants to entertain: Is there a problem with boys in general or is it possible that boys and girls simply develop intellectually (and in other ways) at different rates?

The same point in reverse can be made with math and science. Both internationally and in the U.S., boys have lost some ground to girls in those subjects, but boys still score better on average. This despite 30 years of programs in the United States encouraging women to study more hard sciences and opening more doors for them to do so. Outgoing Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers was politically incorrect in the remarks that cost him his post, but just as girls do better in reading when they're younger, perhaps there's something to boys doing better, on the whole, in math and science.

The trouble with "The Trouble With Boys" argument is that it forces us to home in on boy-girl trend lines and ignore the individual. Girls may excel in reading and writing, but no shortage of greats such as Maxwell Perkins, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck show that boys can do it, too. Ditto boys and science. Sure, statistically they may fare better, but Sally Ride, Jane Goodall, and Evelyn Boyd Granville prove girls can soar.

In a recent Esquire article, Kati Haycock does a good job of putting girls' gains and boys' struggles in perspective: The gains of girls, she explains, are "the result of a couple of generations of advocacy on the part of women, and girls getting the message that anything is possible.... That's what's owed the boys. It's a matter of generational focus."

Today's generation of policy worriers is focusing on boys. So let's capitalize on it. Let's instruct teachers to use emerging brain science to inform the way they teach boys in their classrooms. Let's face the possibility that, in creating opportunities for girls, we may have overcompensated and done away with things that work for boys, like more competition and greater classroom structure. Let's make sure there are plenty of books that young boys will find interesting (books about sports and soldiers are more apt to catch a young lad's eye than Max and Ruby or Dora.)

But let's realize that it's most important to see and teach Johnny and Jenny based on their innate talents--all of them. So whether Johnny opts for becoming the next Neil Armstrong or the next Neil Simon, he's prepared to pursue either course that interests him.

More By Author