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The Gender Gap: Boys Lagging

Remember when girls became nurses and not doctors? Stenographers, not CEOs? Teachers, not principals?

Well, that's not the way it is any more. Thirty years after the passage of equal opportunity laws, girls are graduating from high school and college and going into professions and businesses in record numbers.

Now, it's the boys who could use a little help in school, where they're falling behind their female counterparts.

And if you think it's just boys from the inner cities, think again. It's happening in all segments of society, in all 50 states. That's why more and more educators are calling for a new national effort to put boys on an equal footing with their sisters. Lesley Stahl reports.

At graduation ceremonies last June at Hanover High School in Massachusetts, it was the ninth year in a row that a girl was on the podium as school valedictorian. Girls also took home nearly all the honors, including the science prize, says principal Peter Badalament.

“[Girls] tend to dominate the landscape academically right now,” he says, even in math and science.

The school's advanced placement classes, which admit only the most qualified students, are often 70 percent to 80 percent girls. This includes calculus. And in AP biology, there was not a single boy.

According to Badalment, three out of four of the class leadership positions, including the class presidents, are girls. In the National Honor Society, almost all of the officers are girls. The yearbook editor is a girl.

While there are statistically more boy geniuses than girl geniuses, far more boys than girls are found at the very bottom of the academic ranks. School districts from Massachusetts to Minnesota to California report that boys are withdrawing from the life of schools, and girls are taking over.

“Girls outperform boys in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, and graduate school,” says Dr. Michael Thompson, a school psychologist who writes about the academic problems of boys in his book, "Raising Cain." He says that after decades of special attention, girls are soaring, while boys are stagnating.

“Girls are being told, 'Go for it, you can do it. Go for it, you can do it.' They are getting an immense amount of support,” he says. “Boys hear that the way to shine is athletically. And boys get a lot of mixed messages about what it means to be masculine and what it means to be a student. Does being a good student make you a real man? I don't think so… It is not cool.”

“Girls don't necessarily get teased as much if they do well,” says Meredith, a graduating senior at Hanover High.

“I think that boys are more, you know, expected to be the star athletes, to bring home the football title,” says Tom, another graduating senior.

Their classmate Colby agrees: “I think maybe girls are a little more goal-oriented, where guys, in general, are more apt to go with the flow, like, 'Well, if I do well in high school, that's great. If I don't, hey, that's fine.'”

The picture doesn't get much brighter for young men when they get to college. Campuses are now nearly 60 percent female, with women earning 170,000 more bachelor degrees each year than men. Women are streaming into business schools and medical schools, and will be the majority at the nation's law schools. At some colleges, they're getting so many more qualified women applicants than men applicants that the schools are doing something that might shock you.

“To make a class that's 50/50, they're practicing affirmative action on behalf of boys,” says Thompson. “Girls are so outperforming boys in school right now, one statistician said he took it out to its absurd endpoint and said at the present trend, the last man to get his bachelor's degree will do so in 2068.”

Even if that never happens, the trend is ominous. Boys are falling further behind girls in reading and writing, and still, there's no public outcry the way there was for girls, and we wanted to find out why.

“All the rhetoric in the gender equity movement is about how schools shortchange girls. There was almost nothing about how we could reach out to boys,” says Christina Hoff Sommers, a former college professor, now at the American Enterprise Institute. She blames the lack of attention to boys' problems on feminists.

“In order to advance girls, they exaggerated how vulnerable girls were, and they understated the needs of boys. They depicted boys as ... the privileged beneficiaries of a patriarchal society that oppresses women, demeans them and trains young men to be sexist, misogynists,” she says.

Sommers targets groups like the AAUW, the American Association of University Women, and feminist scholars. She says they published a blitz of studies and popular books depicting girls in crisis at precisely the moment when statistics showed girls were catching up to boys or moving past them in most academic areas. Sommers says the efforts on behalf of girls turned into what she calls a war against boys.

“I don't have a war. I am not in favor of saying that girls ought to get anything over boys,” says Jacqueline Woods, president of the AAUW.

Sommers calls the AAUW and other similar organizations the "gender bias industry.” Woods disagrees: “Most people understand that gender equity is about making sure that both boys and girls have equal access to educational opportunities.”

Sommers also accuses women teachers of favoring girls over boys. She says they reward classroom behavior that girls find easier, like sitting still, and punish boys for being, well, boys.

“If boys are obstreperous and high-spirited and competitive, which most of them are, this is seen as behavior which is not tolerated. They see that as an expression of a toxic masculinity,” she says.

Thompson disagrees with this: “I do not think that feminism has ruined the lives of boys.” He blames fathers.

“Where are the men? Why aren't men advocating for boys? We know that boys who have fathers who go to PTA meetings, those boys get better grades," says Thompson, who believes there is a clear correlation when a father's involved.

“If your father only shows up for town soccer and town football and never goes to PTA meetings, well, duh, doesn't take too much to figure out what your father values.”

“Every small town in Texas turns out on Friday night to watch boys play football, and it's lacrosse in Maryland, and it's ice hockey in Minnesota and Massachusetts. Boys are demagogued, but not for their academic work.”

He says that could be fixed in large part if schools recruited more male teachers.

“I had a teacher at my school, and this teacher said, you know, 'I'm the first man they've ever known who liked poetry and taught poetry,' and this man is also their coach,” Thompson says.

At Jefferson Academy in Long Beach, Calif., Franklin Goodman fits this bill. He coaches, and also teaches seventh grade math and science, where the ratio of male to female teachers is 50/50. That's unusual enough, but there's another big difference. During academic periods, the genders are separated, boys in one room and girls in another.

“First of all, there aren't any female distractions for them,” Goodman says. The boys told Stahl that other kids call them 'gay' for going to class with all boys, but they admit it's been good for them. They learn more, they told her, without girls.

The teachers use more physical activity and competition in the all-boy classrooms and tailor the courses to boys' tastes, with more books on topics like war and science fiction.

The school must be doing something right. Test scores for boys have jumped dramatically.

Why aren’t boys’ academic problems a bigger issue? “There's a little cultural secret at work here. Boys go out in the work world and earn more money,” says Thompson. “Nobody wants to admit what's happening, which is, 'You girls work very hard, but sorry, ladies, when you get out there, we're not going to pay you equally. And you boys, it's OK. You can loaf through school. You'll get good jobs afterwards.'”

But, Thompson says, there's going to be a cold shower when the country realizes that women are completely dominating the numbers in professional schools. “We can't have a country of women in white-collar jobs and men in blue-collar jobs. That's not going to be good for this society."

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