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Thursday, May 12, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Maybe it's time to pay attention to boys

It is high-school graduation season. Once again, at many schools, girls will dominate the list of valedictorians, the elite students with the highest grade-point average.

Girls' successes in this arena, plus college admission and graduation rates, are wonderful. Men still run the country, from corporate boardrooms to Congress and the White House, and earn more money than female counterparts in many jobs, so a little revelry in honor of young women is always appropriate.

But there is another trend to watch, one that suggests boys are falling behind.

Girls fill 57 percent of seats in colleges. They are increasing their share of bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and doctorates. Much of that is catchup, overdue and welcome. The numbers also prompt a question: What's up with the boys?

"I have a sense every female on the planet belongs to a secret club devoted to advancing girls in schools," says Tom Mortenson, an education-policy analyst who has written extensively on the growing gender gap in education. "There is no similar organization for boys."

Through Title IX, establishing equal opportunity for girls in sports and a million other ways, we have been telling girls the sky is the limit. A lot of them heard the message and are raring and ready to go. At the same time, we paid less attention to boys. The silence, or change in emphasis, sent a different message to boys.

For many years at the University of Washington graduation, the university president, in his welcoming remarks, offered a tally of female graduates in various fields. After the female percentages were announced, Husky Stadium would erupt in a roar of cheers. Many years, similar figures for male students were not offered.

Last year's entering class at the University of Washington was 54 percent female and 46 percent male, mirroring a trend seen at many colleges and universities. The percentage of minority males is lower still, especially Hispanic and African-American males.

Last year, a much larger number of Hispanic and African-American women enrolled at the UW than male Hispanics and African Americans.

At the Washington Education Foundation, which encourages scholarship philanthropy and works to boost opportunities for all disadvantaged students, there is a new emphasis on boys, especially African-American and Hispanic boys.

First lady Laura Bush also is spending time boosting boys.

"We're emphasizing the needs of boys because statistics show us that boys are falling behind girls in school, they're more likely than girls to drop out of school and boys are more likely to be victims of crime or to go to jail themselves," she told a crowd in Portland last month.

Girl power is a great thing. I believe in it; I have benefited from it. So has my daughter. She and her merry group of high-achieving friends are ready to graduate from high school and in due time take over the world.

Please forgive generalizations made to illustrate a point, but we also need to start focusing or refocusing on boys and how they fare in school.

It is true some girls still are reluctant to raise their hands and talk in a classroom filled with antsy, aggressive boys. But girls, overall, get higher grades while boys do better on standardized tests such as the SAT.

As a group, boys' brains and social skills develop slower than girls', says Laura Kastner, a Seattle psychologist. And do not underestimate the "Lord of the Flies" phenomenon.

"Every kid age 11 to 16 you add to a Saturday-night group of kids hanging out drops the group IQ by 15 points," she quipped.

Boys also have more learning disabilities and are more likely to be hyper and messy in the classroom, the opposite of what teachers like.

Consider the middle-school girl student who hands in a neat and pretty paper adorned with calligraphy and artwork that was never assigned. Compare that with the boy who also worked hard on his paper, but shoved it into his notebook, crumpling and mashing it. A teacher can't help notice a difference in presentation.

Mortenson rattles off a list of social and economic reasons for boys falling behind. The rise of women coincided with the growth of the service economy — often, "girl jobs" that require more-developed social skills. At the same time, traditional male jobs in manufacturing, mining and logging declined, making life tougher for men.

Boys raised in single-parent families, often by their mothers, need a father close by to guide them.

Of course, empowering girls is a good thing. But now we also have to find the time and energy to push, encourage and cheer for the boys.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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