To avoid this situation in the future, school officials faced a dilemma: either they start practicing affirmative action for boys or suspend the awards ceremony. They chose the latter. Pushing the problem from public view to avoid another embarrassing clean-sweep ceremony, however, falls short of a long-term solution. This is not a local problem confined to Pearl Creek Elementary. Boys falling behind in school are both a national and international phenomenon involving far more than playground roughhousing. In the United States, the problem is most obvious in high poverty urban schools, where boys are losing sight of the girls. In Chicago, the girls at Gen. George Patton Elementary School outpaced the boys by fifty-five points on the 2007 state reading tests. Boys are four and a half times as likely as girls to get expelled from preschool and four times as likely to suffer from attention-deficit disorders. In state after state, boys are slipping behind girls in math scores on state exams—which steps on all the conventional wisdom about boys excelling in math—while falling far behind girls in reading. And while the problem is most serious in poor neighborhoods, the awards day snapshot offered up by the upper-income Pearl Creek Elementary is mirrored in middle- and upper-middle-income schools around the country.
Most worrisome, boys' academic ambitions have skidded. As recently as 1980 more male than female high school seniors planned to graduate from college, federal surveys of high school seniors told us. By 2001, however, girls moved ahead of boys on that question by a startling eleven percentage points (updates to that survey show the gap persists). What happened to boys in those twenty-one years? Answering that question is what this book is about. Those flagging ambitions explain the dramatic gender imbalances unfolding on most college campuses, many of which hover near a 60–40 balance favoring women on graduation day. Why are the gender imbalances worse on graduation day? Because men are both less likely to enroll and more likely to drop out before earning degrees. The journey to find the answer to the question of why this is happening began more than a decade ago when, like every other education reporter at the time, I bought into the reports that schools were treating girls unfairly, shunting them aside in favor of aggressive boys thrusting their arms into the air to answer teachers' questions. As the father of two girls, I was outraged, and I wrote those stories uncritically. By hindsight, we now know that that research was flawed. I was wrong to write those stories. As my own daughters matured past the elementary school years, I began to witness just how wrong those reports were. My nephews never seemed to fare as well as my nieces. The brothers of our daughters' friends rarely did as well as their sisters. The proof was playing out in the college enrollment and graduation numbers, where women increasingly dominated: Boys, not girls, were the ones struggling in school; men, not women, were falling behind in college graduation numbers. And these are not just poor minority boys falling behind. Plenty of them come from schools such as Pearl Creek Elementary.