Look at that smart girl and her dumb brother!

For the last ten years, studies have consistently shown that boys are lagging behind girls in school.  This trend is not only an issue in the US, but also in the UK.  Boys are expelled – from preschool – at 5x the rate of girls!  Boys are more likely to have to repeat a grade, and more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD; two-thirds of students in special education are male. [1]  Adult males are almost twice as likely as females to move back home with mom and dad, a sobering thought to me as a mother of two boys.  [2] They get more Cs and Ds than girls.  They are more likely to drop out before graduation, and they can’t even get pregnant.  In the US, 55.7% of entering college students are now women, as many men have exited the academic track due to constant discouragement or poor grades, particularly among boys from less affluent families who don’t provide additional support to counteract the messages the boys are hearing from teachers.  An even higher percentage of women (57.4%) graduate with either an Associate’s degree or Bachelor’s degree. [3]

There are many causes theorized, but for whatever reason, the spiraling trend hasn’t been effectively addressed.  I’ll expound on a few of these theories (some of which interrelate) and talk about what we can do to address them.

Biology equals destiny

There is a strong belief that male and female brains differ, and that these differences explain why males do not excel in a school environment.  Have schools become intolerant of males or do boys need to adapt?

I did see them, especially for my younger boy, just a lot of intolerance for high spiritedness. He got in trouble once on a school trip just because he jumped up and touched an awning, and this child was incapable of walking by an awning and not jumping up and – I mean, little things in schools where they weren’t allowed to play tag and dodge ball. And I began to see they’d eliminated recess.

He was at a private Jewish day school and there was no recess, so he organized football games in during lunch and they were always arguing back and forth with the teachers about whether or not that was OK. And I was shocked and I think many parents don’t realize how little time there is now for physical activity in school.

Now, girls need recess and physical activity, but boys, it’s an absolute necessity.  – Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute. [3]

This need to couple classroom teaching with physical movement is surfacing in many studies.  It’s long been a foregone conclusion that girls mature faster than boys, but this doesn’t relate only to relationship skills, as shown in another study:

Research indicates that boys tend to develop certain functional skills later than girls: attributes like attentiveness, persistence, focus, independent action, and eagerness to learn. Boys tend to have higher energy levels and higher drive to engage in physical activity, neither of which is conducive to learning in a traditional classroom. [4]

They want me to do the homework AND turn it in? Unfair!

Another area that has hurt boys is the outlawing of boy “fantasy” play.  Boys like to engage in physical play (or video games) in which they are the active hero, fighting bad guys or rescuing others.  This type of play has been targeted in some schools and lumped together with bullying and intimidation, mistaking “action” for “aggression.”  Since the Columbine tragedy, schools have been so anti-weapon that any play involving pretend weapons qualifies as a violation of school policy.  In one instance, a 7-year old boy was suspended for chewing his pop tart into the shape of a gun. [5]

Girls School

Most teachers and even administrators of schools are female.  Men typically choose careers for more lucrative and competitive reasons than do women.  Women often want a job that they feel is meaningful or makes a difference, in some cases to justify their being out of the home (one reason women gravitate toward teaching and nursing), supports their family life through a balanced or flexible schedule, and helps them provide benefits to their kids.  Particularly for women who are not primary earners, teaching is an attractive field.  Historically, men are more likely to weigh pay more strongly when considering a career, and teaching is usually not lucrative enough to provide for a family without a secondary income.  Until we pay teachers enough (again) that it is a viable family income without supplement, we will continue to turn off many potential male teachers.

My first thought was that a majority of female teachers is not that new, but in retrospect, all my school administrators were male when I was in elementary, middle school, and high school.  More than a shift in teachers, a shift in how education is managed has occurred.  What else has changed is female access to higher education (college as an expected goal for women), and the support of families and academia toward female education.  My mother graduated high school in 1948.  She was her class salutatorian.  She did not go to college.  Instead she got a job in a secretarial pool taking dictation from her male bosses and typing up their correspondence until she got married.  She always wished she could have gone to college, but it was considered a waste of money to send girls.

Overall, it’s likely that girls have long behaved better than boys at school (and earned better grades as a result), but their early academic success was not enough to overcome significant subsequent disadvantages: families’ favoring sons over daughters in allocating scarce resources for schooling; cultural norms that de-emphasized girls’ education, particularly past high school; an industrial economy that did not require a college degree to earn a living wage; and persistent discrimination toward women in the workplace.

Those disadvantages have lessened since about the 1970s. [3]

The Hermione Model

Just because there are more females running schools and teaching in them, it doesn’t necessarily follow suit that the school environment favors girls or sets them up for success more than boys, right? [6]  Well, that may be true if there were only objective evaluations of our children, but of course their work and ability is also evaluated subjectively.  While this is more obvious in courses like writing and reading, it is even true in math and science where subjective elements such as organization, willingness to seek help from teachers, ability to discuss or negotiate grades, and doing routine tasks consistently like showing work and turning in rote assignments can make the difference in GPAs.

When the researchers broke down the data by gender, they found that in many cases, classroom grades (subjective measurements awarded by teachers) were not well aligned to test scores. Troublingly, they found that boys, who scored well on tests (indicating mastery of the material being taught) did not get grades from teachers that reflected their abilities in three central subjects: reading, math, and science.

In other words, teachers favored girls.

The researchers then looked at the teachers’ assessment of students’ behavior, which was collected on this group of kids as they moved through school. The researchers found that teachers depressed the grades of boys who they thought didn’t show an “aptitude for learning.” They depressed the grades of boys, not because they didn’t learn the material, but because they didn’t do school well—comport themselves in class more like, well, girls. When the teachers perceived that boys exhibited an “aptitude toward learning,” they graded them on par and sometimes slightly better than their female counterparts. [7]

Is this just another “blame the feminists” theory?  Not entirely, although there are a few who would make that argument.  Parents, including feminists, want both their girls and boys to succeed – neither at the expense of the other.

Girls Will Be Girls

School without recess = torture

Beyond that, as budgets are cut and ratios expand, does this create an environment even more hostile to male children, an environment where focused students are a necessity, where passive behavior is more desired, where compliance with rules and a desire to please the teacher is easier to manage, providing limited physical movement or even change in position throughout study time?  Additionally, we’ve eliminated recess in many schools and even cut back on PE requirements in middle and high school.  We’ve also eliminated “competition” in favor of “participation” in order to preserve fragile child self esteem, when studies show that boys are more motivated by competition; girls are often more motivated by complex social interactions and pressures, including cooperation, which not only still exist as ratios expand, but increase through more group projects designed to make larger groups of students more manageable.

We should celebrate that girls have made up lost ground (especially given the fact that a hundred years ago nobody cared that girls rarely went to college and were consistently outperformed by the boys in school).  But now we need some focus on helping the boys succeed as well.

As a parent, I have personally made the argument that if my fifteen year-old son thinks school is hard, he should try those behaviors in a job.  Those behaviors teachers dislike (missing deadlines, not asking for help, forgetfulness, lack of organization) won’t go over well with a boss.  My criticism is not unique:

As one critic told me recently, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers. But unproductive workers are adults — not 5-year-olds. If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to?  A few decades ago, when we realized that girls languished behind boys in math and science, we mounted a concerted effort to give them more support, with significant success. Shouldn’t we do the same for boys?  [4]

If You Tell a Man He Can’t Fish . . . 

Will daily affirmations cure this problem?

We all know how the power of suggestion has historically hurt females’ academic results [8], causing many to shy away from the maths and sciences in the past.  However, current test results show that females have gained ground in those disciplines and are now on par with male students in math and science while not having lost any ground on reading and writing, areas females have always dominated.  Is the cause for this shift due to students’ self-perception and teachers’ belief that females are more intelligent in addition to being better behaved?  The following study revealed that bias.

In the first stage of the study researchers presented 238 boys and girls aged four to 10 with a range of scenarios related to behaviour or performance, such as “this child really wants to learn and do well at school”.  The children were asked to guess who the situation applied to by pointing to a silhouette of either a boy or a girl.

The results, published in the Child Development journal, showed that by the time girls are aged four and boys are seven, they equate girls with better behaviour and higher achievement at school. [9]

The stereotypical “good student” is now female, and this belief, when held by teachers and students results in more readiness to see success in female students that fit the stereotype than in males, who don’t.  In this view, boys are seen as defective girls.

Boys who were told they should expect lower marks performed worse in the test than those who were not given any information but girls’ marks were unaffected, suggesting stereotypes about male inferiority harm boys but do not help girls.

In contrast, when boys were told that they were expected to perform equally well as girls, their marks improved compared with those who were not given any expectations. Girls’ performance was again unaffected. [9]


Obviously, we don’t want to undo the good work we’ve done at improving female academic performance.  But there are a few things we could do to address these issues:

  • Improve education funding.  Currently, 2 cents from every federal tax dollar goes toward education.  That’s a pretty abysmal amount.  19 cents go toward defense spending.  Personally, I’d be willing to pay more taxes to improve education and pay for teachers.  The funding cuts are what is causing schools to cut recess, increase class sizes, and eliminate physical activity from being a routine part of the school day.
    • Improve teacher pay.  Make these jobs viable for primary earners; not only will more men join the ranks of teachers, but women will be better compensated, and competition for these jobs will improve teacher performance.  Perhaps some affirmative action to ensure males (and minorities) are adequately represented in the teaching and administration ranks would be helpful.
    • Reduce ratios to reasonable levels.  When we moved to Singapore in 2011, our Arizona school operated with 1:26 in the classroom.  Now that we have returned, they are at 1:38.  That’s a huge change in two and a half years.
    • Reinstate recess and PE.  In addition to improving all students’ attentiveness through more variety during the day, this would help curb the obesity epidemic.
    • Handle special needs.  Schools generally are not equipped to deal with anyone who is outside the average, at either end of the spectrum.  Many schools will choose one need that is most prevalent in their school district, such as ESL (English as Second Language) and not address other needs such as gifted, ADHD, autism, Asperger’s or other outlier groups.  I leave this to the psychologists to study and recommend, but the trend for the last ten years has been to mainstream all special needs and even gifted or non-English speaking children.  There are some good reasons to do this, but there are also some negative outcomes in terms of teacher support and attention to the students, especially with burgeoning ratios.  There is probably a happy medium that could be achieved with more funding so that ALL students who have special needs are given a better environment to succeed.
  • Set goals for male improvement.  Boys have been lagging in reading and writing for a long time, but rather than addressing this skill gap, some are proposing further cuts to humanities education.  I suggest federally mandated and tested achievement goals for both girls and boys in all basic disciplines.  Even if this leads to teachers cooking the results, as federal mandates often do, it will at least change the teachers’ mindsets toward male students.
  • Weight test results more than homework.  Male students consistently struggle with organization and asking for help more than females, but when test scores are viewed objectively, their results are on par (unlike the grades they receive).  Reduce the ability of subjective teacher input to discourage boys by letting good test scores trump bad homework scores, at least before junior or senior years of high school.
  • Shift ages for school entry.  Perhaps if we had different age cutoffs for school entry, we would have better results among the boys.  We found with our daughter that skipping a grade was not a problem, whereas her brother who is just early for his grade struggles with the types of issues identified above.  Perhaps an extra six months of maturity would help boys.  It’s rather the opposite of what the church has done with mission ages, but think about it.  Who is more mature: an 18 year old boy or an 18 year old girl?
  • Use video games to teach.  Boys consistently spend more than twice as many hours per week playing video games than girls.  Why not redirect some of this fantasy play toward academic aims?  RPGs can provide opportunities to build whatever skills we put into them.

What ideas do you have to address the gap?  Are you concerned about it?  What are your experiences with it?



[1] http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/22-stats-that-prove-that-there-is-something-seriously-wrong-with-young-men-in-america

[2] http://money.cnn.com/2011/11/04/pf/young_adults/index.htm?iid=HP_LN.  19% of males age 25-34 live at home with parents vs. 10% of females this age.

[3] http://www.npr.org/2013/02/12/171806323/boys-are-at-the-back-of-the-class

[4]  http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/02/the-boys-at-the-back/

[5] http://elitedaily.com/news/world/7yearold-boy-suspended-school-gunshaped-pop-tart/

[6] After all, the LDS church is run by men, but they think women are “incredible” and morally superior to their porn-addicted, depraved husbands.

[7] http://news.yahoo.com/time-worry-boys-rapidly-falling-behind-girls-school-194100724.html

[8] Some of you may remember the Teen Talk Barbie with rotating phrases, one of which was “Math class is tough!”  Now that Barbie says, “Deciding what to wear to accept my Nobel Peace Prize is hard!”

[9]  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9862473/Boys-worse-at-school-due-to-stereotypes.html