Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Teaching Issues: At Risk Boys

The common wisdom across the decades was that gender equity was about empowering girls. Girls had less access. Girls needed advocates, and girls needed to hear it was okay to be smart.

Organizations such as UNESCO now tell us: Gender equity is about both girls and boys. A UNESCO report reveals that gender-based enrollment varies by geography and grade level. Worldwide, girls are much more likely to be denied primary education, but the reverse is true in some countries. At the secondary level, male disadvantage becomes more common (

It’s not a brand new issue. High school group picture from rural farm country in the 1940s, one may see predominately female faces. The reason: Boys were needed to work on the farm.

When one looks at the broader social environment, an even more troubling portrait emerges.

High School and College: In the US, a Female Advantage

In the United States, females outpace males with regard to college graduation as well as high school graduation. The college graduation rate represents not a drop in male attendance but a rise in female attendance. Still, it's concerning. The female to male ratio is far higher among historically underrepresented groups. Low income females are now much more likely to go to college than they were in the past ( The nation has not seen a corresponding rise for low-income males.

2016 data shows a rise in college attendance rates since 2000. The gender gap remained the same for both years. Overall 39% of males in the 18-24 age group were enrolled in college while 44% of females were. The percentage of young black females (39%) was equal to the overall percentage of young males but lower than that of white males. The percentage of young black males had indeed increased, but was just 33%.

Differing Achievement in Reading and Math

Of uncertain significance: girls' greater achievement in reading in childhood and adolescence. This is a global phenomenon. It can't be attributed to American schooling or (as some have tried to do) to the feminist movements. There is some evidence that it reflects at least in part a difference in developmental trajectories, with boys attaining skills a little more slowly in childhood but catching up in adulthood. Apparently there is a societal component, too; the gaps are greater in some nations than others. The United States is not especially high. Britain’s Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education has pointed to boys’ lesser engagement as a cause (

In math, gender comparisons paint a more complex picture. A comparison of data from districts around the nation, carried out by Stanford, found that many met the stereotype: higher average performance among boys ( In some, though, girls were scoring higher in this arena, too. There’s a socioeconomic gap seen in math that’s not seen in reading. Boys tended to score higher than girls in math in districts that had a well-educated, relatively affluent, and predominately white population. One possible reason: that gender stereotyping could be fostered by extracurricular activities that higher income families were better able to invest in. This was only a hypothesis; reasons are yet unknown.

Other analyses has looked at the overall educational patterns of low income students by gender. One hypothesis: Boys in lower SES areas have ideas about masculinity that don’t include doing well in school.

Differences in Academic Achievement and Behavioral Measures

The Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University produced a white paper in 2015 based on data about brothers and sisters that was drawn from a state that was able to provide ample records: Florida ( It showed boys performing worse than their sisters on various measures including kindergarten readiness and 3rd through 8th grade suspensions and test scores. It also provided evidence that family disadvantage was correlated with the size of the gender gap from early childhood on. Ultimately, the suspension rate was more important than test scores in predicting high school graduation.

Brothers were more likely to be diagnosed with cognitive and behavioral gaps than their sisters. Again, family disadvantage widened the gap. The exact causes of the school gender gap couldn’t be identified. It mattered whether the father was absent, but it wasn’t possible to differentiate whether it was because of a lack of a positive role model or because parents of both sexes tend to offer more attention to the same sex child.

Social Dimensions and Abuse

Clearly, boys need advocates, too, and they need them in multiple domains: academic and social. There are some traumas boys are less likely to experience but also less likely to report. Boys are less likely to be abused sexually, but they’re also less likely to report victimization and less likely to get help. They may react by acting out, in part because it feels more acceptable. Educators and policy makers need to stay on top of the times and recognize needs that may masquerade as something other than needs.

Even school discipline has its negative consequence. UNESCO reports that boys more often experience corporal punishment.

Closing Gaps

Organizations have implemented different strategies for closing gaps. Role modeling often plays some part, though it takes place amidst other targeted interventions.

The Learning Policy Institute has reported on a very successful program to provide adolescent boys from minority groups with intensive math tutoring ( Early research suggested that it was not only bringing boys up in math but making it less likely they would be arrested for violence. In New York, meanwhile, My Brother’s Keeper strives to support boys and young men of color at every stage through career and college.

There are small steps that even individual teachers can take. It may be problematic if all children’s reading role models are female. Options including bringing in male authors and bringing grandads in to be guest readers. It may also be helpful to find ways to incorporate movement in the school day – to provide outlets other than acting out. Some teachers pursue continuing education on brain-based gender issues and on strategies for helping boys succeed; they may, for example, attend Helping Boys Thrive institutes (

There are many voices in the discussion. Well known is higher academic performance among students who participate in the arts. It has been noted that boys who participate in performing arts tend to be ones who reject the stereotypes – and this may confer some advantages.

Equality issues are interdependent as well as complex. The Florida study noted that women who had more education raised boys who had fewer gaps; the UNESCO reported that men with better education expressed fewer discriminatory views.