May 22 2008
Big Girls Cry
Nothing frustrates grievance peddlers more than a rival victim group threatening their turf. Regardless of any official mission statement, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) exists to complain about how unfair the world is for women and to leverage sympathy into favors from government or academia's power brokers. One recent AAUW publication depicted college women under siege from ubiquitous sexual harassment; another lamented how women earn less than men - even though their own research showed that individual choices, not discrimination, were mostly to blame.
But AAUW's bread and butter has been complaining about how women and girls are "short changed" by the U.S. education system. It's a case that's increasingly difficult to make: Girls have higher GPAs in high school, take more difficult course loads, are more likely to graduate, and earn the majority of college degrees. This has led many to wonder if it's boys, not girls, who are being overlooked in the education system.
It would be bad news indeed for the AAUW if women could not claim first place in the academic grievance contest, so AAUW dedicated their latest report, "Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education," to fending off the idea of a "boy crisis." They highlight data showing that both men and women have made gains in recent years on many measures, such as college attendance and standardized test scores. Women's gains have tended to outpace men's, but they argue that isn't a concern since women's gains have not come "at the expense" of men's.
It's certainly true that education isn't purely a zero-sum game, but it's hard to imagine the AAUW being so blasé about different rates of improvement if girls were failing to close the gap. And other evidence suggests that boys are being disserved by schools: for example, boys are less likely than girls to report they "like" school, and find their work interesting and meaningful. They are less engaged in school-related extra curricular activities, with the exception of athletics.
This doesn't mean that males should win the victim lottery and be rewarded with Department of Education programs, but it is something for parents to be aware of and seek the academic environment most likely to make their sons excited about learning.
Surely girls' academic prowess suggests it's past time to stop appropriating taxpayer dollars for programs predicated on the idea that girls are disproportionately suffering in our public schools. That's a conclusion the AAUW isn't willing to reach. In this report, they reluctantly admit that girls aren't doing so badly, but then quickly push to move the public debate "beyond gender" to focus on other factors, like race and family income, which are more closely tied to educational outcomes.
Yet AAUW has no plans to move beyond gender when it comes to seeking women-specific educational support from government benefactors. The AAUW has been among the chorus pushing policymakers and educators to take proactive measures to increase the number of women focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, which are among the few remaining disciplines in which men outperform women. The AAUW has applauded using Title IX to scare colleges into creating "proportionality" in their athletic roster, even when that results in eliminating men's sports teams.
The AAUW likely fears that if the public accepts the idea of a "boy crisis," activists and policymakers will steer the public-school system in a more "boy friendly" direction. After all, that's the tactic they embraced when sounding alarms about a "girl crisis." You could say they're unintentionally right to want to stop that from happening - it would be a terrible policy outcome, since there is no one best way to educate a boy or a girl of any race or income level.
If only the AAUW were sincere in their desire to move beyond the obsession with sex-specific outcomes. After all, the issue really shouldn't be whether we call it a boy crisis, a girl crisis, or an inner-city crisis. The problem is simply that too many public schools aren't helping children make the most of their potential.
Policymakers from across the political spectrum - from President Bush to Washington D.C. councilman and former mayor Marion Barry - are increasingly recognizing this truth and fighting to give parents more choices and control over how children are educated. Boosting educational achievement is the top priority. But school choice would also importantly help defuse the contentious policy debates that fuel the educational gender wars. A ceasefire would be good news for everyone... except of course for the grievance peddlers.