Girls Rule in School. Where Does That Leave Boys?

Diversity and Equity

Girls Rule in School. Where Does That Leave Boys?

By Rebecca Koenig     May 23, 2023

Girls Rule in School. Where Does That Leave Boys?

College began as a nearly all-male world, and that long trickled down through the education system. Then, 50 years ago, the U.S. government prohibited discrimination in education on the basis of sex. Now, women earn more than 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.

It’s evidence that “in the space of just a few decades, girls and women have not just caught up with boys and men in the classroom — they have blown right past them.”

So writes author Richard V. Reeves in his 2022 book “Of Boys and Men.” While some observers have seen this shift as a cause for celebration about what girls and women have achieved, Reeves uses it to launch a more somber exploration about what, exactly, is going on with boys and men these days.

As his subtitle puts it, “the modern male is struggling.”

Reeves, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brooking Institution, calls for readers to pay attention to “the specific challenges being faced by boys and men” in education, work and family life. Those barriers, he argues, include:

  • Boys’ brains develop more slowly on average than girls’ brains do;
  • Many young men exhibit lower levels of engagement and motivation than young women do;
  • Gendered racism especially holds back Black boys and men.

EdSurge recently spoke with Reeves about how education might change to better support boys and men. His proposals include delaying boys from starting kindergarten, getting serious about recruiting more men into teaching and investing more in vocational education.

The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: You note that since the 1970s, “the gender reversal in education has been astonishingly swift,” pointing out that girls now earn better grades than boys and that women now earn the majority of college degrees. Are educational outcomes for boys and men getting worse, or is it more that the outcomes and trajectories for girls and women are getting better?

Richard V. Reeves: That’s the right question. And it’s more of the latter, that the relative position has shifted, than the former (in other words, in absolute terms). So it’s more an overtaking than it is an absolute drop in male performance.

In college enrollment, for a very big enrollment gap to open up, you don’t need male enrollment to drop, you just need female enrollment to rise faster. And that’s basically what’s happened over the last few decades. Although of course in recent years, there has actually been a drop in enrollment for both, but a much bigger one for men. So in that case, it is becoming a little bit of an absolute drop. But if you think of things like high school, it’s not that, generally speaking, boys are doing worse than they were 30 or 40 years ago, it’s just that they are falling behind girls in relative terms.

I like to draw the analogy with something like the gender pay gap. Everybody’s pay might be going up, but if one group’s pay is going up more than the other, then the gap will either narrow or widen, and it doesn’t tell you anything about what’s happened to absolute earnings. Everyone might be getting richer or poorer. As far as education’s concerned, it’s more of a gap analysis than it is an absolute one.

That said, there are many places where just the absolute story for many boys and men, including in something like on-time high school graduation rates for certain groups of boys, especially Black boys, they’re troubling in and of themselves.

Does this suggest to you that boys and men are being discriminated against in some way in the education system? Or are girls and women now just not being held back?

It’s much more that girls aren’t being held back. And I was really struck by the evidence that girls were doing a little bit better than boys in high school back in the ’50s, when almost none of them went on to college. There was very little encouragement for women to sort of rise educationally, and yet they’re still doing a little bit better, even under conditions of pretty quite extreme sexism, relative to today anyway, which means that probably they had some actually structural advantages. It’s just that we couldn’t see them. So I think in some ways there was always a bit of an advantage for girls and women in the education system, just we couldn’t see it when we were holding them down and putting barriers in front of them. So once we lowered those barriers, their natural advantages became apparent. So I think that’s mostly the story.

I certainly don’t use language like discrimination against boys and men, whereas of course there was against women and girls. I think that language of discrimination is not helpful. I think it’s much more a question of, “Is the system more male-friendly, more female-friendly, or is it balanced?”

I’ll use an analogy with the labor market, which is that most of the reason why women earn less than men now isn’t direct discrimination. It isn’t employers discriminating directly against women. It’s that the system penalizes people who do more caring, which is disproportionately women. So is that discrimination? No, not in that narrow sense of it, but it is a difference in the system that is disproportionately affecting one group — in that case, women.

And I would say the same is true of education. I think as education becomes much more female-dominated in terms of teaching, the shift in the pedagogy and the move away from more vocational training, etc., have disproportionately affected boys rather than girls.

You argue that the outcomes of Black boys and men deserve particular attention. Can you talk a little bit about why that is?

I think in all of these sorts of discussions we should try as far as possible to allow ourselves to be led by: Where’s the data? And so, when you look at which boys and men in particular are struggling on various issues, then Black boys and men typically stand out.

I’ve kind of developed this bit of a rule of thumb, which is that if there’s a gender gap in some educational outcome or whatever it is, you can probably assume that it’ll be twice as big for Black boys. That doesn’t always hold, but there’s a kind of rule of thumb. So if there’s a high school graduation gap, it’ll be twice that. If there’s a college enrollment gap, it’ll be twice that. If there’s a college-completion gap, it’ll be twice that. And so as a general rule that does seem to be kind of true, that these gender gaps are just much bigger when it comes to Black boys and men.

That’s for two reasons. One, because Black boys and men are typically the ones who are seeing the worst outcomes on most of these measures. But it’s also because Black girls and Black women, they’ve seen a pretty remarkable and impressive improvement in many of their outcomes, not least in education. And so for both of those reasons, you’re seeing the rise of Black girls and Black women on many measures — not of course on all, and not enough — but nonetheless, pretty remarkable inroads, and nothing equivalent for Black boys and men. …

I think as far as educational outcomes are concerned, it’s borderline irresponsible to use the category “Black” without breaking by gender or sex. I think generally we should be trying to do that. Of course, we should be trying to disaggregate the data. But I think it’s particularly true in this case because, just by looking at, for example, the Black high school graduation rate or Black college enrollment rate, we’re obscuring both the remarkable improvement that we’ve seen for Black girls and Black women, and the really stubbornly low rates that we see for Black boys and men.

If you look at a race gap in some educational outcome, always ask, what about a gender gap? Give it to me by gender as well because you might be surprised.

You provide examples of interventions in education that work for girls and women, but not for boys and men. For instance, studies on the famous Kalamazoo Promise program that helps students from Kalamazoo, Michigan, go to college for free have found that it increased the number of women who earn a bachelor’s degree by 45 percent — but it didn’t help more men graduate. To dig into that, you interviewed young men from that region, and those conversations prompted you to write that there seems to be something going on with male “agency, aspiration, and motivation.” Can you expound on this?

There’s something else going on with boys and men. It’s a little more of a mystery. What’s going on here?

So I talked to some of the guys in Kalamazoo — I’m just chatting generally trying to get some qualitative data — and it does seem that it’s a little bit more drift. The men are a bit more like: zigzag. Women are a bit more like: straight line. If boys do enroll, it’s a bit less likely on time. They’re a bit more likely to stop out, take time out. My own son did that. They might drop out. They’re not quite as linear.

And we don’t really know why. But it does look to me as if it’s something about this sense of future orientation, planfulness, self-efficacy, to use that sort of language. And on a lot of measures you just see that is much higher for girls and women.

If you look at the High School Longitudinal Study, for example, you just see big gender differences in the answer to the question, what are you gonna do for education? What are you gonna do for an occupation? What are you gonna do for a career? The girls have answers — not all of them, but many, many, many more than the boys.

The modal answer for the occupational question in the High School Longitudinal Study, which is for 11th and 12th graders, for boys is “I don’t know.” For girls it’s “health care.” Whether the girls will actually end up in health care, the point is that they just have a sense of their future selves, which is helping them to stay on track in the short run. It’s really hard to stay on track educationally if you don’t have some sort of plan and some sort of purpose.

I think that for a long time, you could argue, and feminists would certainly argue, that, look, boys just had to get themselves on the conveyor belt. They leave school, they join the factory or go to college and get a job. The world was kind of designed around them, and so they didn’t have to do very much planning or thinking. It kind of just happened for them. (I’m exaggerating.) But actually that’s not true anymore. And meanwhile, you’ve had this generation or two of women who are saying, “I’m gonna go for it. I’m gonna be independent, I’m gonna be empowered.”

A lot of this is not so much the aspiration gap — I think I may have used that language — but it is just more the planfulness gap, the purpose gap, the forward-looking gap. No one who has children or has taught children or young adults will be surprised by any of this.

But I think it does matter more now that the paths for young men in particular are less prescribed than they used to be. And so it means that individual agency is even more important than it was. And right now there’s just a big gender gap in that. It’s very hard to measure directly, but on the indirect measures, it seems pretty clear to me that there’s just more of a go-for-it-ness among girls and young women than there is among boys and young men.

It makes sense to me that maybe if from birth you have felt a sense that you have to overcome adversity as a girl or a woman, that might drive you in a different way than if, as a boy or a man, you don’t necessarily get that cultural cue.

Yeah I think it’s that. Also I think that’s probably changed a little bit. I was talking to some folks about this yesterday. I suspect that it used to be more about an adversity thing. It used to be more like, “Look, it’s a man’s world, so you’re gonna have to just be that much better to succeed in a man’s world.”

It’s shifted a little bit now. I only have sons, [but] it’s not what I hear my friends telling their daughters. What I hear them telling them is, “You should be financially independent. You should have a great career. You should be who you wanna be.”

It’s much more a positive message in that sense. I think the messaging to girls has shifted from a kind of negative one, if you like, which is, “Well, unfortunately, we live in such a strict patriarchy that you are gonna need to be absolutely brilliant to just get a job that a mediocre man would get.” A, I don’t think that’s true anymore, but B, I don’t think that’s the messaging now.

I think the messaging is just, “You go girl.” Or as my wife’s mother sort of told her from as long as she can remember, it was, “Be economically independent. Don’t be economically reliant on a man. Make sure you can stand on your own two feet.” … That’s more of an independence and empowerment message.

But we don’t give that to boys, of course. Because historically they haven’t needed it. The idea of male empowerment is kind of weird. And I’m not calling for a male empowerment agenda, just to be clear. I think we need to make sure we’re not inadvertently disempowering. We shouldn’t tell them there’s something wrong with them, or that they’re the problem. But because they haven’t had to overcome the same obstacles, I don’t think it makes as much sense to talk about male empowerment as female empowerment.

You argue that an equitable education system “will be one that recognizes natural sex differences, especially the fact that boys are at a developmental disadvantage to girls at critical points in schooling.” You’ve got three main proposals for addressing this, and I want to ask you about each. The first is redshirting boys before kindergarten. Why do you think that would be effective?

Because boys develop a little bit later than girls on average neurologically. And especially in adolescents, girls are ahead, on average. And so what I’m really trying to do with the idea of starting the boys a year later is to bake in, it’s a one-year chronological difference between them, which I think will create something closer to a level playing field in terms of developmental age.

The relationship between developmental age and chronological age is of course very rough anyway, but particularly when you look at it by sex, it doesn’t correlate in the same way. So a 16-year-old girl is not the same, everything else equal, as a 16-year-old boy, and particularly in terms of a prefrontal cortex. And this relates to the conversation we just had about planfulness and future orientation and organization and executive function. That’s really where the girls do better. But it’s not that they’re smarter, it’s just that they’ve got their acts together more. And that’s partly for neurological reasons. It’s partly just because they hit puberty earlier, which triggers the prefrontal cortex, which is the bit of your brain that has your act together. And so why not just accept that and give the boys an extra year, in a sense, to sort of keep up?

I’ve been very strongly influenced by the fact that this is incredibly common practice in private schools.

Oh interesting.

Really, really common. I mean, I got the data for one — I have to keep it anonymous — but one very well-known private school in D.C., and 30 percent of their boys were old for their year. And it’s an open secret in private-school circles that there are different cutoff dates for boys and girls entering. So particularly summer-born boys just almost automatically enroll a year later. And so it sort of feels like, you know, if it’s good enough for the rich, then maybe there’s something to that. I think it should be a matter of public policy.

In practice, of course, there’s all kinds of ways you might do it. You could just have a developmental test. You have a lot of private schools that have a second year of pre-K, and they just put the kids in there who they think aren’t quite ready — and they’re mostly boys. And so there’s various ways you could do this less directly.

The key point is just, we shouldn’t assume that developmentally, boys and girls are the same in the education system when everybody knows it’s not true.

The second proposal is to be more intentional about recruiting men to be teachers. In our coverage, that’s something we hear pretty frequently, but I’m interested to know why that stands out to you as a good idea.

There is some direct evidence from research that having a male teacher does help boys, especially in subjects where they’re struggling, like English. Actually, I’m very interested in that data, that just as it looks like having a female teacher in STEM historically helps girls, it looks like having a male teacher in subjects like English seems to help boys. Especially in those crucial middle and early high school years.

And it’s striking to me — I’ve discovered this since I wrote the book — that actually of the men who are in teaching, English is the subject they’re least likely to teach. … So it’s not just that we don’t have men, but we also don't have men in the subjects where they might have the most impact. So I would now modify my proposal to just say, actually, let’s really try and get more men into those middle school years and maybe earlier, but also subjects like English.

And so the second thing is, there’s an atmospheric thing. Just like if you’ve got any kind of environment that’s very strongly gendered, it’s almost inevitably going to create an environment and atmosphere that’s somewhat more suited to that gender. I think that’s one of the big criticisms of very male-dominated occupations. When the legal profession was 95 percent male, it was quite likely the kind of norms of the profession were gonna be somewhat more male-friendly. But then you get to about 30 percent female, and the culture really starts to change. I think the same has to be true in schools.

And then the last thing I’d say is, we need more coaches, and men in schools are much more likely to coach as well as teach. As we’ve lost male teachers, we have fewer and fewer coaches for those after-school activities. …

That’s why I call for scholarships, social marketing campaigns, etc. If we’re serious about this, we’ve gotta watch it, because I do think if we get past like 80 percent female, we reach a tipping point where it’s gonna get harder and harder to persuade men to go into a profession where they don’t see very many men. That’s one of the lessons of occupational segregation, right? It’s much harder to get women to be an engineer when she’s only gonna be one of 3 percent than if she’s gonna be one of 30 percent. Right now, we’re just allowing teaching to become a female profession without any policy response.

Your third proposal is investing more in vocational education and training. Why is this important?

It’s important because of the evidence that that seems to be particularly good for boys. We see these huge gaps in education for boys, and so we should then look at the system and say, “Well, are there ways of teaching or approaches to teaching that just seem to be more male-friendly than female-friendly?” …

Everything else equal, it looks like boys do a little bit better with a more hands-on approach to learning. And we’ve been chronically underinvesting in that, not only at the K-12 level, but beyond that. The U.S. is the international laggard in terms of apprenticeships, for example, and the evidence is very strong that technical high schools in particular are really good for boys. They are dedicated schools, and it doesn’t have to be just like HVAC and plumbing and stuff, it can be health care, etc.

And the outcomes from the evaluations for that are so strong, that this is one of the policy areas I would feel very confident advising a policymaker: If you’ve got a few billion dollars kicking around, this would be a great way to spend it, which is to just create a lot more technical high schools.

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