What Happens to Boys Who Fall Behind? They Become Men Who Can’t Catch Up.

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
April 30 2014 9:42 AM

What Happens to Boys Who Fall Behind? They Become Men Who Can’t Catch Up.

boy_classroom
Boys have a harder time in school, starting as early as kindergarten.

Photo by Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

Kindergarten girls are attentive, persistent, well-behaved, flexible, sensitive, and independent.

Kindergarten boys are hyperactive, distracted, unruly, obnoxious, and clingy.

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American women are earning 75 percent more college degrees than they did in 1975 and 35 percent more money.

American men are over.

These factoids sound hyperbolic and grim, but in Tuesday's New York Times, David Leonhardt illuminates the link between “fidgety boys” and a male workforce that faces stagnating wages and a higher likelihood of idleness. He draws on a report, “The Secret Behind College Completion,” from the Washington research group Third Way, positing that boys enter school with a less developed set of behavioral skills; this deficit translates into a gap in academic achievement that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.

“Even as early as middle school,” write the paper’s authors, “course grades have a very strong relationship to four-year college completion.” While students who get mostly A’s in eighth grade have a 70 percent chance of finishing college by age 25, solid-B students are only 30 percent as likely to receive their B.A. by that time. And a scant 10 percent of C-students will receive their college diplomas before their 25th birthday.

Enter gender. “By eighth grade,” Leonhardt reports, “48 percent of girls receive a mix of A’s and B’s or better. Only 31 percent of boys do.” In light of this, it’s no surprise that women make up 57 percent of college students, 67 percent of college graduates, and 70 percent of university valedictorians. Since the floors of academia begin their tilt toward the feminine as early as kindergarten, experts say the male rescue mission needs to start there. But no one is entirely sure how to proceed.

You could zero in on family structure. According to MIT professor David H. Autor, a decline in two-parent households during the past 40 years has disproportionately shaken young boys, who “fare particularly poorly” without fathers. But others look for answers in the ways that schools structure learning—to reward quiet diligence, self-control, and other traits more intertwined with feminine stereotypes than macho aspirations. As Leonhardt explains, several psychologists claim that “today’s education system fails to acknowledge the profound differences between boys and girls,” forcing boys “to sit still for hours every day and [providing] them with few role models in front of the classroom.” Still others argue that boys suffer especially in poorly performing schools, perhaps because those environments don’t attach as much prestige to male academic success.

It’s worth reading the Times article for a fuller picture (also, check out this Time piece on how to help boys flourish in the classroom), but it seems to me that in addition to making the academy more welcoming to guys, we should also work on making the traditionally feminine qualities that help girls thrive at school more acceptable in boys. (Banner reminder: Rigid gender roles hurt everyone!)

Also, feminists understandably focus a lot on the problem of sexism at work, and it’s true that female supremacy tends to vanish somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, but women care about boys—and men!—too. So it would be nice if the academic achievement gap between the sexes got as much attention as all the other gaps that keep us up at night.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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