Clarence Page: Those boys in the back of the class

Feb. 20, 2013 @ 03:36 PM

Every year, millions of well-intentioned American kids show up at kindergarten or first grade woefully unprepared to learn. Some can’t even tell you their own complete name, let alone spell any of it.
That’s enough reason for me to believe “high-quality universal preschool” programs like those proposed recently by President Obama are worth a try. Several states, including Illinois, already fund “universal” preschool education, although the form and funding vary.
Obama’s emphasis on “high quality” is important. Preschool intervention programs vary in quality. But, at their best, they help children to make the most of their early learning years at a time when their learning and study habits are formed.
One recent federal evaluation of Head Start, which is aimed at low-income preschoolers, found parents benefitted, too, by learning to use more appropriate discipline and spend more time reading to their children.
“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on,” President Obama said, announcing his idea during his State of the Union Address.
And there’s another potential benefit that the president didn’t mention: Prekindergarten programs can help reverse a disturbing gender gap favoring girls in academic performance that, according to new studies, is showing up as early as kindergarten.
Much has been written about that surprising trend in books like “The War Against Boys” by Christina Hoff Sommers and “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women” by Hanna Rosin.
As opportunities for women opened up since the 1960s, they are increasingly more likely than men to be college educated and have higher grade point averages. Some experts like Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, have written about a bias against boys who, as we parents know, tend to be more high-spirited and less focused in their classroom behavior and homework, among other deficits.
Another new book, to be published by the Russell Sage Foundation next month, documents something many of us parents also have suspected: an academic gender gap in achievement and effort as early as kindergarten.
In “The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools,” two sociology professors, Thomas A. DiPrete of Columbia University and Claudia Buchmann of Ohio State University, find, among other hazards, that boys tend to be more susceptible to an “oppositional” culture that minimizes the importance of classroom achievement.
Are the girls smarter than the boys? Not necessarily, say the authors, citing studies that found that even when the girls and boys scored the same on intelligence tests, the girls tended to get higher grades. Part of that could be bias against the way the boys behave, but in a telephone interview, DiPrete and Buchmann told me they thought attitudes — including notions of masculinity, “guy culture” expectations about the job market make a difference.
“A lot of guys have unrealistic expectations, for example, about how easily they’ll find work later on,” said DiPrete. “As a result, they may be more satisfied with a C than a female student who will work harder for an A.”
With the gender gap showing up in 5- and 6-year-olds, the authors said, the best place to start improving those “guy culture” attitudes is in preschool, the authors said, expressing support for Obama’s proposal.
“The challenge,” Buchmann said, “is to maintain those benefits through the upper grades.”
These factors can be particularly important for low-income African-American youths. The book details how the gender gap is wider for blacks than for whites, Hispanics or Asians. Successful males overall tend to come from two-parent households and benefit from fathers or other strong male role models who put an emphasis on the importance of education.
But the gender gap is not limited to low-income males. It is showing up at every grade and income level, the authors say, largely because of the different attitudes boys and girls have about the value of education and the habits they need for success.
That’s why the “universal” goal, meaning that preschool should be provided to all parents based on what they can afford to pay, is important. Equal opportunities in life begin with equal access to education — even before kindergarten.

Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as cpage@tribune.com. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.