In a recent New York Times essay, “It’s Become Increasingly Hard for Them to Feel Good About Themselves,” Thomas Edsall reviews a variety of research studies highlighting the plight of young men in the United States. As a frontline educator who’s worked in boys’ schools for 30 years and served as the head of a boys’ school for the past 20 years, I’ve been an unhappy witness to this dilemma.
Data supports the claim that boys are falling behind, and dramatically so. For example, there is a growing gender gap in high school graduation rates. According to the Brooking Institution, in 2018, about 88% of girls graduated on time, compared to 82% of boys.
For college enrollment, the gender gap is even more striking with men now trailing women in higher education at record levels. Last year, women made up 60% of college students while men accounted for only 40%, according to statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse. College enrollment in the U.S. has declined by 1.5 million students over the past five years, with men accounting for 71% of that drop.
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The circumstances effecting these outcomes start much earlier in life, during a boy’s formative years. A study from 2013 points to family structure as a driver of boys’ behavior and reported that by grade eight, for children raised by single mothers, the school suspension rate is 25% higher for boys than girls.
That’s not to say that there aren’t legions of single moms doing a fantastic job raising their kids. But, undeniably, there’s an “absence of dads” crisis in our country.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 18.3 million children, or 1 in 4, live without a biological, step or adoptive father in the home.
There’s a lack of male role models in our schools too. As of 2018, only 24% of all K-12 teachers were men, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The structure and climate in our schools are equally important influencers when it comes to scholastic success for young men. A major study from 2015, which collected data from nearly 5,000 subjects, concluded that school environments may be more attuned to feminine-typed personalities, making it generally easier for girls to achieve better grades in school.
Boys face more discipline
A 2016 report from the American Sociological Association concluded that the way teachers respond to boys’ behaviors plays a significant role in shaping their educational outcomes years later. The study found that elementary school boys had much greater exposure to negative school environments compared to girls. And in high school, boys reported significantly higher rates of grade repetition and lower educational expectations.
Given that boys are more likely to be held back and punished, it’s easy to understand why teachers may approach male students with certain unconscious biases, which may translate into self-fulfilling outcomes.
Imagine being bombarded with a constant chorus of, “Pay attention. Stop fidgeting. Don’t touch that!” Yet, that’s what many of our boys experience in school every day.
I’m not suggesting that school structure should be relaxed. A structured learning environment is very important for boys, but this can be achieved in concert with using teaching techniques that work especially well for boys.
Craft lessons with boys in mind
We know that boys benefit from introducing lessons through dramatic points of entry that grab their attention. We know that boys are kinesthetic learners who benefit from hands-on activities where they learn by touch, exploration and manipulation.
The absence of these opportunities during the pandemic when so many students were learning online has had a considerable impact on educational advancement, especially so for boys.
In all-boys schools and classrooms, where teachers are focused on the unique social, emotional and learning needs of boys, young men are thriving. But I’m not issuing a rallying cry to nationalize single-gender education.
All-boys and all-girls schools work well for some students and not as well for others. Exploring different schooling options for your child is just common sense.
What I am saying is that within almost any school setting there’s room to improve our practices to ensure boys aren’t being unintentionally marginalized or excluded. Working to make our classrooms more boy-friendly is an important step in resolving the crisis young men face in our country.
Christopher Brueningsen has been a private school educator for 30 years and since 2002 the head of school at The Kiski School, an all-boys boarding school near Pittsburgh, Penn.