Christina Hoff Sommers and other “conservatives” have been arguing for awhile that public education in America discriminates against boys, because feminists run education and they are mean. And no wonder girls do better in school, they say, because passive little girls are better able to sit still at a desk and learn stuff, while boys need to be allowed to burn off their male energy by terrorizing the first graders and trashing the library, or something.
Admittedly, since the 1960s there has been a lot of focus on how to boost the self-esteem of girls, both in and out of schools. But building self-esteem isn’t zero-sum; there’s no logical reason to think that encouraging girls to do better would cause boys to shrink into the wallpaper. And, anyway, boys have gone through school sitting at desks and learning stuff from women teachers for many generations, and it seems odd that this has only recently become oppressive.
Also, there’s no clear-cut evidence that boys do better in all-male schools than in co-ed schools. You can find a lot of arguments that boys do better in all-male academies, but the data is ambiguous; there are no effects that can’t be accounted for by other factors, such as family affluence. See also “Single-Sex Education Is Assailed in Report.”
I found one study that says that, in absolute terms, boys are actually learning more than they used to. The difference is that girls are learning way more than they used to. I don’t personally think this is a problem that needs to be fixed.
I bring this up because of an article at Salon that women tend to be more cautious and rational at playing odds, while men are more likely to take crazy risks. This is hardly news, of course. Men tend to be overconfident, often foolishly so, and will rush in where angels fear to tread. Women are more likely to hold back until they see they have a strong chance of succeeding.
How does this relate to school? The Salon article says there is a lot of data showing that boys excel at finite games, or competitions that have a clear beginning, middle, end, winners, losers. But school is an infinite game. It goes on for years, and there is no clearly marked ending where the prizes are handed out. For this reason, in a very competitive academic environment, boys are more likely than girls to burn out, especially if they aren’t at the top of the class.
Put another way, girls are more satisfied with approval, from their peers and from adults. They don’t have to “win.” But boys who are consistently not winning, even though they are doing well, are more likely to get discouraged and quit. Data show that, all other things being equal, smart girls thrive in a competitive academic environment, but smart boys learn more in an academic environment that is less competitive.
There is something to be said for risk-taking, of course, and sometimes the damnfool things men do actually pay off. As far as school is concerned, the data suggests the boys may benefit from smaller classes more than girls do.