Hymowitz Right, Wrong on How to Fix Boys’ Educational Problems

November 18, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

How is it possible for one person to be so right and so wrong in the space of a few hundred words? Here’s Kay Hymowitz taking on the issue of boys’ lagging performance in school and out (Deseret News, 11/10/13). The problem she nails pretty well; the cause she does likewise. But when it comes to solutions, she’s like the walking dead.

To her credit, Hymowitz realizes that the problems boys are facing are far too important to ignore. Maybe she should have a chat with a policymaker or two. We’ve known that boys were falling behind in school for well over 20 years now, and no one with real authority over public policy has so much as lifted a finger to help. For their part, feminists are so happy with the sea-change in boy’s educational fortunes they deny there’s a problem at all.

And to her further credit, she reminds us of the excellent work done by MIT economist David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, published last March, that debunks several misconceptions about the fact and sources of boys’ woes. Here’s my piece on the Autor/Wasserman analysis (NPO, 4/1/13).

Autor and Wasserman found that girls have reacted to the free-trade-fueled decline in mid-level jobs by increasing their success in school and therefore their marketability to employers. That, as the economists point out, is a rational economic choice. Young women are enhancing their economic outcomes through rational decisions.

But boys aren’t. They’re opting not for economic upward mobility, but for the opposite — a decline in earnings and status. They do that largely because they’re dissociating themselves from school. Those choices are irrational and when people behave irrationally, economists get nervous. In Autor’s case, that nervousness led him to ask the obvious question, “Why?”

And he came up with an answer — single-mother households.

This spring, MIT economist David Autor and co-author Melanie Wasserman suggested a reason for this: the growing number of fatherless homes. Boys and young men weren’t behaving rationally, they suggested, because their family situations had left them without the necessary attitudes and skills to adapt to changing social and economic conditions. Anyone interested in the plight of poor and working-class men — and, more broadly, mobility and the American dream — should hope this research, and the considerable biological and psychological evidence behind it, become part of the public debate.

Signs that the nuclear-family meltdown of the past half a century has been particularly toxic to boys are not new. As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that, although both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. Girls tended to “internalize” their unhappiness and were likely to become depressed and anxious. Boys, on the other hand, “externalized” or “acted out”: They became more impulsive, aggressive and “antisocial.”

Both reactions were worrisome, but boys’ behavior had the disadvantage of annoying and even frightening classmates, teachers and neighbors. Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. Girls’ unhappiness also seemed to ease within a year or two of their parents’ divorce; boys’ didn’t.

Now, why would that be? As I reported earlier this year, two researchers at the University of Chicago suggested that one reason for boys’ educational decline compared to girls is the fact that single mothers tend to invest less time, energy and emotion in their sons than in their daughters. That may be one explanation, but whatever the source of the problem, it is undeniable that male children suffer from divorce and single-motherhood far more than do girls.

Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. Provide more maternity leave, quality day care and health care, goes the thinking, and a lot of the disadvantages of single-parent homes would vanish. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems. A 2006 Finnish study of 2,700 boys, for instance, concluded that living in a non-intact family at age 8 predicted a variety of criminal offenses.

Even boys who don’t land in juvenile court find their prospects diminished. Several studies have concluded that boys raised in single-parent homes are less likely to go to college than boys with similar achievement levels raised in married-couple families; girls show no such gap.

So why do boys in single-mother families have a harder time of it than their sisters? If you were to ask the average person on the street, he would probably give some variation of the role-model theory: Boys need fathers because that’s who teaches them how to be men. The theory makes intuitive sense. And some evidence exists, though it’s far from settled, that boys who live with their fathers after divorce are better off than those who stay with their mothers.

As the sole explanation for the boy disadvantage, though, the role-model theory needs modification. If boys simply needed men in their lives to teach them the ways of the gendered world, then uncles, family friends, mentors, teachers, stepfathers and nonresidential but involved fathers could do the trick. It’s not clear that this is the case. And stepfathers have an especially mixed record in helping boys, the research shows.

It seems hard to imagine that an intelligent person like Hymowitz could get to this point in her article and fail to see the obvious. Let’s recap: boys are doing worse in school and in a variety of areas of life than are girls; that’s not always been the case; overwhelmingly the culprit is the rise in single-motherhood that uniquely visits hardships on male offspring; we’re not exactly sure why this is so, but it looks like boys raised by single fathers do better than those raised by single mothers and single mothers tend to offer less love and caring to their sons than to their daughters.

Now, to a lot of people — me included — the solution looks pretty clear. It may not be the only thing we need to do, but it is unquestionably one of the things. We need to reduce the number of boys raised by single mothers. One good way to do that would be to educate judges about the problems boys face when raised by mothers only and encourage them to give custody of boys to their fathers or at least to craft custody orders that don’t send Dad off to wander in the wilderness while Mom raises little Andy.

In short, it is crystal clear that, at least when it comes to boys, we need to stop what we’re doing. We need to stop pretending that a son seeing his father two weekends out of the month is enough for him to make a success of his life. It’s not. We know that.

But Hymowitz, for all her acuity in understanding both the problem and its causes, manages to ignore the obvious when it comes to solving it.

If the trends of the last 40 years continue — and there’s little reason to think that they won’t — the percentage of boys growing up with single mothers will keep growing. No one knows how to stem that tide. But by understanding the way family instability interacts with boys’ restless natures, educators could experiment with approaches that might improve at least some lives.

Educators and psychologists have often described boys as “needing clear rules” or “benefiting from structure.” Equally important is to find ways to improve boys’ literacy. Boys have always had greater difficulty learning to read than girls, and that holds across all socioeconomic levels and in every country where PISA scholastic tests are given to 15- and 16-year-olds. Kids having trouble reading too often become disengaged from school and drop out.

But the truth is, we don’t know for sure what will help. Our best bet is probably to follow the advice of social thinker Jim Manzi and start with small, controlled studies that lend themselves to careful evaluation — and keep experimenting.

Utter nonsense. We can experiment all we want to with schools, and I won’t object if we do. But the problem lies less with schools than it does with the families that have conditioned these kids for years before a teacher ever sets eyes on them. As long as we accept as a given that children will be raised by mothers parenting alone, we’ve lost the battle and all that experimentation will amount to nothing more than frustration for teachers and boys alike.

It’s nothing that’s not obvious. So explain it to me. How can Hymowitz see that it’s single-mother families that are harming boys and not say “peep” about changing that family structure? Seriously, someone make me understand, because I don’t.

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#KayHymowitz, #MIT, #DavidAutor, #MelanieWasserman, #education, #divorce, #fatherlessboys

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