Cognitive Daily

There’s been a decent amount of press lately about the struggles of boys in education. More women than men go to college, and more graduate. But Jay Matthews of the Washington Post is skeptical. He cites an Education Sector report (full PDF here)
which claims that much of the hype about boys suddenly falling behind is overblown.

Take a look at this chart, for example:


Girls have outperformed boys in reading for decades, and boys continue to outperform girls in math.

‘The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse,’ the report says, ‘it’s good news about girls doing better.’

But one danger flag is raised:

‘There’s no doubt that some groups of boys — particularly Hispanic and black boys and boys from low-income homes — are in real trouble,” Education Sector senior policy analyst Sara Mead says in the report. ‘But the predominant issues for them are race and class, not gender.’

I do have one question about this statement: if the primary issues are race and class, then why is it only black and Hispanic boys who are in trouble?


  1. #1 Dr. Free-Ride
    June 29, 2006

    It’s possible that some race and class issues impact one gender within that race or class more heavily. That’s my best guess.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    June 29, 2006

    Sure, but doesn’t that mean that boys are indeed in trouble? Or is the point that focusing on boys isn’t going to solve the problem?

  3. #3 J. Todd Ormsbee
    June 29, 2006

    In sociology, these questions get really tricky. Like Free-Ride mentioned, there are aspects of race and class that have differential effects depending on gender. For example, until the past 10 years, the culture of “respect” among poor kids of color exerted far more pressure on boys than girls (see the work of Elijah Anderson for example). Also, Dalton Conley’s work on African Americans and wealth accumulation maps out the effects of class on education, and how that manifests different among boys and girls. In the sociology of education, much has been documented regarding the cultural values attached to education in peer groups and at home (which are often in conflict). So performance (good or bad) in institutional education is not necessarily a reflection of intelligence or ability, and in many cases is not even an indication of the effectiveness of the school or education techniques.

    Gendering of subjects is also complicated. Girls in single-sex institutions tend to score at about the same level as boys on math and science tests (whereas boys do the same either way). Multiple studies in sociology have demonstrated that boys and girls are treated differently in school and have different outcomes. Studies have also shown that adults direct boys toward math and science and girls toward the humanities. It should also be noted that this particular prejudice is particularly American and English and seems to be less true in places like France or Germany, where the humanities haven’t been feminized culturally.

    Further, the cognitive psychology work on the differential performance of boys/girls in math/reading points us to more complexity, because it isn’t that *all* boys do better on math, just that their bell curve is slightly to one side of the girls; and the inverse for reading. Further, it has been found that all normal brains are capable of the same basic functions in verbal and mathematical skills, even if an individual brain has a preference for one over the other. I’d have to dig up the study I read (it’s been a couple years), but I seem to remember it falling somewhere around the lines of 65-35 (boys preference for math/girls preference for reading). That’s hardly sufficient statistically to draw generalizations about gendered brain preferences when a third fall outside the preference, and given the complexity of the socialization in education as it is currently constructed.

  4. #4 Wendy
    June 29, 2006

    I have to say i’m on both sides of the fence. I think that race,gender,and maybe where the child comes from has a lot to do with if boys are better then girls. Then you go th these priviate schools were the child has every learning abilty possible then it depends on the child and race and gender go out the window

  5. #5 Matthew George
    June 29, 2006

    The point is that boys, as a group, aren’t in trouble. Specific groups of boys belonging to certain ethnic and socioeconomic populations are in trouble.

    When people come across terms with an extremely wide range, like ‘boys’, they tend to assume that any statements made about them apply to the whole range. “Boys are in trouble” isn’t interpreted as meaning that some boys are in trouble, but that boys as a whole are in trouble.

  6. #6 Robert
    June 30, 2006

    I happened to have looked at the NAEP data a few months ago. I would have said that both boys and girls are doing worse in reading. Here’s a graphic that shows trends in reading and math for 17-year-olds.

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    June 30, 2006

    Robert, it looks to me like that’s just a different way of representing the data I present above. But given that we’re talking about a ten-point or so difference in a 500-point scale, it strikes me as not especially telling.

  8. #8 Robert
    June 30, 2006

    Dave wrote:

    it strikes me as not especially telling

    That’s interesting since this is, of course, Cognitive Daily. Much of the recent scholarship in displaying quantitative data suggests that the way one displays data influences what one can learn from it.

    I would have said that my plot more easily shows that math scores for males and females have moved pretty much together, but not reading scores. Also, girls have more of an advantage in reading than boys have in math–but while many (among them, Larry Summers) point out the quantitative gap, they don’t similarly point out the reading gap.

  9. #9 Mihai
    July 9, 2006

    Looking from a different perspective: both the original graphics and the ne posted by Robert show another thing: boys and girls, math and reading, it all went down from 1999 (or maybe 2000, which is not marked).

  10. #10 Deep Thought
    July 13, 2006

    But this doesn’t address the main point; if it was a ‘tragedy’ that more men than women graduated high school, went on the college, and graduated college (as raw numbers or percentages, depending), why isn’t it a “tragedy” when the same is true for men?

    Work with me here; A large number of initiatives were set up to assist girls with math, engineering, preparing for college, etc. because girls were being ‘left behind’ [i.e., were less likely to graduate high school, entered college in lower relative numbers and as a smaller percentage, and graduated both in lower relative numbers and as a smaller percentage of those who began college). This was presented as a social crises that needed solving and the response from government and private institutions demonstrably assisted girls in doing will, graduating high school, attending college, and graduating college.

    Why is the reverse not also a cause for concern? If it was a problem that girls didn’t do as well in math as boys, a problem that required public and private attention, why is it not as critical that boys be assisted with reading? Now that the situation is reversed, why is it not just as critical that we focus on the areas where boys are weak, since now *they* are the ones lagging behind/being left behind?

  11. #11 rick lynn
    December 22, 2008

    Females are leaving the domestic role for information age skills and income. The nineteenth century belief Females should be protected has created much protection and support for Females from day one. Since Females are not required by society to be strong, it is considered proper to not only protect them but to also lavish much mental, emotional, social, academic, support, knowledge, and skills from day one. This creates lower average stress and lots of supported skills that enable girls to really do well in the information age. Girls are also given love, honor, respect, and support simply for being girls. This makes learning and development of skills and competing for jobs somewhat easier for they are given the essentials of self-worth simply for being girls. All of this makes girls “very well prepared” to compete in the information age. This support and protection continues even into adulthood. Today this allows not only much economic advantage but also maintains the same protected freedoms of expression to give verbal, silent abuse, and hollow kindness to Males when they have some advantage (look at how the media allows this).
    Males and also Females (who tend to reflect for some reason their protected world upon Males) really do not understand how differential treatment from day one is providing Females with such an advantage that is creating the Growing international Male Crisis.

    Males are given love, honor, support, respect, care, etc. only on the condition of sufficient achievement, money, power, etc. This is what makes Males very competitive; they are competing for feelings of self-worth as reflected upon them by society if they have sufficiency of those things. When they are doing anything they are being weighed and given only the amount of love, honor, respect, and support commensurate with those achievements. Those Males who do not have sufficiency are not only given less of those good things, they are given more aggression by society. This creates a lot more pressure on Males to either succeed in academics, which is good; and if they cannot, then they will search out a more protected and supported area in which they will have some feeling of love, honor, and respect from their peer group.

    Since our society is still following even in the information age, the belief Males should be strong, it still allows much aggression upon Males to make them tough. It also holds that Males should not be given mental/emotional/social/academic love, kindness, care and support for fear of coddling the Male from day one. This is so the Male can become a good little soldier to defend family and country. The problem with this is that it creates high average stress that impedes learning and creates along it more tension that leads more activity in Males and attention to mental/emotional development. This is why girls appear to mature faster, for Males are not given the same supports. This higher average stress and lack of support accumulate to create a large deficit in learning for Males.

    Now in the information age, Males are now competing with Females who have been well supported from day one and Males are beginning fall behind big time, especially from women in their 20’s and early 30’s.

    Men are not only losing jobs, they are losing out on feelings of self-worth or love, honor, and respect from society. It is plainly spelled out in the media that when Males appear weak, it is okay to give them more verbal aggression, more abuse, and more neglect. Since Men have brainwashed to believe they are better (perhaps deserving of more harsh treatment and neglect) they are now finding out that in real life such treatment is somehow helping women to succeed above them. Given the horrible myth of fixed intelligences taught in our society or simply working harder, many men are falsely believing they are less intelligent and/or not working hard enough. Given this false information, they truly feel threatened by those women who are succeeding and they are not. Society itself and its media is now working against the Male to place Male’s into perceived positions of being more suitable for menial labor and for Females to be placed into more white collar, management positions. The Male is now facing much more abuse on the job. Many low paid jobs are also riddled with much abuse, intimidation, and constant berating by managers over them. In more cases, women managers are the ones doing this. Yes, in society men who take jobs in lower more menial positions are given more abuse. It seems women working those jobs are somewhat more protected by society from this abuse. Many men are opting out of the workforce to protect their mental/emotional health, which they feel is more important to them than a paycheck.

    Many men today are losing their feelings of self-worth that women receive simply for being women. His wife could not understand his dilemma. because like many other women, she was reflecting her love, honor, respect, and protection in society upon him, not realizing his world was very different and much more unforgiving for signs of weakness. You see society’s primary antidote for perceived weaknesses in Males is to provide more aggression and neglect to make him strong, and not to support him when he is down. So, although his wife supports him with love, society will take him down for being weak. After years of brainwashing, he and others like him believe it to be true and deserving of punishment. This is why so many Males have a short life and so many more Male suicides. Yes, Males do feel threatened for they feel the scales are tilted very much against them.
    Complete learning theory to all on request by e-mail at

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