January 23, 2006

The trouble with boys? I don’t think so.

It’s been a weird week for the gender war.

First, we hadthe radical feminist left engaged in a bizarre assault against Kate O’Beirne’s Women Who Make the World Worse. The attack consisted, from what I can tell, of writing unfavorable reviews on Amazon, modifying the image of the book’s cover in Microsoft Paint and posting it online, and clicking the button saying that the unfavorable reviews were helpful. For example, according to nationalreview.com, a review (which “124 of 143” people found helpful) explained that O’Beirne “slept with Ted Kennedy.”

Anyway, the Amazon campaign has been funny, and apparently improved O’Beirne’s book sales. As I write this, it is ranked 180 in books.

Next item: Monday marked the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and if you support the decision, you can go to nearby Orange County’s Stand Up for Choice cocktail party.

Drinking to abortion strikes me as tasteless, but it’s difficult to explain taste to the crowd that created “I had an abortion” T-shirts.

Into the midst of all this gender-related fervor, Newsweek released an article entitled “The Trouble with Boys.” I found the article extremely illuminating. It answered several important questions, including: #1 What is the trouble with boys? #2 How can we apply primatologists’ studies of juvenile male chimps to middle-schoolers’ behavior? #3 Are girls really better? #4How do we cope with the gender that is “maddening and failing at school?”

The answer to #2 is: Middle-school boys are exactly like juvenile male chimps, which more or less explains #1 as well. For #3 the correct answer was “yes,” and the solution to #4 is, according to Newsweek, separate but equal single-sex classrooms.

“The Trouble with Boys” is alarming on many levels. First, there’s the danger that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a great body of psychological literature supporting the theory that negative stereotypes have a significant effect on academic performance. For example, Asian girls do significantly better on standardized math exams when they are asked at the beginning to bubble in their race than when they are asked to bubble in their gender. The theory is that in the first case they associate with a positive stereotype (that Asian students are good at math) and in the second with a negative stereotype (that girls are bad at math).

Clearly, if middle-school boys find out that “maddening,” chimp-like behavior, disorganization, and lack of ambition are “hard-wired” into their brains, it’s going to cause some problems.

Boys’ increasing rates of academic struggle and failure are a reason for serious concern. As Newsweek states, “the number of boys who said they didn’t like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001.” Boys now comprise only 44 percent of college campuses, compared to, Newsweek points out, 58 percent 30 years ago. Because this statistic is zero-sum, it’s not clear how much of the change has resulted from rising female achievement (because of decreased discrimination) and how much from falling male achievement.

I’ll give Newsweek the benefit of the doubt that they are not wistfully remembering the Good Old Days, when girls went to girl colleges and boys went to boy colleges.

Newsweek later suggests that boys would learn better if classrooms were segregated. It cites an educational experiment at Roncalli Middle School in Colorado, which assigned a random group of 50 sixth-graders to single-sex classrooms. It found that “the all-girl class did best in math, English, and science, followed by the all-boy class and then coed classes.”

I’m assuming that Newsweek means “best” on average, though the article doesn’t specify. Any statistician worth his salt, however, knows that the average is only one description of a dataset. What happened to the best students? What happened to the worst students? What happened to the standard deviation? You better have a lot more than an average in order to make the case for segregating schools.

My instinct is that this strategy works best for the average student. Over the past 30 years, the educational system has been greatly feminized: With the modern emphasis on the method rather than the answer, the effort rather than result, discussion rather than problem solving, it is hardly surprising that girls thrive while boys are bored. Given that, it’s entirely possible that the median boy would do better in a 1950s-style, hands-on, results-based, single-sex classroom, while the median girl would do better in a classroom where she could sit in peace without having spitwads thrown at her.

But what about the tails? What about the boys who do better with a discussion- and method-based learning style? Or the girls who prefer the hands-on problem-solving style? If you put a girl in the boys’ classroom or a boy in the girls’ classroom, the environment will be oppressive and threatening.

I worry more about the best students. They’re already highly motivated, so presumably the marginal effect of a single-sex classroom would be much smaller. Further, the United States should have learned by now that “separate” is never “equal”; ceteris paribus, the class with the best students will provide the best education. And who is going to tell the brightest woman that she can’t take the most advanced math class or go to the best university because men learn better when they’re not distracted by the fairer sex?

I like to think that, as a society, we’ve moved past that.