Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mary Sanchez: Our boys are failing

Is it time we addressed the need for affirmative action programs for men? What's that, you say? Preposterous? Men still tend to outearn women for the same work. They overwhelmingly outnumber women as CEOs, members of Congress and in just about every other prestigious career.

True enough. But consider what statistics tell us about trends in male and female educational attainment. It ain't pretty, boys.

Women earn high school degrees at higher rates than men, and they earn more college and postgraduate degrees as well. That holds true for all races and ethnicities. While women have used the past few decades to advance in educational attainment, men have slipped.

Young women today are better educated than their mothers. That shouldn't surprise anyone. I'm certainly a beneficiary of a society more enlightened about women's potential. But American young men today are less well-educated than their fathers' generation, according to a study tracking educational attainment from 1940 to 2008. This is a societal shift that cannot be ignored.

By now, we're all accustomed to plaints and bromides about the state of American education. The controversial documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" is simply the latest in a long line of vehicles decrying the state of U.S. public education, particularly urban school districts.

But the unheard subtext to all this hand-wringing is that boys are in trouble. As one participant in a College Board study of American education noted, "Our young men are the canary in the national coal mine." As vice president of the D.C.-based College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, Ronald Williams attends many a college graduation ceremony. He notes the clickety-clack of high heels across the stage floor as graduate after graduate crosses to accept her diploma. Increasingly, Williams is aware of the dearth of men.

Researchers are starting to look into the ways our schools are failing certain students more than others. There are a lot of factors at play: race, class and poverty both urban and rural. And, of course, there is the impact of broken families and single-parent households. Academics and administrators are trying to understand the way all these things affect the attitudes and expectations of the young, especially young men. Some points of consensus are emerging about the difficulties boys face in school.

One is that schools are punishing "boy behavior" harshly and ineffectively. From a young age, boys tend to have excessive energy and more trouble settling down. Speaking loudly, not being able to focus and follow instructions and the like tend to get a kid in trouble in school. Research has shown that boys are twice as likely as girls to be suspended, labeled learning-disabled or diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Other studies seek to unravel how, particularly for African-American and Latino teenagers, school becomes a "pipeline to prison" rather than to college. Disciplinary measures often cast boys to the street (out-of-school suspension) rather than imposing penalties in school, which can lead to delinquency and juvenile detention. It's a pretty well-worn path that has helped the United States achieve some of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

We Americans like to criticize other societies for how they "treat their women." We smugly opine that a society that keeps girls out of school and forbids women from working outside the home (think radical Islam) is wasting half of its talent.

But what if, even inadvertently, the land of opportunity is essentially doing the same thing to its young men?