Boys left in the educational dust
Boys have been overtaken by girls and left in the dust—especially regarding reading and writing, here and in many countries worldwide.
The Finnish education system is lauded as the envy of the world. Still, when broken down by gender, it’s mainly because their girls are absolutely smashing it—20 percent are reading at the highest level versus 9 percent of the boys, a trend reversed at the lowest level. Their boys are reading at the same level as the United States.
This is an extreme example of what author Hanna Rosin called “the strangest and most profound change of the century,” the changing gender gap in education. Boys have been overtaken by girls and left in the dust—especially regarding reading and writing, here and in many countries worldwide.
Senior Fellow at the US think tank Brookings Institution Richard Reeves’ recently-released book, Of Boys and Men, argues male underachievement is as crucial an issue as it is overlooked and requires a new approach.
Reeves, who describes himself politically as “pretty liberal slash egalitarian,” is not only worried about women being paid less and under-represented in leadership positions but also deeply concerned about how boys and men are doing in education and work—especially those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.
Education as a means to grasp the bottom rungs for boys is declining. Girls outperform boys in reading while performing similarly in maths. Girls are staying longer at school and leaving with higher attainment levels. At the tertiary level, only two men are studying for every three women.
Rather than just individualistic “fixing” of boys and men, Reeves recommends structural changes. Firstly, to invest more in vocational training and apprenticeships. University isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of skills development; this makes sense.
Only 14 percent of primary and 39 percent of high school teachers are men. 80 percent of hospital staff are women.
Secondly, he suggests encouraging more men to enter roles traditionally oriented towards women—what he calls HEAL (Health, Education, Administration, and Literacy) jobs. Only 14 percent of primary and 39 percent of high school teachers are men. 80 percent of hospital staff are women.
Efforts to support women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) have been fruitful, with women now making up 48 percent of the STEM workforce. HEAL jobs are, on average, more resilient to automation, are set to grow in demand and are key to the future of work, so this makes sense too.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, he recommends that boys start school a year later than girls due to how their brains develop differently. As he puts it, “wait till their prefrontal cortex has gotten bigger so that they can actually do their homework.” The neuroscience is clear, but this would undoubtedly need piloting before widespread adoption.
Boys’ underachievement could be a focal point for policy. Scotland, for example, has set a goal for greater male representation at their universities. This certainly isn’t the only challenge our education system faces, but it is an overlooked opportunity.
A flourishing world for men is a better one for women too.
“We can hold two thoughts in our head at once,” says Reeves, “we can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men.” This doesn’t need to be zero-sum. As he notes, “a flourishing world for men is a better one for women too.”go back