Boys are consistently outperformed by girls at school, but some structural shifts in how we educate could change that, writes Jen Smart.
“Yeah, but Miss… Have you ever heard a girl make a joke that cracks up the whole class?”
This comment from a young man of 17 in a mid-morning English class was actually pretty hard to argue with. To be honest, I couldn’t — not in my 12 years of teaching at co-ed state secondary schools.
Thinking back on this flippant observation – designed obviously to distract from the real task at hand (an art form for this particular fella) – I think it pretty much nails what it’s like to teach boys in a co-ed classroom. It’s their pragmatism, peacock energy, the ability to change the weather of a classroom with a hot take, and a relentless zeal for debating adults about literally anything.
These same qualities, however, can also set boys apart as disruptive, unfocused or disrespectful in an environment where behaviours like organisation and quiet focus are valued and rewarded by school systems.
Before progressing: a not-all-boys caveat. There are many ways to be a young man and the intention here is not to pigeonhole, stereotype or deficit theorise a group. Instead I want to consider what the data is telling us about boys in general and their schooling.
The girls are storming ahead
It will come as no surprise to anyone near education that across the OECD girls are outperforming boys in most measures of academic achievement. In the US there is a gap of 15 percentage points in the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women compared to men. Stunningly, however, it was only in 1972 that legislation was passed promoting equal access to higher education for women. At that time, there was a gap of 13 percentage points — in favour of men. In that short time, women have not only closed the academic gender gap but are breaking new ground on the other side of it.
Girls in OECD nations are about a year ahead of boys in reading. Boys are 50% more likely than girls to fail at all three key subject areas: maths, reading and science. Even Finland, the envy of education ministers world-wide, takes the PISA podium purely on the strength of their girls’ reading, science and maths scores.
In the tertiary realm 40% of young British women head off to college at the age of 18, compared to 29% of their male peers and Scotland is already setting concrete targets for increasing the number of men entering university. In Iceland, one of the most gender egalitarian nations, 77% of undergraduates are women.
But men will end up better off, right?
The findings above were collated by Richard Reeves in his recent book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. He uses the data to outline in quite confronting terms how men are falling behind across numerous domains including health, education, income, happiness, and friendship.
Here in Aotearoa a quick skim of NCEA performance shows that boys are performing consistently below girls in terms of achieving Level 1, 2 and 3 certificates at every grade. When it comes to high performance results, however – NZ Scholarship achievement and premier awards – boys turn the tables and achieve higher results.
I must confess that in the past I hand-waved away the gender disparity in academic results, pointing to salary gaps, the underrepresentation of women on boards, male-dominated leadership teams and the clusters of women in low paid employment. The boys are going to be fine, I said (with the tiniest of eye rolls).
But increasingly, I see the issue as much more layered and complex than initially thought. Underperformance in the classroom obviously impacts future employment prospects for our boys – but also their confidence, feelings of self-worth, sense of belonging, motivation, friendships and the ability to stick out the tough stuff. This is why we see boys overrepresented in all the wrong stats later in life.
Acknowledging the bubble
School cultures and systems tend to be designed and influenced by women with systems to reward the kind of behaviours that come naturally to girls – not surprising considering the workforce is predominantly female. Girls tend to be more independent, motivated, organised and better at planning for the future. It’s little wonder that they’re topping academic honours lists around the world.
In her book He’ll Be OK: Turning Gorgeous Boys into Good Men (a little dated now but still one of the best reads on what goes on inside a teenage boy’s head) Celia Lashlie notes that boys are highly pragmatic and tend to move in a linear way, pursuing the thing of most importance while pushing everything not directly related to one side to create the space for it. This does explain the phenomenon of boys producing a year’s worth of art portfolio work in the week before the due date, and competitions between boys to submit their geography reports closest to the set turn-in time. How could school be structured to better capture this “oh shit, it’s real!” burst of motivation?
On the inertia frequently displayed by adolescent boys, Lashlie wonders whether the challenges schools put in front of them aren’t of sufficient depth to merit a real response. “Have we made education a series of relatively small steps because we think that’s what works, when what boys actually want and need are fewer, much bigger steps?”
Indeed, the NCEA qualification is exactly that – a series of fragmented, isolated skills or blocks of content that are taught and assessed in what can feel like a relentless cycle. The changes underway aim to address this by structuring learning and assessment into bigger chunks with higher stakes attached and more external assessment. This should hopefully make things “more real” for boys, who in my experience, tend to perform better under time pressure than they do in long drawn-out projects.
Male teachers matter
Structural and policy changes are needed to make a big difference for boys in the classroom. A massive recruitment drive to bring more men into teaching would be a good start, particularly at early childhood and primary level. According to the Education Counts website, just 24% of our teaching workforce is male and for many boys, high school will be the first time they encounter a male teacher (usually for maths or science). Not only does this reinforce stereotypes about education being “women’s work”, there’s clear evidence that male teachers can boost academic outcomes for boys.
Empathetic, patient, principled and motivated men – boys need to see them to become one. Male teachers can be important role models and a “no matter what” presence in the lives of young men because at a time when they’re deciding what kind of person they’re going to be, the more positive versions of masculinity boys see, the better.
What’s more, male teachers seem to innately cater for the physicality and exuberance of boys in the classroom – as well as their general disinterest in doing anything in a hurry (unless it’s for pragmatic reasons, of course, like getting to the canteen before the butter chicken pies sell out). Lashlie’s observations of watching teachers shepherd boys into assembly are delightful and all-too familiar. “Rather than explaining to the boys where they needed to be, something the female teachers tried repeatedly to do, the male teachers seemed to instinctively know that the best plan was to position themselves like sheep dogs, guarding the boundaries and nudging the boys slowly and gently toward their allocated seat.”
In the same way, I’ve witnessed male teachers wordlessly communicate boundaries, expectations and an innate belief that the boys can do well in their academic work. They get focused work out of them with these mysterious and invisible cues. More of this magic, I say.
In Of Men and Boys, Richard Reeves suggests a key policy change that would help close the gender gap in achievement — “redshirting” them. The term comes from college sports and the practice of benching players for a season, and Reeves’ suggestion is that boys start school one year later than girls by default. This would close the developmental gap as they enter school and during key stages of adolescence later on. Clearly there are massive equity and implementation issues to consider but data seems to suggest the practice could level the playing field.
There’s also evidence supporting a later start to the academic day that would help boys (and others) get the right amount of sleep and focus better during the day. Teenage brains are different. We know so much more about brain development now that has influenced policy and messaging around alcohol consumption – why not school hours too? This is a total hunch but I bet a decent bout of exercise before class would help too, as would eating a proper, nutritious lunch.
School is dry
We need to look closer at how school can better serve boys. They learn differently to girls (not worse) and there’s a real feeling of trying to “keep up” with the girls right from primary school – or at its worst, just leaving leadership opportunities to them because they’re more likely to get their application forms in on time.
An OECD survey (from 2015; things may have changed) showed boys were twice as likely to describe school as a “waste of time”. Investing in high quality, hands-on learning experiences with real connections to vocational work would make school more relevant. Leaning into the natural pragmatism of adolescent boys (“I’ll start that assignment once I have nothing better to do”) and letting them feel the tangible outcomes of learning will undoubtedly hook more of them into education for longer. New Zealand is too small to have ‘technical’ schools like overseas but we do have a lot more clarity around industry training organisations now and a generous, caring small business sector.
It’ll be ugly but as a country we need to take a hard look at our stand down, suspension and exclusion statistics. We should be doing everything we can to keep boys in education – while acknowledging that school doesn’t suit everyone. There are a number of successful programmes around the country that help 15-year-olds transition into skilled employment as they complete their NCEA qualifications. Why keep them in class writing essays?
A unique quirk of boys is that it’s extremely important for their success to appear effortless – I know this from seeing their late night document history. They need to be able to say they did it at the last minute, that they only just made the deadline and that they don’t really “need” credits from this subject anyway. But the truth is it’s less shameful to not try and fail anyway. Trying is for sweats, and girls. In year 11 in particular, our first year of formal assessment, the girls tend to be a lot more academically resilient than boys. Organisation, time management and focus can easily mean the difference between scraping an Achieved or a Merit and higher – let’s invest in coaching boys in these skills from year 10.
Much harder to shift with structural changes, however, is that essential ingredient for a fulfilling life – internal motivation, which is at the heart of why our young men are struggling. It’s big, it’s knotty and it transcends education but Lashlie’s conversations with boys did reveal what schools can do to help. Boys need a sense of belonging, to feel they are part of something bigger than themselves and they need to move through positive rites of passage toward adulthood.
And it’s pretty clear that if they don’t get those things at school, they’ll seek it out other, riskier forms.
Update: This story was updated on April 19, 2023 to reflect that boys achieve lower levels NCEA but have higher results in scholarship assessments.
This article was written as part of the Education Perfect Fellowship, which supports teachers doing post-graduate studies to investigate critical issues in education.