The Magazine

Boyz n the Book

Johnny can read, but won't, and who can blame him?

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By MARY GRABAR
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A Rip Van Winkle waking up from a 30-year nap on a college campus today would notice a strange change in the student body. Most of the students walking past him would be women.

A generation ago, women made up less than half the student body. But in 2005 they made up 57 percent of total fall enrollments, and the Department of Education estimates the gender discrepancies will increase every year in the foreseeable future. Also, once they are in college, women are more likely to finish. In 2005-06, graduation rates favored women by 26 percent in terms of earning bachelor's degrees, and 33 percent in master's degrees. Even among doctorates, where men still hold a slight advantage, women are projected to eclipse them in 2014.

Advanced Placement high school classes provide a good barometer for determining who will go on to college, and here, too, women surpass men. Females make up 64 percent in English literature and 63 percent in English language and composition. They outdo males significantly in history (United States, European, and world), art history, and the romance languages. Only in certain classes, mainly in mathematics and advanced sciences, do boys exceed girls: They hold a clear lead in computer science (83 percent), physics (65 percent to 78 percent in higher levels), advanced calculus (59 percent), and economics, although females equal them in Calculus A/B and beat them in biology, environmental science, and psychology.

Also, at the high school level, we see the same outcomes for boys and girls. For instance, the gender gap in reading scores widened between 1992 and 2005: According to the Department of Education, it grew from 10 points among 12th graders (297 for girls vs. 287 for boys) to 16 points (295 vs. 279). Writing skills seem to follow reading levels, according to a 2005 DOE study that showed that high school seniors who read for fun "almost every day" scored an average of 165 on writing assessments while those who "never or hardly ever" read for fun scores of only 136. While the gap in recent years has closed, this month's National Assessment of Educational Progress report showed a yawning 18-point gap between girls and boys.

Further data suggest that college women perform so much better not because of intelligence but because of study habits. College women are 35 percent more likely to study daily and 23 percent more likely to read their textbooks thoroughly, according to a report by the Association of American Publishers. They also do more voluntary reading, as the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts survey on reading showed. They also read much more nonliterary material than boys do. While from 1992 to 2002 levels of voluntary literary reading--one novel, short story, play, or poem in the past year--fell off among all age groups, the largest drop came among young adults 18 to 24. But the drop among young males was three times as large as for young women, with declines from 55 percent to 43 percent, compared with 63 percent to 59 percent among women.

No doubt, many factors play in girls' superior performance in grades and graduation, and the reading that accompanies them. Many basic behaviors of boys work against them in academic environments. They have more discipline problems than girls, they play more sports, and they spend more hours working and being outdoors.

The University of North Carolina suggests one answer on its website, where it acknowledges the problems boys are having with reading. The website connects these problems to a lack of male influence: "Socially," it explains, "boys have few male reading role models at home or school. Most librarians and teachers are women; mothers read to children more frequently than fathers." The authors acknowledge, too, the lack of "masculine" books that would appeal to boys on such topics as sports, war, and
competition.

Those interests explain why boys like video games. They present a "quest in which an imperiled hero tries to find clues or treasure and earn advantages so he can go to the next level," according to Tom Newkirk, director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. It's the action, danger, and purpose in a competitive arena that interests boys. Boys like conflict, tests of strength, and strategy in their play. Girls prefer games and books that tend toward the virtues of cooperation and sensitivity.