Are boys falling behind girls in education and development?
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Have you ever heard that expression? I have, many times and almost always in the context of the dearth of female leadership in politics, or in the C-Suite, or in STEM careers.
It was interesting, then, to hear that phrase used to explain a “reverse” gender gap, where boys and men are trailing girls and women. Over the weekend, I listened to Richard Reeves’ new book, “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It” and learned a lot. I particularly appreciated Reeves’ frequent repetition that we can hold two ideas in our heads at the same time, that we do not need to do less for women, but that we need to do more for men. “We can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men,” he writes.
Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing scholar to the Deseret News’ American Family Survey, became increasingly concerned about the growing number of boys and men who are struggling — at home, at school and at work.
While there have been positive steps in overall educational achievement, for example, much of the reporting on those achievements has not teased out gender differences. What Reeves and others have found is that the gender gap in educational achievement is growing nationwide, advantaging girls and women and disadvantaging boys and men. (Although Utah “flips the script” when it comes to earning graduate degrees.)
Diving deeper into the data shows us a clearer picture of what that means. In 1972, when Title IX was passed, there was a 12% gap between men and women earning bachelor’s degrees. By 1982, the gap had closed and in 2019, there was a 14% gap — in the other direction. Nationally, for every 100 women graduating, only 74 men are. The 2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students.
In K-12, girls are now 14% more likely to be ready for school at age 5. There is a 6 percentage points gap between girls and boys in reading proficiency in fourth grade, which becomes a 10 percentage points gap by the end of eighth grade. Girls earn better grades and now account for two-thirds of high schoolers in the top 10% of students. They are also more likely to be taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes.
If you’ve been around teens for any length of time, you don’t need academic research to tell you that the brains of boys and girls develop at different rates and so do their maturation levels. The research agrees. Girls in the teenage years are generally considered more mature than their male counterparts who are the same age. The key point in brain development, argues Reeves, is “not in how female and male brains develop, but when.” The educational system, built for boys, actually disadvantages them.
Reeves has some bold suggestions. One is to delay the start of formal school for boys for one entire year, giving their brains some additional time to mature before they enter the school system.
Another is to incentivize more men to become teachers through matching federal dollars now allocated to STEM initiatives to what he calls a “HEAL” initiative — focused on careers in “health, education, administration and literacy.” He cites research that shows boys do better in schools with more men at the front of the classroom, especially in subjects like English, while girls do equally well with either male or female teachers. Men now account for only 24% of K-12 teachers. In elementary schools, only 11% are men and in kindergarten, it’s just 3% — about half the percentage of women flying military airplanes. Again, you can’t be what you can’t see.
Clearly, in writing a book devoted to a gender bias against men and boys, Reeves isn’t afraid to tackle controversial topics. He directly addresses one of the biases of male teachers in elementary schools, quoting a kindergarten teacher in Washington, D.C. “Some people assume if you’re a man teaching young kids that you’re somehow a pedophile or weirdo pervert or something.” The more we see men as teachers, the more that stereotype can be dismissed. He calls for popular culture to start portraying men in HEAL jobs — teachers, nurses, social workers, psychologists, counselors and more. There is no question that teachers — male or female — need higher pay. Current pay for K-12 educators has been stagnant for more than 20 years.
Third, when it comes to post-high school education, Reeves reminds readers that the idea that one must have a four-year university degree is simply not accurate. Technical or vocational training can boost lifetime earnings for men, and one study in Connecticut found a 10% higher graduation rate among male students pursuing “Career and Technical Education” (CTE) paths than those in traditional high schools.
Utah lawmakers recognized the value of both paths and felt the two should have “seamless integration” when they passed SB11 in 2020. That bill combined the Board of Regents and the Utah System of Technical Colleges into one Utah System of Higher Education (USHE). In 2021, the highest number of CTE certificates and degrees were awarded than at any time previously: 16,265. USHE works with business leaders and local employers to ensure that graduates are well-prepared for the high-skill, high-wage jobs needed in today’s workplace.
Good decisions are informed by good data. Policy makers and others would do well to understand the arguments and the data presented by Reeves as they move forward in tackling some of the challenges facing boys and men. And since policy is not a zero-sum game, we must also continue to move forward addressing the challenges of girls and women.
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.