David Brooks writes of a new cultural ideal rewarded and encouraged in the American education system: i.e., that of the ambitious, disciplined, neat, studious, collaborative, and mature student who forms the cultural ideal, while his/her peers who do not conform to this cultural cohesion fail. More often than not, one sex fails to conform to the new educational image—males. The American school system, too often, fails rambunctious boys who are not yet mature enough to write and read at high levels, express themselves in socially sophisticated ways, or maintain the requisite motivation to direct their own studies. Although there are, of course, problems with our educational standards, this is not one of them per se; it is a problem with our educational model, and it is even more striking given that in today’s society, people of all types seem to succeed. Yet, in the classroom, only one type of person appears to succeed, and in an advanced economy increasingly dependent upon college graduates, succeeding in the classroom becomes tantamount to achieving economic mobility. The stakes are high, indeed.
Some statistics may highlight the problem: Girls have eviscerated the gap in math and science that boys enjoyed formerly; most 11th-grade boys write at the level of 8th-grade girls; and reading test scores for boys are well below those for girls, to illustrate a few national trends. In Wisconsin during 2010-2011, girls graduate high school at a rate of nearly 90%, while boys at about 85%; urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison exacerbate this disparity, with girls outpacing boys in graduation rates by nearly 12% in Milwaukee and nearly 9% in Madison. The Schott Foundation named Milwaukee one of the top ten worst performing large school districts for black males, with a 42% disparity between white and black male graduation rates. This well exceeds the national disparity between white and black male graduation rates.
These K-12 trends have clear “snowball effects” in higher education and the potential to succeed once there. Boys account for just 40% of college graduates, despite making up nearly 50% of the population. Two million fewer men graduated from college over the past decade than women, and the chasm only grows for graduate school. Pew Research Center’s data show that women value higher education more than men, too, believing by a fourteen-point margin that college was “very useful” to them, affording them intellectual growth and maturation. Pew’s data also show that the American public is more likely to say that a woman needs a college degree to succeed in life than a man.
Although Wisconsin received recently an exemption from No Child Left Behind, doubtless a positive development for education policy, the question of educational ideal remains relevant. Wisconsin may now shape its own education policy and goals, free from the massive federal meddling of NCLB, but the issue of educational model is a difficult one to capture in statistics alone. Many of the aforementioned rambunctious, rebellious, or disengaged males may graduate from high school or even higher education, yet perform well below their potential. To be sure, although this post discussed the problem as one exclusive to young males, we know that females who do not conform to the ideal image are not insolated from the affects.
As we move forward as a state and as a nation, education policy must address the type of person it rewards and idealizes, and how this fits—or more likely, does not fit—with the idiosyncratic challenge each child presents to the educator. Schools must find a way to engage children as they are rather than hoisting upon students a singular model of success, especially when that newfangled, ideal image of success promoted by our education system is yet largely untested by society.