This Weekly Standard article by Melana Zyla Vickers on the growing disparity between men and women in secondary education seems to want us to be alarmed. However, there's always the possibility that women's greater interest and success in school may just be the natural order of things once equality of opportunity is achieved.
What is going on? Schools are not paying enough attention to the education of males. There's too little focus on the cognitive areas in which boys do well. Boys have more disciplinary problems, up to 10 percent are medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder, and they thrive less in a school environment that prizes what Brian A. Jacob of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government calls “noncognitive skills.” These include the ability to pay attention in class, to work with others, to organize and keep track of homework, and to seek help from others. Where boys and girls score comparably on cognitive skills, boys get worse grades in the touchy–feely stuff. Perhaps not coincidentally, boys reportedly enjoy school less than girls do, and are less likely to perceive that their teachers support them, according to studies of Hispanic dropouts.
Well, check out that last sentence. Boys enjoy school less. I do not find this surprising. As Jacobs stresses, school involves a lot of sitting still, listening, and reading–tasks the average male is not known to relish.
I think an important part of the story has got to be a simple statistical tale. Let us make the apparently dangerous (for Larry Summers) but common sense and scientifically well supported assumption that males and females tend to differ somewhat in their preferences and abilities. Let us assume further that one of those differences is that a larger proportion of the female population finds school tolerable than the in the male population. If the left end of the curve is “hates school” and the right is “loves school,” then the female curve is shifted just a bit to the right.
Now, I don't have the numbers but I'm sure that a higher proportion of the population now get some college than ever before. (And as Julian said last night, why should a philosopher need numbers when you can directly apprehend being?) Back in nineteen dickety four, when three percent of the population or whatever went to college, and they were almost all male, you can bet that they were mostly guys who were good at school, liked school, or both. As higher education became ever more accessible and equitable over time, you get most of the women who like school enough to get through it attending, and most of the men too. But it just turns out that there's a smaller percentage of men who like school enough to go and get through it. And so, the gender gap in academic achievement could just be a consequence of finally levelling the playing field. So why worry?
Now, it may be that, as Vickers says, school has just become too touchy-feely for many boys and young men. But it might also be the case that that touchy-feeliness was simply necessary to make the educational environment suitably accomodating for girls. It could be (I have no idea) that there is no possibility of a common educational environment that doesn't either turn off some girls or some boys. Maybe it is the case that we've been doing a good job optimizing the educational environment for girls, which, yes, turns some boys off. But can we say that it is over-optimized for girls? Who knows? Again, things might have been previously over-optimized for boys, and equality demanded that we do better at optimizing for girls, and here we are at the ideal balancing point, and things aren't over-sissified at all. (And maybe what we have here is an argument for boy's and girl's schools, and men's and women's colleges.)
Anyway, we're not surprised when men turn out to be the most successful longshoremen. Let's make sure that we're not just finding out that, now that they're getting a fair shake, women aren't just better at school. As it happens, I do think that much of the educational establishment thinks there is something mildly pathological about having testes, and so I don't think there's nothing to the idea that schools have become a bit of a unwelcome place for the average bearers of balls, eroding male educational participation and achievement at the margins. But I also think it's easy to oversell that point in order satisfy an ideological urge to piss on the hated crones manning (ha!) the women's studies departments, etc.