Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute published an opinion piece in the New York Times earlier this week entitled “The Boys at the Back.” In her interesting and well-written article, the author addresses the classroom gap boys are witnessing today. The problem isn’t one of intelligence—boys’ test scores are on par with girls’. The problem boys face at school is behavioral: teachers factor behavior into grades, and the classroom structural deck is stacked against boys. Hoff Sommers cites “boy-averse trends like the decline of recess, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the tendency to criminalize minor juvenile misconduct and the turn away from single-sex schooling” as culprits.
Ms. Hoff Sommers addresses three policy reasons to care about boys’ performance: the long-term effects of grades (not merely education, but grades) on children’s future well-being and happiness, the need to keep up in the global economic race, and the fact that male educational performance is lagging particularly in black, Latino, and low-income communities. The author makes several valid suggestions for how to engage boys, but as at least a partial explanation (and remedy) for her third reason for concern about boys’ poor performance, I would point to weak family structure.
As the Marriage and Religion Research Institute’s (MARRI) Second Annual Index of Family Belonging and Rejection shows, family intactness (growing up with both biological parents married to one another) is dishearteningly low among blacks and Latinos in the U.S.: only about 17 percent of black children and 41 percent of Hispanic children reach age 17 in an intact household. This matters for children’s educational performance: children in intact married families are significantly more likely to earn mostly A’s in school. Perhaps this is because parents in always-intact married families are more likely to help their children do their homework than are parents in stepfamilies or single-parent families, but more likely it is because children from married households have higher cognitive scores and more self-control. (For these and more educational benefits of marriage, see MARRI’s 162 Reasons to Marry.)
Certainly the fact that boys are falling behind can be traced to many issues. Hoff Sommers notes that “[a]s our schools have become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, collaboration-oriented and sedentary, they have moved further and further from boys’ characteristic sensibilities.” But doesn’t it stand to reason that stable homes produce more disciplined children? And as the author notes, “If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to?”