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One of the aspects of the education crisis that gets little discussion from reformers and education traditionalists alike is the yawning achievement gaps between young men and their female counterparts. No matter the racial, ethnic or economic background, far more young men fall behind in school and never catch up. One-fifth of young white male 12th-graders from college-educated households read Below Basic on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress versus just one out of every ten of their female counterparts, while the percentage of black male high school seniors mired at levels of functional illiteracy is 14 percentage points higher than for their female schoolmates. The low levels of achievement explain why women earn 62% of all two-year degrees, attain 57% of all four-year degrees, and young men are absent on nearly all college campuses.

Given the woeful statistics and the reality that young men make up three out of every five high school dropouts, it is critical to focus on their achievement gaps in order to stem the nation’s education crisis. And yet, for the past decade, it has been of little concern at the federal level. The No Child Left Behind Act’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions didn’t require gender as one of the subgroups for holding schools accountable for performance. And now, the plan for reauthorizing No Child proposed by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and Mike Enzi will do even less in tracking how schools are poorly-serving young men of all backgrounds.

As you already know, the Harkin-Enzi plan would scrap AYP altogether, allowing for all but the worst 5,000 failure factories and another five percent of the nation’s schools with wide racial- and economic achievement gaps to escape scrutiny. The rest of the nation’s schools would only be responsible for “continuous improvement” in each subgroup including gender. But continuous improvement under Harkin-Enzi is vague; it doesn’t even require schools to at least improve grade performance of each cohort by as much as two grade levels.  So most schools, especially suburban districts whose performance have been revealed to be mediocre under AYP and independent studies by outfits such as the George W. Bush Institute’s Global Report Card, will avoid improving curricula and instruction for the young black, white, Latino and even Asian men in those schools — especially those from college-educated homes. So the boys, along with poor and minority kids who have long been neglected throughout American public education, get the proverbial short stick.

Under Harkin-Enzi, failure mills and schools with wide achievement gaps will still be subjected under some kind of an AYP mechanism. But the plan still ignores the young men’s crisis because it doesn’t require states and school districts to address the activities that have long perpetuated these achievement gaps — including the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities and the overuse of suspension and expulsion in school discipline. Adding gender as an accountability category is one for which Why Boys Fail’s Richard Whitmire and I argued four months ago in our column for USA Today. While one can argue that school reformers can push to address those matters through the use of litigation (specifically under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act), doing so wouldn’t work to force systemic reform en masse.

This silence on the boys crisis isn’t limited to Harkin-Enzi alone. The even less useful No Child revamp proposed by Enzi’s Republican colleague, Lamar Alexander, is also silent on this matter; the waiver plan being pushed by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan allows for states to subject their schools to accountability for the low performance of young men, but it doesn’t force them to do so. None of these plans for revamping No Child will comprehensively advance the reform of American public education.

Let’s be clear about this: When men don’t graduate from high school and move on to college, they will fall into poverty and unemployment. They are more likely to end up in prison, unlikely to be the kind of men well-educated women want to marry, and are cannot be the kind of fathers and husbands society needs for preserving communities and families — especially in the age of the knowledge-based economy and the decline of traditional manual labor. Ignoring this important aspect of the nation’s education crisis is perilous for millions of young men who need (and deserve) the kind of high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula that will allow them to write their own stories. More importantly, by not addressing these problems and their underlying causes, we will not succeed in building cultures of genius that nurture the potential of all of our students.

This reality is also another reason why the argument against focusing on achievement gaps advocated by American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess doesn’t make sense. When we improve instruction and curricula for our students who have been the most ill-served by traditional public schools — including for young black, white, Latino and Asian men — we are improving education for all children. By addressing achievement gaps, we are also tackling the underlying problems that have made the nation’s education crisis a threat to our immediate- and long-term economic well-being. When we address the low graduation rates and underlying literacy issues facing young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds, we are also helping high-performing young women of all races and economic backgrounds succeed. And when we provide strong reading remediation to young men in the early grades, we also keep more kids out of the educational ghetto that is special ed — and put more kids on the path to higher education of all forms.

Senators Harkin and Enzi need to pull this No Child revamp and come up with a better plan. Such a plan would ultimately challenge states and districts to engage in reforms that will help young men — and all children — succeed in school and in life.

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