Where the gender gap gets its start

It's a puzzle confounding more than a few admissions officers around the United States: Why aren't more young men applying to our colleges?

To some, hints can be found in the state of athletic facilities. To others, female-dominated marketing materials could be a culprit. Still others target the need for better follow-up with male applicants.

But increasingly, attention is turning to what happens well before a boy thinks about dorm life or the ideal major.

The K-12 school environment is coming under scrutiny as educators try to figure out why boys are often not as well prepared as girls are for the hurdle of applying to college. As boys do less well academically, drop out of high school at higher rates, and dwindle in numbers on college campuses, educators are starting to ask how - and whether - to adjust traditional assumptions that may deter boys from pursuing a college degree.

The roots of the problem, they're realizing, may develop far earlier than junior year, when applications get under way.

"We've got to figure this out," says Diane Hulse, head of the middle school at the all-boys Collegiate School in New York City. "It has the potential to be a national calamity."

Teachers have noted differences in behavioral patterns for generations. Girls tend to print neatly and follow directions. Boys may settle for illegible work. Girls often sit nicely in their seats, while boys are more likely to move about. Girls may seek the teacher out for a discussion when they have a problem; boys may opt for a display of nonchalance when confused.

Until quite recently, concern was focused on the educational progress of girls. They lagged behind boys in all measures of science and math achievement, and often lacked confidence academically.

Educators and feminists alike devoted considerable effort from the 1970s through the '90s to the question of building girls' self-esteem as learners. New curricula were created, textbooks were redesigned, and teachers were cautioned about favoring boys in discussions.

To a large extent, it now appears, such efforts have succeeded - while boys have either stood still or slipped back.

"If you look at enrollment numbers in advanced-placement courses, at a certain point you can actually see the girls move ahead of the boys," says Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at Washington's American Enterprise Institute and author of "The War on Boys." "In 1984, it reaches about 50-50, then in 1986 the girls move slightly ahead, and from there they never look back."

In the beginning of the 1980s, standardized test scores showed that girls were a bit ahead of boys in reading and writing, but significantly behind in math and science. Today, results from 1996 national assessment tests show 17-year-old boys lead girls by five points in math and eight points in science, but lag by 14 points in reading and 17 points in writing.

"What's been happening over the last 15 years or so is that boys continue to drop in their reading and writing scores and today in general are in the lowest rungs," says William Pollack, director of the Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and author of "Real Boys' Voices."

The issue can play out in both what boys have to offer colleges and how they handle the process of applying.

A guiding push toward college

Bettye Winder, who has been a guidance counselor in the Philadelphia public school system for 27 years, says that throughout her experience, she has noted a marked difference in how boys and girls approach college admissions.

"The girls are more goal-oriented," she says. "With boys, it's like I have to chase after them to get them to move. They may want to go to college, but they want me to tell them where to go and what to do."

In general, she says, the girls she works with have better grades and participate more in extracurricular activities. They are also more likely to seek out opportunities for summer programs and travel - the kinds of activities colleges love to see.

In many highly competitive settings, however, the situation is different, with boys continuing to perform at high levels. At New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School - a public school with a science focus that admits students on the basis of a rigorous entrance exam - the percentage of girls enrolled is actually dropping.

Teachers at such schools seem less likely to note a problem with boys and academics.

"After 30 years of being in the classroom on a day-to-day basis, I can't say that I see [girls outperforming boys]," says Nancy Flescher, an eighth-grade teacher at Wellesley (Mass.) Middle School, a well-regarded public school.

The problem is more pronounced in lower-income neighborhoods, many teachers agree. In part, boys in general - and particularly those in disadvantaged neighborhoods - see academic achievement as incompatible with masculinity.

"It's cool to be a jock, it's cool to be a ladies' man, it's even cool to get into a fight here and there, but it's not cool to be a student," says Carey Jenkins, director of Operation Link-Up, a youth mentoring program at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, N.J.

Ray Johnson, principal of Paul Robeson Academy in Detroit, concurs. "I've seen cases where boys hid their book bags ... because they were afraid of appearing to be nerds," he says.

Rewarding the risktakers

In addition to image problems, some educators are concerned about role models. Almost three-quarters of the public school teachers in the US are women, and it may be that schools disproportionately cater to female interests and reward female patterns of behavior, especially in the elementary grades.

"The things that boys like - spiders, snakes, action figures - tend to be viewed poorly and don't appear on classroom bulletin boards," says Dr. Hoff Sommers.

The types of stories read in most elementary schools tilt toward girls' interests as well, Dr. Pollack says. "Empathy, love, and caring tend to be the focus and not the things we know boys respond to - duty, justice, quests."

In the elementary grades in particular, school activities also favor the fine motor skills involved in writing and drawing, and may ignore the fact that boys develop more slowly in that area.

"With boys, it's their large muscle groups," Mr. Johnson says. "Everything in them tells them to run" - an activity usually forbidden.

Even in higher grades, there is a pattern of valuing rule-abiding behavior, which is more typically female, over a willingness to challenge authority, says Peter Thorp, principal of Gateway High School in San Francisco. "You have a very high value put on cooperation in the classroom, which tends to work against boys," he says. "Boys are more willing to be risktakers and to push the envelope."

That will serve them well in life, he notes, but not in traditional assessments.

One puzzle is that schools have not changed much over the decades, suggesting that the problem is more complicated than time-honored practices.

"The differences have always been there, yet the achievement gap is a recent problem," Mrs. Hulse says. "You have to look elsewhere for the explanation."

Ms. Winder, the guidance counselor, notes that the payoff can be substantial for developing methods that are successful with both sexes. Boys she has worked with, she points out, thrive in college. "Once they get there and see that they're okay, they really love it."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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