Remember back in the old days when we used to fret about how girls weren't doing as well in school as guys were, especially in math and science? Ah, that seems so last century.
Gender gap? What gender gap? That's the message in a new study by five professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California, Berkeley. Although other studies have found similar results, this one is the most sweeping. Comparing math test scores of 7 million students in 10 states from 2005 to last year, it found that girls and boys do equally well.
Alas, the news comes too late to help former Harvard President Lawrence Summers.
Back in 2005 the National Organization for Women, among other enraged parties, called for Summers to resign, which he eventually did. He had suggested at a conference that "innate" differences between the sexes should be seriously investigated among other possible reasons for the shortage of women in the upper ranks of math and science academia and professions.
He later apologized, saying he did not mean to suggest that women were incapable of matching or surpassing men in math and science. Nor had he ever said that women couldn't add and subtract although, through the shorthand of daily journalism, that's how a lot of people heard him.
What he actually said has been backed up by various studies, including the latest one: Boys are more likely than girls to arrive at the very highest and the very lowest math scores. Girls are more likely than boys to score well overall and arrive in the top 5 percent of math scores, although boys are more likely than girls to make it to the top 1 percent. Given time, the young women may well crack that barrier, too.
The more troubling question in many minds including mine is what's happening to the guys, especially the underachievers piling up at the bottom end of the grading and test scores?
While some boys' scores have never looked better, others could hardly be doing worse. The days of fretting over lagging girls' achievement have faded into a "boy crisis" headlined on the covers of Time and Newsweek and numerous new books.
Stories and statistics describe unmotivated, easily distractible boys who are falling behind in test scores, forgetting their homework or, when they finish it, forgetting to turn it in or unable to find it in their disorganized backpacks.
When their grades slip back and their adolescent concepts of manhood are crushed, they would retreat to video games or even less productive escapes, rather than ask for help.
These problems are particularly acute for black males, judging by studies like the recent report on dropouts by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, an educational think tank in Cambridge, Mass. It found that fewer than half of black male students across the country are graduating from high school.
What can be done? John Jackson, president and chief executive officer of the Schott Foundation, called the dropout rate a national problem that shows up when students don't have access to "highly effective teachers, early childhood education, college bound curriculum and equal instructional materials" to match those of better-off school districts.
"Black students are performing the best in states like North Dakota and Vermont where there are the fewest black students," he noted. "Alternatively, where white males are trapped in under-resourced schools like Indianapolis and Detroit, they performed as poorly or worse than black males."
We also know from research that boys are performing poorest in areas where more of them are raised without strong male role models at home. With growing numbers of boys of all races growing up without fathers at home because of divorce, separations and out-of-wedlock births, more boys need more male mentors, even as studies show boys are less likely than girls to ask for any kind of help.
Every child learns differently. Boys tend to learn in ways quite different from the ways of girls. Some experiments in school choice and single-gender education are beginning to show results, at least in some happy individual cases, although experts continue to debate the overall statistical results.
As a result, the academic "boy crisis" is another political minefield like the one into which Summers scampered. Organizations like the American Association of University Women, which first alerted the world to an academic gender gap two decades ago, call the crisis a "myth" that may only be a thinly disguised backlash against the advances that women and girls have made.
But advances for boys and girls don't have to be an either/or situation. Why can't we have both? Before we lose another generation, we need to look for ways that can help both sexes without penalizing either one.