Calls to Move Goalposts as Girls Surpass Boys in School

In his latest op/ed Nick Kristof is lamenting the fact that girls are outperforming boys at school. Kristof is as ardent a defender of women's rights as anyone in the established media, so he gets a proverbial clitoral hood pass. That said, Kristof seems uncharacteristically oblivious to the fact that many self-appointed advocates for boys in the school system are trying to address educational disparities by further institutionalizing male privilege. Instead of demanding more resources to help boys succeed within the system, they want to overhaul the system to cater to male developmental quirks. Boys are just that special.

Nobody disputes that, on average, girls are doing significantly better in school than boys from kindergarten through high school. Everyone agrees that schools should be doing more to address lagging academic achievement by boys. The question is whether the boys should adapt to the system, or the system should adapt to the boys, at the expense of girls.


When girls lagged behind in math, extra resources were allocated to help them master the curriculum. The investment paid off. Nobody suggested cutting math and science because girls weren't as good at it. Everyone realized that math and science were vital to individual success and national economic competitiveness. So, we invested resources in helping girls adjust to the subject matter.

When it comes to boys' poor performance, charges of discrimination get thrown around with wild abandon, but generally speaking, boys aren't getting less credit for the same achievement just because they're boys. Nor is the school system arbitrarily rewarding things that girls are good at just because girls are good at them. Boys just aren't doing as well at things all schoolkids need to learn.

Everyone agrees that boys do worse in school because they are less likely to sit down, shut up, and do their work. Also, they're not as adept as girls on two of the three Rs: reading and writing. "[G]irls are well ahead of boys in verbal skills, and they just seem to try harder," Kristoff writes. Imagine that, girls doing better because of aptitude and hard work.

Self-appointed advocates for boys insist that this is unfair because boys are biologically programmed to be more rambunctious and less verbal. Some go so far to allege that the classroom is a "feminized" space and that schools, with their emphasis on discipline, are "at war" with boys. (Oddly enough, Michael Gurian the author of The Wonder of Boys, who has made a career arguing that the school rules bruise nascent masculinity is also a proponent of military-style boot camps to inculcate boys with masculine discipline. In his view, "Please raise your hand, Johnny" is emasculating; but, "Raise your hand, maggot," is suitably macho.)

Gurian and his allies cite neuroscience like it's some kind of get-out-of-detention free pass. Even if the observed differences are biological, the fact remains that boys have historically thrived in schools much more rigid than the average American public school.

Neurologist Dr. Bruce Perry told Newsweek that the current educational model is "biologically disrespectful" to boys. But our basic pedagogical models were developed by men, for boys--long before girls were allowed to go to to school. Now that girls are thriving in the system, disgruntled parents of sons and conservative activists like Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute are crying foul.

It's an article of faith for some people that boys will naturally do as well, or better than girls. If they don't, the system must be broken.

Many of these advocates are demanding that we overhaul the curriculum to erase the female advantage. They say this so offhandedly you scarcely notice what a radical proposal they're advancing. The curriculum is designed to teach skills that are important in work and life.  Many jobs require you to sit down, shut up, and do your work. If girls have a natural edge in that department, then boys need remedial help and encouragement--like girls got in math--not extra indulgence.

Maybe boys are acting out and underperforming because they've been taught from an early age that the world should change to suit them.

Photo credit: By flickr user theirhistory, licensed under Creative Commons.

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