Opinion Columns & Blogs

Are video games causing achievement gap?

The percent of males earning college degrees in the United States has now dropped to 43 percent. While women have traditionally dominated professions such as nursing and teaching, professors in veterinary and medical schools are now looking out at a sea of women students in their classrooms.

Engineering and math careers are still dominated by males, but women are making substantial inroads across all fields they do not yet dominate. Women's share of doctorates in math has risen from 11 percent in 1966 to 30 percent in 2006. Women only earned 12 percent of biological and agricultural doctorates in 1966 but are crossing to a majority in these field-oriented degrees today.

They are not forcing males out of the classroom. Women are taking empty seats as males fall by the wayside.

The newspapers of record in education — Education Week and the Chronicle of Higher Education — are buzzing with debates. Several books blame recent American curricular reforms for this "boy problem." Conservative radio talk shows condemn the "feminization of the classroom," although there is no evidence that classroom interactions today differ significantly from a century ago.

For several reasons, it is very unlikely that this drop in male academic performance is due to any particular educational reform.

Males are dropping out of academics in all developed countries. When I lecture in China's universities, I see mostly women's faces, except in the forestry schools. My colleagues in Europe report the same growing preponderance of female students. Whatever is depressing boys' school performance is cutting across cultural and political boundaries and widely disparate educational systems.

More evidence comes from the timing. Boys' and girls' academic performance began to diverge 15 years ago and has accelerated in the past decade. Boys, who traditionally were far better in mathematics, have declined to now be at parity with girls on national tests.

This decline in boys' scores coincides with the emergence of video games.

Developmental psychologist Douglas Gentile published a survey of American 8- to 18-year-olds last year and found that 12 percent of boys were video-game-addicted, having at least six symptoms out of 11 — similar to a scale for gambling addiction. Only 3 percent of girls were video-game addicts.

Yet this study was a correlation and not a proof that video games caused the decline in academics. There was the possibility that boys who were not academic were attracted to video games as a consequence.

However, the February 2010 issue of Psychological Science reports on how Robert Weis and Brittany C. Cerankosky of Denison University in Ohio measured a group of boys' academic baseline achievement and surveyed their parents and teachers for the boys' behavior. They then gave half of the group of boys PlayStation video-game units. Boys with video games saw their academics nose-dive. The control group of boys without video games continued with their solid schoolwork.

Nevertheless, educators and computer enthusiasts are in denial, trying to find fault with the study or somehow deflect the damning evidence.

There are now more women in the American work force than men, in part because of layoffs. But the academic decline in boys began 15 years before the recession. If we are going to stop this educational slide of males, we are going to have to take the electronic toys out of the hands of our young boys.