The American Association of University Women (which captured tons of headlines in 1992 for its report on "How Schools Shortchange Girls") released a report yesterday called "Where the Girls Are." This report seeks to compare boys' and girls' school performance and to refute the idea that boys are getting the short end of the stick in today's schools.
"It is a testament to the success of the efforts by AAUW and others that the gender equity debate has taken a new twist in which boys are cast as the disadvantaged gender," the report notes, singling out Christina Hoff Sommers' book, The War Against Boys. "Girls' gains have not come at the expense of boys."
The evidence in the report is fairly straightforward. Both boys and girls have been holding steady or improving slightly on standardized tests over the past few years. Girls tend to do slightly better on NAEP reading sections, boys do better on the SAT. The between-gender differences in performance, though, are nothing compared to the differences between racial groups and between income groups (which might be a more fruitful area for concern). Young women (and, interestingly, older women) are going to college in record numbers, but young men are more likely to go than in the past as well. So while the percentage of college students who are men has fallen in recent years, the proportion of men who are going to college has gone up. This suggests that women aren't "taking men's places" in colleges -- they're simply flooding into college, while the proportion of men going to college has been more of a slowly rising tide. Among "traditional" college students (those under 24) from high-income families, men still slightly outnumber women. It's just that while older women are more willing to go back to school for a few years, many older men can't or won't leave the workforce to do so.
The AAUW of course has its politics. They sniff that there's no way there could be a war on boys because men still out-earn women, even controlling for years in the workforce, field of study and the like. Which is true. But girls were doing OK on tests compared with boys in 1992, too, and the AAUW still managed to put out a report then counting the number of times teachers called on kids who were raising their hands, the number of times boys blurted out answers and teachers acknowledged them, etc. If one used different stats, one could surely come up with a report that schools shortchanged boys. For instance, boys are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and to be disciplined for causing problems in the classroom. The majority of elementary school teachers are women, and just as grown women often feel awkward in offices in which all the managers are male, boys can feel excluded in female-dominated environments that lack male role models.
That said, I don't think there's much to be gained from hunting for a war on one gender or another. No discovery of a war is going to help a kid read or do math. Our schools have lots of problems. Not least is that bright kids sit, bored to tears, in their classrooms because they're not allowed to move ahead. Kids breeze through tests and homework, not learning the joy of having to actually labor hard to understand something. That happens to girls and boys. We should see more studies on that.