Neal Milner: Boys Will Be Boys And That Isn't Such A Good Thing When It Comes To Test Scores - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeComing out of Covid-19, Hawaii’s Department of Education doesn’t just have a student problem. It has a boy problem, which may turn out to be DOE’s most significant problem of all.

Though you wouldn’t know this from the DOE student achievement report released last week because gender is never discussed, and the media who covered the story didn’t break out that information.

Boys are not on the radar the way social class, race, disabilities, and, for that matter, women are.

So, what’s the problem? Just include boys on that list.

That may seem logical, but plain old logic is different from cultural logic or political logic where things on the surface that seem routine are anything but.

That’s because this is about gender, and gender is a fraught, controversial category these days. Big time.

Richard Reeves, a highly respected writer about social issues (I wrote about him before), recently wrote “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling.”

But he almost did not write it. “I have been reluctant to write this book,” he says in the preface, because so many people told him not to. In this political climate, highlighting the problem of boys and men “is a perilous undertaking.”

The subject faces a minefield of mindsets. So, what I am going to talk about here is as much about mindset as it is about the problem itself.

First, let’s take a closer look at a very depressing list showing how bad boys and men are doing worldwide.

Then, we’ll look at the mindset necessary to understand the situation and to deal with it.

That report of new DOE test scores indicates that taken together, boys and girls test below grade average, as Hawaii students typically do. There were some improvements.

But when you look at other Hawaii stats that consider gender, girls do significantly better than boys.

Nationally, Hawaii has one of the biggest gender gaps between male and female students.

In the past school year, more than one of every three Hawaii students — that’s not a typo — were chronically absent from school, twice as many as the year prior.

Being present at school is going precipitously down rather than going up. That’s scary enough.

It’s also likely that more male than female students are chronically absent because school tends to be more important for girls and girls are also better able to deal with stress. Covid-19 may have put boys and girls on an even more divergent path.

The DOE’s boy problem is part of a worldwide divergence of men and women. Women are doing a much better job than men in surviving in our new world.

Women, Reeves says, are like dandelions — hardy and opportunistic — while men are more like fragile orchids unable to adjust to a changing environment.

Here’s a partial list: Men have higher Covid mortality rates. Their health overall is worse. Men have higher suicide rates.

They are more likely to be untethered, not just from the labor market but also from friends and other groups and institutions that keep life lively and sustainable.

Women are better able to overcome stresses like a broken home or an absent father.

Girls are emotionally and mentally ready for school at an earlier age than boys, and in virtually every measure of K-12 school success and progress, girls do better than boys.

Men are much more likely than women to be outside the labor market, which means not even looking for a job. A stand-up comic does a bit where he calls these non-job-lookers “stay at home sons.”

Educational policies that on the surface would seem to be slam-dunk effective for everyone benefit women but have no impact on men. Like say free money.

Every student graduating from high school in Kalamazoo, Michigan gets tuition money to use at any Michigan college.

If a family’s got a gal in a Kalamazoo high school, it’s likely thumbs up. Women have significantly benefited from this incentive. More have gone to college, have higher graduation rates, and overall are much more likely to have thrived in college.

For Kalamazoo high school boys, however, nothing changed. The free money had no effect. Male malaise marches on.

Finland probably has the best schools in the world. Overall, its students score in or near the top on country comparison tests. But that’s only because of that country’s girls, whose scores are phenomenally high. Finnish boys have about the same mediocre scores as American boys.

 

Aliiolani Elementary School students wait outside classrooms before the start of the first day of school during a COVID-19 pandemic.
Statistics show that Hawaii’s girls do considerably better at school than boys. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Government work incentive programs that on the surface seem to work for everyone look very different when you consider gender. Women benefit from incentives. Men, hardly at all.

The “peril” that comes with writing and thinking about masculinity problems, though, doesn’t come from listing these male troubles.

It comes from the mindsets that determine what, if anything, to do about them. I imagine that for many of you, those orchid and dandelion metaphors set all kinds of images dancing in your head.

Here are four guides to developing a better mindset.

Guide One: The basic cause of the problem is structural and cultural.

The root is what Reeves calls “cultural redundancy.”

Boys are falling behind at school “because the educational system is structured in ways that put them at a disadvantage.”

Men struggle in the labor market “because of an economic shift away from traditionally male jobs.”

Fathers have become untethered “because the cultural role of family provider has been hollowed out.”

Focusing simply on the bad behavior of an individual won’t make a dent. Neither will shaming men or seeing them as martyrs to the feminist cause.

Guide Two: recognize and accept gender difference.

Men’s and women’s brains develop differently. That’s why young girls are more ready for kindergarten than the boys in pre-school they did story time with.

Males are more likely to be aggressive. Masculinity is a trait that’s in some ways inherent and not always toxic.

Of course, like all gender differences, these differences are not crystal clear. There are plenty of women who are on the aggressive side and plenty of men who are not. But overall, the pattern is clear.

Guide Three: See politics as usual, including your own, as an obstacle.

Both progressives and conservatives typically get the masculinity issue wrong. Progressives worry that this emphasis on men’s problems will divert attention and resources from the struggles women still have.

They are more likely to be untethered, not just from the labor market but also from friends and other groups and institutions that keep life lively and sustainable.

Conservatives worry that men have become neutered and victimized by the modern female roles.

And — breaking news! — the masculinity issue has become political and part of the culture war, which threatens to become a war without end.

Reeves writes, “The more the Right goes to one extreme, the more the Left must go to the other, and vice versa.”

“The Left dismisses biology, the Right leans too heavily on it. The Left see a war on girls and women; the Right see a war on boys and men. The Left pathologizes masculinity, often considering all masculinity toxic.”

For sensibility and problem-solving, that’s the kiss of death.

Guide Four: You can’t have a just and equitable society if you ignore a large portion of your people.

Reeves knew what he was up against on this one. Time and again, he reminds us that taking the masculinity problem seriously is not a zero-sum game. Work for racial justice as well as justice for women, but you can’t see the man issue as an impediment to justice. It must be an integral part.

Reeves suggests many ways to make things better, but these ideas won’t get anywhere unless people are in the proper frame of mind and talk about this issue instead of weaponizing it even further.

That would be a step away from polarization. Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?

Meanwhile, good luck to the DOE and all the other agencies on the ground that must deal with this problem every day while the public and politicians try, or maybe don’t try, to get their act together.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

I think one of the biggest problems facing the male youth in the islands here, is the overabundance of bullying in the schools. That's another reason for chronic absenteeism as well. And there are far too many fathers who are not good role models for their sons. It's a generational problem, one in which I don't really have the answer to. People need to teach their kids to be more loving, and in order to do that, they themselves must be more loving. The divisiveness in this country starts at a very young age, and by the time the children enter High school, they are already very divisive by seeing how their parents act.

Scotty_Poppins · 1 month ago

This is a problem with our culture and society.Positive male role-models, primarily beginning within the family unit are disappearing. The traditional nuclear family is gradually becoming a thing of the past, in favor of single-parent households or at best, single-parent households with transitory father figures. Our government financially encourages/supports women to have children, and at the same time financially discourages men to get married.Short-term solution?1) Don't have kids until you're married.2) Don't have kids until you're NOT living paycheck to paycheck (keeping in mind there are people making 6-figures+ who also live paycheck to paycheck). This is an asset management issue more so than an income issue, and high income or not, if you can't take care of yourself, there's no way you can take care of a child.Of course there are very terrible and unforeseen circumstances that would still result in single-parent households despite these proposals, but then and only then is where significant government subsidy and intervention should come into play.

basic_citizen123 · 1 month ago

And, as far as "women doing a better job than men surviving" this new world, I beg to differ. Maybe girls are doing a better job than boys surviving today's school curriculum, but once they grow into men and women, I don't think this statement holds up.

LiliND · 1 month ago

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