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Where the Boys Aren’t

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Where the Boys Aren’t

Culture wars over gender obscure the deepening educational struggles of young males. Autumn 2022
The Social Order

According to the Tao of blue-state T-shirts—the sort that every nine-year-old soccer-playing girl in my Brooklyn neighborhood wears—“The Future Is Female.” On college campuses, that future has arrived. Women are now 60 percent of college graduates, men a mere 40 percent. This gender gap is not new—among college grads, the ratio has moved in women’s favor since the early 1980s—but it has reached a record extent, and people are paying attention.

That attention is a good thing. With its ripple effects on male underemployment, falling marriage rates, and family instability, the fading male presence in higher education should set off alarm bells for anyone concerned about the country’s social and economic future. Dig deeper into the issue, however, and you’ll discover that focusing on college, as so many media stories do, misses a big part of the problem. In fact, the education gender gap favoring girls goes all the way back through the education pipeline, showing up in high school, middle school, and even in the proverbial little red schoolhouse. No one suggests that the gap results from any male cognitive deficiency; average IQ scores for the sexes don’t vary that much.

I’m not the first to notice the pipeline problem. Christina Hoff Sommers and Richard Whitmire wrote landmark books on it more than a decade ago. Yet the discussion has stalled. Trying to analyze this particular gender gap lands one in the middle of one of the culture’s hottest war zones: the conflict over sex and gender identity. As a powerful minority of activists, educators, and academics seek to dismantle—or at least, blur—the sex binary, gender gaps are an uncomfortable reminder of the reality of what the French call—or at least, used to call—la différence. But there’s no way to help boys, or to alleviate the societal woes that follow from their struggling school performance, without directly confronting the fact that, for some only partly understood neurological-hormonal-genetic reasons, they develop differently from girls. And let’s face it, the boy problem isn’t going away, whatever pronouns kids want to use.

Consider some specifics. Boys have lower grades than girls throughout their primary and secondary school years. They have more behavior problems. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder; to wind up in special-education classes; and to be held back, be suspended, or drop out. Hence, they’re less likely to graduate from high school. In fact, the high school graduation gap between girls and boys is within a hair of the gap between poor and middle-class kids. Along with their subpar overall college graduation numbers, boys now constitute a minority of M.A.s and Ph.D.s and of medical and law students.

This trend isn’t an example of some peculiar American dysfunction. Boys’ lagging school outcomes show up everywhere, from the enlightened Nordics to the hidebound Gulf States. An OECD survey, based on a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measure of 64 countries, summarized the situation this way: boys “are less likely than girls to attain basic proficiency in core subjects, report investing less time and effort on schoolwork, and express more negative attitudes to school.” Boys get lower grades and attend university less often than girls across the developed world—and increasingly in developing countries, too: one 2019 survey cited studies confirming a gap in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and Oman, among other places. True, in parts of the Third World, girls often don’t complete elementary school, so it’s rare to see them eclipsing their brothers. But in every place where girls do have the opportunity, they’re doing exactly that.

The usual cultural and economic characteristics that once illuminated so many academic inequalities are of only limited help here. Yes, the size of the education gap varies by race and class. It is more than three times larger in the most disadvantaged families than it is among well-off girls and boys—in part, perhaps, because boys in higher-income communities see more highly educated successful men than boys in blue-collar and poor neighborhoods do. Low-income children, particularly blacks, more often grow up with a single mother. Studies repeatedly associate this arrangement with boys’ disruptive behavior, lower grades, and grade retention. Whether because of a missing role model, the emotional loss, money woes, the instability in the home that follows a breakup, or all of the above, fatherlessness takes a toll on boys’ school achievement, with lifelong repercussions.

Fatherlessness doesn’t seem to have the same impact on girls; the puzzling difference may help explain why the biggest gender gap of any demographic group is seen among black kids. Black boys’ school performance has lagged behind that of black girls for decades now; 66 percent of black college-degree recipients are women; they earn 70 percent of black master’s degrees and more than 60 percent of doctorates. So socioeconomic advantage improves boys’ performance relative to girls, just as disadvantage, whether racial or economic, does the opposite. But the puzzle remains: rich boys remain in the shadows of their female siblings the same way poor boys trail behind their poor sisters.

A good place to start digging into the gender gap is reading. Reading is not just any old skill that a child can compensate for by, say, excelling in science. Deciphering and understanding texts are crucial skills for any knowledge-economy work, including in STEM fields. You must be able to read textbooks and, eventually, research papers, in order to master science. Understanding the instructions on exams is necessary to scoring well on them, and comprehending written warnings is essential if you want to conduct experiments without maiming your lab partner. And there’s a lot more at stake than chemistry spills. A widely cited study by Esteban Aucejo and Jonathan James discovered that verbal skills are a much better predictor of college attendance than math skills (a topic we’ll come to shortly)—and while math skills have no impact on the development of verbal skills, verbal skills do seem to boost math skills.

Reading is where girls really trounce boys. Their superiority in “language arts” is the largest and most persistent finding in all the gender-gap data relevant to school performance. In teacher–student assessments in the early grades, the girl–boy gap in reading is more than 300 percent larger than the white–black reading gap. Controlling for family and school characteristics, the racial gap declines considerably, but controlling for those characteristics makes no difference to the reading gender gap. Standardized reading tests in later grades confirm teachers’ judgment: girls consistently outperform boys. Fordham Foundation president Michael Petrilli traced the NAEP reading scores of college grads in their mid-twenties back through their school years. In the graduating class of 2013, 42 percent of females had scored proficient in reading, while only 33 percent of male students did. When those students were in eighth grade, the gap was much the same: 57 percent of students scoring at NAEP proficiency in reading were girls. In fourth grade, the gap was again similar: 54 percent of students scoring proficient were girls.

The reading gender gap is nearly universal: girls outperformed boys by an average of 38 points across OECD countries in the PISA 2012 survey—the equivalent of one year of school—as they’ve done consistently throughout all the PISA cycles since. In another survey of fourth-graders, girls topped boys in reading in 48 out of 50 countries and tied in the other two. We might use this syllogism: “Good readers go to college; girls are good readers; ergo. . . .” In Why Boys Fail, Richard Whitmire had another snappy way of summing up the gap: “The world has gotten more verbal; boys haven’t.”

“Studies support the idea that girls have superior self-control when they begin school, and even gain on boys over time.”

Yet the reading divide can’t be boiled down to “girls are hardwired to read.” Girls get a boost from stronger “soft” or “noncognitive” skills. Long-standing stereotype has it that boys are more typically goof-offs and more physically restless than their well-behaved sisters; teachers of the youngest kids know firsthand that male–female differences in sitting still, paying attention, and waiting to be called on are not mere sexist generalizations. Boys also tend to be less organized, a quality that most parents who have had the misfortune to peer into their sons’ school backpacks can attest to. Several years ago, the New York Times reported that affluent parents were hiring $100-an-hour tutors to help their sons organize their backpacks, their homework due dates, and college applications. After working with one such coach, a high school junior marveled: “I always thought I could do it, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I just needed that backing, that structure. I was turning in my assignments on time. I was working ahead on my classes. I was organized in a way I never had been before.”

A number of studies support the idea that girls have superior self-control when they begin school, and even gain on boys over time. Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania may have been the first to suggest that girls actually outperform expectations based on achievement tests, while boys underperform because of noncognitive weaknesses. “[B]oys in all racial categories across all subject areas are not represented in grade distributions where their test scores would predict,” concludes one 2013 paper. Boys “who perform equally as well as girls on reading, math and science tests are nevertheless graded less favorably by their teachers, but this less favorable treatment essentially vanishes when non-cognitive skills are taken into account.”

Jayanti Owens of Brown University traces boys’ higher average levels of behavior problems back to ages four and five, concluding that they can partially predict the gender gap in schooling at ages 26 to 29, controlling for other observed early childhood factors. A much smaller percentage of girls have behavior problems, yet these don’t seem to produce the same long-term disadvantage; “early behavior problems predict outcomes more for boys than for girls.” Once again, it’s not just American boys; the OECD discovered a self-regulation gap in girls’ favor in 36 countries.

What about math, which most people might assume would be an easy win for the male team? That’s only sort of true. Boys’ math tests register higher scores than those of girls as early as kindergarten. Boys of all racial and ethnic groups outperform girls on standardized math tests like the NAEP and the SAT. Their advantage is particularly strong in subjects requiring the highest levels of math reasoning, like calculus and physics. A paper in the journal Intelligence found boy seventh-graders three times as likely as girls in that grade to score in the top 5 percent—that is, above 700—on the math SAT. Further, even though girls are signing up for advanced placement math in far greater numbers than in the past, they remain underrepresented among the highest achievers on those tests.

However, it’s complicated. Boys’ math scores exhibit what psychologists call the “male variability hypothesis.” On a range of abilities (IQ tests included), interests, and personality traits, no mean difference exists between the sexes, but male scores are disproportionately very high and very low. During the 1980s, girls narrowed the historical math gap at the highest levels from a ratio of 13 to 1 to roughly 2.8 to 1; since 1990, that ratio has stayed more or less stable. But the high-level gap still exists, and it holds in international exams in 38 countries. (This is the opposite of reading tests, where boys cluster around the extreme end of the low tail.)

Still, girls have their own math superpowers. Some readers might remember the Barbie doll infamously programmed to chirp “Math class is tough!” That Barbie doll fit in a world where science and math courses were largely an all-boy zone. That changed as a girl-power message radiated throughout the culture and changed people’s understanding of girls’ abilities and ambitions. Girls crowded into STEM classes, and, in 1992, an embarrassed Mattel took bad-math Barbie off the market. By 2005, as many girls as boys were taking AP chemistry, statistics, microeconomics, and calculus. They outperform boys on state accountability tests. They earn higher grades in math class—not just in the United States but in a cross-section of 30 countries.

The apparent discrepancy makes sense if we consider girls’ self-discipline and work habits. Because they work harder and better, they surpass boys in situations where studying and applying learned concepts to new material can give them an edge. Boys outdo girls, on the other hand, in raw mathematical reasoning. Colleen Ganley, a developmental psychologist writing in Scientific American, breaks down the math gender gap this way: “[T]here are no differences—and, in some cases, an advantage for girls—on more basic numerical skills and on math problems that have a set procedure for solving them.” On tests designed to measure raw ability, especially visual and spatial abilities, boys are in for the win.

Women are now far more likely to go to college and graduate than young men. (ANDREW WOODLEY/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES)

Over the past decades, the prevailing assumption among social scientists and the journalists who report their findings to the public has been that any innate cognitive and behavior differences between the sexes are so small as to be inconsequential. In its natural, pre-socialized state, the brain is a blank slate—and thus fundamentally androgynous. But from the moment children are born, goes this thinking, they experience a “gendered” world, that is, one starkly divided into male and female. As they develop, they learn and relearn that there are certain, sex-specific interests to pursue and ways to act, to dress, and to show emotion, and they quickly see that violating these norms can lead to teasing, shunning, or bullying. Gender theorists are strict social constructionists: male and female identity, in their view, is in no way biologically determined but is rather a purely social, and largely arbitrary, construction. Institutionalized in departments of gender studies, spread throughout academia and from there into the culture at large, these assumptions are as much established truth for the educated classes as God-created sexual dimorphism is for the Vatican.

Many of the most widely quoted social scientists studying boys’ academic status rely on gender theory as a starting premise. If boys are falling behind, it must be because of “the messages [they] receive about how to be masculine,” as gender reporter Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times puts it. Those messages, which come from families, institutions, and peer culture, are implicitly anti-school, on this view. “[B]oys’ achievement has come to be seen as incompatible with performing masculinity in normative ways,” explain a trio of Ohio State University scholars. “Hegemonic masculinity,” the term researchers use to describe the phenomenon, is marked by “stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression.” Clearly, the last thing boys under the sway of hegemonic masculinity want to do is sit politely in a classroom listening to their teacher—usually a woman—and then go straight home to study for the next day’s math test.

Putting aside whether a distinctive cultural norm like hegemonic masculinity can explain an all-but-universal gender gap, researchers do make a convincing case that boys are more blasé toward school performance than girls. They’re late or absent for school more often and spend less time doing homework. Girls seem to start planning their college careers as early as middle school. A 2020 paper by economist Shelly Lundberg identified boys’ lower personal aspirations as the culprit behind their weaker school performance. “The ABC of Gender Equality in Education,” a 2015 OECD study, found boys more likely to believe that school is a “waste of time” that doesn’t prepare them for adult life and found them somewhat less likely to find satisfaction in getting good grades.

Should we take this as proof that hegemonic masculinity is the cause of the school education gap? That would be hasty. One obvious objection: the most hegemonic of hegemonic males in developed countries these days are highly educated.

There’s compelling reason to think that a more genetic—or, in the derogatory terminology of gender theory, “essentialist”—explanation for boys’ disadvantage is at work. Signs of boys’ relative verbal delay show up way before hegemonic masculinity could infect their minds. On average, girls start talking earlier than boys. At 16 months, girls have a vocabulary of 95 words, while boys’ vocabulary is, on average, only 25. Boys make up more than 70 percent of late talkers and just 30 percent of early talkers. They produce word combinations, on average, three months later than girls. As they grow older, boys are at greater risk of developing language problems like dyslexia and stuttering. Gender theorists have an answer for that: they say that mothers talk more to their infant daughters than they do to their sons. But only limited evidence exists for that claim; a much-cited 2014 study finding that mothers respond more to baby girl vocalizations at birth and at one month involved only 33 mothers and their preterm infants. Other studies show no difference in mothers’ treatment of their babies by sex.

Language development is just one form of social communication in which girls outpace boys. At 12 months, boys don’t make as much eye contact as girls do, and they’re not as proficient at imitating gestures like pointing, a skill that appears related to later language development. They’re less adept at “joint attention,” that is, looking at a picture or toy with a caretaker. Autism, a disorder that causes sufferers to misinterpret or entirely miss social stimuli, is also more common among males. Do mothers talk to their infant daughters so much more than to their sons that they’re causing both mediocre male reading scores and a male autism crisis? And could this really be the case for mothers across the planet?

Occam’s razor suggests a more commonsense conclusion, which happens to be where much of the recent science on gender differences is heading. Though neuroscience was once committed to the notion of the androgynous brain, the discipline has, in recent decades, piled up examples of male–female differences. This research coalesces around the conclusion that while brain anatomy in the sexes is very similar, sex hormones and sex chromosomes affect cognitive development. Most suggestively, researchers have found that girls’ brains establish connections and “prune” unused brain circuitry earlier and faster than boys, so their brains work more efficiently.

Resistance to these findings as “neuro-sexism” has predictably appeared in some journals. A more reasonable objection is that the discipline is young and far from settled. Most of the studies are small because of the exorbitant cost of MRI machines. In any case, neuro-imaging is not yet refined enough to detect all differences in brain circuitry or the interplay between the brain’s various, changing structures, much less to explain the significance of the sex differences that researchers see in the images. More generally, we don’t know just how much the environment shapes gene expression. If, to take one example, the amount and timbre of mothers’ vocalizing changes with the baby’s sex, by what mechanism and how significantly does that alter an individual child’s brain?

What we can safely say is that the old-fashioned notion that boys mature more slowly than girls is a credible hypothesis. Delaying kindergarten for children with later birthdays—a practice called redshirting—has given researchers a useful natural experiment to explore the theory further. Commonplace not just in the United States but in other developed countries, redshirting enables researchers to compare students born just before, say, a December 31 cutoff, with kids whose birthdays are in January or February—comparing the youngest students in a grade with the oldest, in other words. Older students, it unsurprisingly turns out, are generally more self-regulated—more mature—than younger ones. What should also be unsurprising is that a majority of the redshirts are boys. In Denmark, for instance, parents of one in five boys delay their son’s school entry, compared with just one in ten girls.

More unexpected is the impact of redshirting on ADHD diagnoses and drug treatment. The Danish study concluded that a one-year delay in the start of school “dramatically reduces inattention/hyperactivity at age 7,” an effect that persists until at least age 11. A Canadian study of nearly 1 million six- to 12-year-olds found similar results: boys born in December—typically the youngest students in their class—“were 30 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD than boys born in January,” who were almost a full year older. Further, boys were 41 percent more likely to be given a prescription for a medication to treat ADHD if they were born in December than in January. (Girls were even more likely to benefit in this case, but their baseline diagnosis is far lower.) A Taiwanese study discovered the same thing.

Redshirting has its problems. It’s a luxury practice; unless parents have access to public preschool, they must be able to afford an extra year of child care. The long-term effects remain unclear, as well. One paper finds that redshirting reduces the overall gender-achievement gap by 11 points, but other studies note that older students are more at risk of dropping out of high school. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that putting off academics until children are a bit older damages kids’ long-term achievement. Finland, sometimes described as having the best education system in the world, doesn’t start kids in formal schooling until age seven—and their reading scores are very strong.

Boys have presented a singular challenge for teachers and principals since the dawn of American public education. As Julia Grant details in The Boy Problem: Educating Boys in Urban America 1870–1970, in the late nineteenth century, immigrant families balked at their new country’s compulsory schooling. Their reluctance was understandable. School seemed a waste of time when most jobs didn’t require a high school or college diploma and when families needed the extra income they could bring in by putting the boys to work. Working-class children, coming from poor regions where manual labor was a way of life, were also put off by schools that reflected mainstream, middle-class norms. At first, the truant and delinquent lads were primarily white—Irish, German, Scandinavian, and later, Eastern European. But as the Great Migration brought a growing number of African-Americans onto urban streets in the twentieth century, black boys became the school laggards. In many respects, we’re still dealing with the same tension between classroom discipline and boy temperament.

The stakes for resolving that tension are higher today than in the past, though. In advanced economies, education and literacy are not optional, and a society with far more educated women than men is bound to suffer pernicious social and economic fallout. Recognizing that boys mature more slowly than girls and are thus less suited to early academic training would be a good start to addressing the problem—and would offer the extra potential benefit of reducing callous talk of boys’ purported toxic masculinity. As Richard Reeves suggests in his book Of Boys and Men, parents and schools should seriously consider delaying the school entry of younger or more immature boys. More time for recess for elementary schoolers seems like an obvious gift for all young children, but especially boys.

Also in need of study is whether we do kindergarten right. This may seem a relatively trivial concern compared with, say, eighth-grade reading scores, but the two aren’t unrelated. Researchers comparing kindergartens in 1998 and 2010 found that teachers in our century “have far higher academic expectations for children both prior to kindergarten entry and during the kindergarten year.” Children unready for worksheets and prolonged desk work at five get a dispiriting, perhaps damaging, glimpse of the next 12 years of their lives. In the many American schools failing to teach phonics, those same children may find themselves struggling to read in the early grades and beyond.

And those children will mostly be boys.

Top Photo: Boys have lower grades and more behavior problems, and they are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in their primary school years. (MARMADUKE ST. JOHN/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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