TOPICS > Education

Report Aims to Debunk Myths on Gender and Education

May 21, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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A new report examines commonly held assumptions about the differences in how girls and boys learn and achieve in education. Experts discuss the findings and how they might help educators better address issues of learning and gender.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the debate over a gender gap in education. Ray Suarez is in charge.

RAY SUAREZ: For years, there have been worries about what’s been called a crisis in the education of boys and young men.

One of the most distressing patterns to admissions counselors and some educators: trends showing young women graduating high school and attending college at higher rates than men.

But a new report from the American Association of University Women argues the gender crisis is a myth. Among its findings: average test scores for elementary school students through college have risen or remained stable for both boys and girls in recent decades; and income, race and ethnicity tend to be more closely associated with the gaps in educational achievement.

We get a closer look at the findings and the larger question of a gender gap with Linda Hallman, the executive director of the American Association of University Women, which issued the report; and Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Income and race major factors

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Linda Hallman, the University Women got a lot of attention in the early '90s with a report they did saying girls were being shortchanged. Why did you do this new report?

LINDA HALLMAN, American Association of University Women: We wanted to look at the data again. We wanted to see where we were. Were girls actually getting better now at this point?

We definitely identified at that time, in '92, that there was a problem with girls' education. So now we're delighted that our data now shows that girls are doing better. And the good news is that boys are doing better, as well.

Education is not a net-zero-sum game here. Basically, if girls were getting better at boys' expense, then we'd be at zero again, wouldn't we?

But the bottom line is: Girls are getting better, and boys are getting better.

But as you said earlier, the big problem now is looking at the race, ethnicity, and the family income rates. That's where we're seeing an achievement gap.

And that achievement gap, it's been around for a long time. This is really not new news. But the point is, we've got to get everybody going on this, to look at this, and get our group -- we want to lend our voice, as AAUW, to the cry for education, to start addressing this achievement gap.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Mortenson, does the data lead you to a different conclusion?

I'm sorry, we have some problems with Mr. Mortenson's audio, but we'll fix that and come back to him in just a second.

Now, the people who are talking about a crisis for boys point to data that I think is not in dispute, that they're graduating from college and high school at lower rates than girls, that they are more likely to be left back, more likely to be expelled, that their GPAs are lower in high school and college.

Does this not point to some problem?

LINDA HALLMAN: Boys are not -- the whole way that the education things are looking at with the boys, boys are not in crisis. They are not as a distinct group; you can't lump them all together.

There are some boys that are in crisis and there are some girls that are in crisis, and they're the ones that we have to target. Our education resources are precious, and we have got to find ways to start targeting and really strategically looking at how to lift the groups that need to be lifted.

So it's not boys all together and it's not girls all together. It's certain segments both of boys and girls.

Boys made smaller gains

RAY SUAREZ: I'm sorry, Mr. Mortenson, we have fixed the problem. And now let me ask again: Do your data, when you look at the data, are you led to a different conclusion from Linda Hallman?

TOM MORTENSON, Pell Institute for Study of Opportunity in Higher Education: Well, I certainly agree that girls have made extraordinary progress over the last almost 40 years now in education.

But if you look at the gains through the baccalaureate degree level, there has been a substantial increase in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded. Girls have earned about 85 percent of that increase in the number of bachelor's degrees; boys have only earned about 15 percent of that increase.

Boys are experiencing education from K-12 through higher education very differently than girls are today.

But I really do want to commend the progress girls have made. Girls have really shown us what needs to be done now to help our boys make similar levels of gains in educational performance and attainment.

RAY SUAREZ: But when you cite those statistics -- four-year degrees -- are you saying boys are doing worse in absolute terms or just when compared to the achievement now being posted by girls?

TOM MORTENSON: Well, there's two different ways of comparing this. If you compare it to girls, clearly the boys are not doing nearly as well as the girls are throughout the education system.

But the major issue is boys are falling farther and farther behind the growing education attainment requirements of the job market after they leave college.

We are rapidly losing jobs that men have done for a long time without higher education, but we're not increasing the participation rates and the attainment rates for boys to qualify for the jobs that are being created in this economy. So it's mainly an economic issue where the boys are falling behind.

Male, female experiences different

RAY SUAREZ: But you heard Linda Hallman suggest that it's not because they're boys. It might be because they're poor. It might be because they're drawn from minority groups or in low-performing schools or underfunded school districts. It's not gender, per se, but some of the other variables that we look at.

TOM MORTENSON: Well, it does seem to be a gender issue. In fact, internationally it's a gender issue. Boys are falling behind girls throughout the industrialized world.

And, in fact, even much of the world that's not industrial, even though there are more men in the college-age population, there are often many times more women enrolled in higher education than there are men.

And, again, the same problem comes up again and again. The economy is changing, and males' participation in higher education is not keeping up with those economic changes.

And, hence, a growing share of men are dropping out of the labor force. A growing share of men are unemployed. A very rapidly growing share of men are behind bars. And, unfortunately, amongst young men, we have soaring suicide rates.

All of these are indicators that young men are in very serious trouble. And these indicators really do not apply to girls. The girls are getting the education, and they are qualifying for the jobs that are out there. The boys aren't.

RAY SUAREZ: Linda Hallman?

LINDA HALLMAN: Well, I agree with some of the things that Tom is saying. He makes very good and interesting points.

The bottom line, though, is our data shows that women actually are coming into college and undergraduate roles later in their lives. Many girls decide not to go to college initially. They go into the workforce.

So if you actually look at our data, the boys and the girls graduating from high school then going into college are almost equal, as far as the amounts of girls and boys that are going on, at that time.

Where the big blip occurs is when girls and women, who now have been in the workforce for a while, facing just the things that Tom talked about, facing the economic realities, they can't make the living.

They're experiencing sexual harassment. They're going through all sorts of different things in the workplace. They realize that they've got to go and get that degree.

And, in some cases, women are going back and getting a second degree just because, in that way, they can -- that's the only way they can find to get their pay up to the level of where men are. So it's not only a level playing field; it's a level paying field that we need to establish.

More resources, strategies needed

RAY SUAREZ: But listening to the statistics that Tom Mortenson suggested, and your own assertion earlier that this is not a zero-sum game, if there were strategies put in place at the school level to address the particular needs of boys, would it hurt girls?

LINDA HALLMAN: I doubt it. But, you know, it's not just boys. It's not just boys. I have to disagree with that. The strategies need to be targeting the areas that really can make a difference.

As I said, our education resources are so small, and we have got to start targeting our dollars into the areas that we already know work: small class sizes, getting teachers to be ready to teach diverse populations, all of those types of areas.

This is where the targeted dollars need to go. That's strategic. That's the only way that the United States can remain competitive in the 21st century, and it's really a workforce issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Mortenson, how would you suggest that schools could look different and work differently to respond to some of the concerns that you've expressed?

TOM MORTENSON: Well, it's very clear that far too many boys are arriving at college age unprepared, unmotivated, unfocused to take on college work and be successful. By comparison to the girls, far too many boys just aren't ready for college.

That leads us back into the K-12 system. Where girls have made considerable progress throughout K-12 system, it seems to be a problem where the K-12 system works far better for girls than it does for boys.

Those that have been looking at this issue, like Dr. Leonard Sax, are moving in the direction of advocating for single-sex public education, that is, treating boys not as defective girls, but treating boys for whom they are, in their own learning styles and their own learning ways.

Frankly, when I've heard discussions of this, many young girls say, "Gee, I'd like to learn that way, too, more active learning, more hands-on learning, more experimental learning, certainly learning outside of the classroom."

Boys don't seem to do particularly well in the K-12 system we're providing right now. And, unfortunately, by the time they get up to college age, they're not only unprepared. They're just turned off by education...

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Mortenson, we're going to have to end it there, but this is a conversation that must continue. Thank you very much.

Linda Hallman, thank you.

LINDA HALLMAN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Mortenson and Linda Hallman are taking your questions on the gender gap in education in an Online Forum. To participate, go to our web site at PBS.org.