According to the cover story for TIME Magazine dated August 6, 2007, boys today are doing just great, "better than ever" (p. 44) -- not only at school, but in their personal lives as well. The author, David von Drehle, provides three bits of evidence (and only three) to support his assertion that boys are doing "better than ever" at school.
So, what about those reading scores?
- Reading scores for 4th-grade boys have risen.
- The proportion of boys graduating from high school has increased 4% (four percent) since 1980.
- More boys are going straight to college after finishing high school.
Reading scores for fourth-grade boys have indeed risen; but (as the TIME cover story concedes), reading scores for twelfth-grade boys have plummeted, so that "many boys are leaving [high] school functionally illiterate" (p. 44). Not to worry, though. After all, those fourth-grade boys are doing better. As those fourth-grade boys move up to the higher grades, we can confidently "expect gains in the higher grades soon." (p. 44).
Such a comment betrays a stunning lack of understanding both of the reasons behind the rise in fourth-grade test scores and the corresponding decline in the scores of high school boys. These two phenomena are closely linked. Over the past 20 years, there has been an acceleration of the early elementary curriculum, coupled with a narrowing of the focus of elementary education (for more detail on this point, with supporting references, please see chapter 2 of Boys Adrift)
Recess has been cut back. There's less music, less art, less physical education, and more reading drills, writing drills, and arithmetic exercises. (This is less true at elite private schools than at most public schools.) When you turn elementary school into year-round test-prep, you will see test scores rise. But that improvement comes at a price. Some students, especially boys, tune out. They lose interest. They no longer read for fun. (See chapter 2 of Boys Adrift for more documentation of the lower propensity of boys to read for fun today compared with 1980.)
And they stop paying attention. Over the same 20 years during which we've seen this acceleration and intensification of the early elementary curriculum, there has been an explosion in the number of kids, especially boys, being diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. The United States has about 5% of the world's population but consumes about 90% of the total global production of ADHD medications such as Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, and Metadate. (Please see chapter 4 of Boys Adrift more more facts and figures about the overdiagnosis and over-prescribing of medications for ADHD in the United States). The TIME cover story praises the "enlightened teaching and robust encouragement" which Mr. Von Drehle believes now characterizes American education (p. 45). But what's so enlightened about an educational system which drives many parents to drug their children, especially their sons? The number of boys on stimulant medications for ADHD has increased roughly 30-fold (i.e. by 3000%) over the past 20 years. In affluent suburbs, it's now common to find one in three middle-school boys on these "academic steroids." From my perspective as a practicing family physician, listening to the concerns of parents who feel pressured to put their sons on Adderall or Concerta, it's hard to share the enthusiasm of the TIME cover story for our supposedly "enlightened" system. In my experience, it's usually not the boys who have something broken and in need of fixing. It is instead more often the school which needs to be brought back into alignment with the reality of what's developmentally appropriate for kids to learn, and how best to inspire kids to become lifelong learners rather than mere test-takers.
Graduation rates: Regarding the supposed 4% increase in graduation rates: The TIME cover story accepts without question the US Department of Education's estimate that 89% of boys graduate from high school today, up from 85% in 1980. Both these figures are substantially inflated, in the view of people who study the messy issue of graduation rates. In May 2007, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helped to fund a “National Summit to End America’s Silent Dropout Epidemic.” According to the scholars who presented at this summit, "graduation rates are, at best, 70 percent nationally, and for black and Latino students, especially boys, closer to 50 percent." (The quote is from the article in Education Week entitled "Conference Focuses on 'Silent Epidemic' of Dropouts", May 16 2007. It's remarkable that TIME magazine would run a cover story using the Administration's optimistic figure, without even mentioning the fact that most scholars believe these inflated figures have little contact with reality. One wonders: was Mr. Von Drehle unaware of the scholarly work on graduation rates in this country, or was he aware of it but chose to ignore it?
But at least more boys are going to college than before, right? The "favorite statistic" in the TIME cover story, the statistic which Mr. Von Drehle says serves to "sum up all the others," is the one which supposedly proves that "fewer boys today are deadbeats" (p. 45). This statistic refers to the fact that more boys between the ages of 16 and 19 today are in school or working than was the case 20 years ago. That's true, primarily because more boys today attend college than in the 1980's. The TIME cover story concludes that boys therefore "are pulling themselves up."
But such a conclusion neglects the larger picture. It's true that more boys are going to college than was the case 20 years ago. In affluent suburbs, in particular, essentially every boy goes to college. The only requirement for a boy to go to college, after all, is a parent whose checks don't bounce. A more meaningful parameter is how well boys do at college. According to a recent front-page article in the New York Times, at many colleges and universities, roughly 4 out of 5 students earning high honors now are women. According to the latest report from the US Department of Education, only 30% of men who enroll at a four-year college or university will earn a degree within four years, compared with 39.7% of women. According to a May 2007 report underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts, young men today (age 30 to 35 years of age) will be the first generation of American men to earn significantly less than their fathers did at the same age. They are also the first generation of American men ever to be less well-educated than their sisters. In this age group, 32% of women have earned a 4-year college degree, compared with only 23% of men. Please see chapters 6 and 7 of Boys Adrift for more information about the end result of our current educational system: a growing proportion of young men who "fail to launch."