A new Duke University study on child well-being says one thing, but the university's press release and subsequent news articles say quite another. Because the study has the potential to shape the way things are done in classrooms — and, ultimately, affect hiring and workplace policies — knowing what it actually says seems rather important.
The researchers open the study's abstract by noting "the question of whether boys or girls have been doing better has been a point of sometimes rancorous debate among feminist and other scholars in recent decades. But surprisingly little systematic empirical inquiry has been devoted to this question."
The researchers conducted their inquiry, followed through on their stated objectives, and did their jobs competently. The university's Office of News and Communications and reporters covering the issue did not.
According to Sarah Meadows, one of the authors, the study clearly contradicts the popular notion that there is a "girl crisis" — that modern girls are disadvantaged. But the Duke press release added a twist of its own, announcing that "American boys and girls today are faring almost equally well across key indicators of education, health, safety and risky behavior." News reports have followed suit, with headlines such as "Boys, girls fare equally in U.S.: Study debunks both sides in long debate" and "Boy-girl gender gap? Not so fast."
Yet the study shows nothing of the sort. Boys and girls fared equally in six of the 28 categories studied by the researchers — and girls fared better than boys in 17 of the remaining 22. The male advantages were modest. For instance, males had a small advantage in math, a slightly lower propensity to smoke, and less likelihood to have been relocated in the last year.
In contrast, many of the girls' advantages are huge. Their death rate in the 15-to-19 age group is half that of boys, and boys have higher death rates at all ages than girls. Although girls attempt suicide more frequently, boys age 15 to 19 commit suicide at four times the rate of girls. Boys age 12 to 19 are 40% more likely to be the victims of violent crime than girls, and are significantly more likely to suffer from drug or alcohol addictions.
The greatest controversy over boys and girls has been in education, beginning in the early '90s, when misguided feminists declared a highly publicized "girl crisis."
The girl crisis was largely based on the work of then-Harvard professor Carol Gilligan, and was subsequently challenged by American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "The War Against Boys." Accordingly, the Duke University study, which was supported by the Foundation for Child Development and published in the journal Social Indicators Research, is titled "Assessing Gilligan vs. Sommers: Gender-Specific Trends in Child and Youth Well-Being in the United States, 1985 to 2001."
The study showed that the boy crisis in education described by Sommers is far more real than the girl crisis posited by Gilligan. The percentage of boys graduating from high school has dropped back below 1985 levels. Girls get better grades than boys and are much more likely than boys to graduate from high school, enter college and graduate from college. Although more girls than boys enroll in high-level math and science classes, boys did score a couple of points better on the most recent national math test considered by the study. But girls' advantage on the most recent reading test is five times as large.
The vast majority of learning-disabled students are boys, and boys are four times as likely to receive a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as girls. Boys are far more likely than girls to be disciplined, suspended, held back or expelled.
Recess time, which research shows is more critical for boys than for girls, has been cut back nationally. According to the U.S. Department of Education, vocational education, also of greater importance to boys than to girls, suffered a sharp decline from 1982 to 1992 and has never recovered.
Since the early '90s the public discourse on gender, youth and education has largely been set by feminist academics and advocates. The events surrounding this new study show that this is still true, as Duke is apparently unwilling to acknowledge and publicize what its research clearly shows — it is boys who are in crisis.