Boys fall behind girls in education
More women than men are finishing high school and college
When Emily Pulsifer visited Christ School, she doubted she would accept a position. Since moving to North Carolina, she missed her students at a Maine co-ed boarding and day school. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to teach at an all-boys school.
On campus, Pulsifer met boys leading the student council, student clubs, and theater and literature projects—programs that at other schools she more often saw girls head up. “It’s wonderful to see and be part of a community where the boys are doing all those things,” she said. “They’re freed up of some of the inhibitions that they might have about taking those leadership roles.”
Statistics show male students lag behind females in high school on-time graduation and college completion. Individual male students do not always struggle more with academics than their female peers. But many experts agree that it is time to assess how boys are doing—and what teachers and parents can do to help.
Among adults ages 25 to 34, 46 percent of women have a college degree, compared to 36 percent of men. Both numbers are an improvement from 1970 when 12 percent of women and 20 percent of men had degrees. For decades, educators and advocates sought better academic success for women. They seem to have achieved it.
“Were they always better?” asked Luciano Cid, the interim director of elementary education at Biola University. “Or did we just open up some doors and close other doors?”
Cid said that he’s leery of anyone who thinks they can pinpoint an exact reason for the shift. He hopes to see researchers dig deeper into the subject. He also pointed to some developmental differences that could contribute to the gap. “Boys tend to have less of an ability, on average, to be self-regulated,” Cid said, echoing multiple studies.
That lagging self-regulation could contribute to difficulty sitting still in class. Cid suggested teachers try active teaching strategies such as acting out a reading passage, competing in history games, or having dress-up days about a specific time period. Not only will boys often embrace those teaching tactics, he said, but many girls do, too.
Developmental differences likely aren’t the only reason for boys’ struggles in academics.
An overwhelming 89 percent of elementary education teachers are female, a figure that decreases to 64 percent at the high school level. To better meet male students’ needs, it makes sense for school administrators to prioritize hiring male teachers. But it’s not easy.
Cid said he once considered writing a paper titled, “Is it time to pay male teachers more?” He pointed to lower pay rates for professions many consider feminine. “It’s looked upon as a service-oriented profession that you should do because you love the profession, not because it’s lucrative or it’s important,” he said.
The problem? Studies show that men may be more likely to be risk-takers. If teachers receive low pay and little respect, men are less likely to enter the profession. Cid wants more educators to discuss whether male teachers should receive bonuses for taking teaching jobs, just as many schools give bonuses to science, math, or special education teachers. “That conversation does not exist,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to come up with this title that was going to be controversial because at least it gets the conversation going.”
Kevin M. Jones began his education career as a first-grade teacher. “I understood … that I was going to set a trajectory for those students,” he said. “Either they were going to love school and love engaging their peers, or they were not going to like school at all.”
Now the dean of the school of education at Cedarville University, Jones volunteers in a local second-grade class, reading with students for 15-20 minutes. Teachers tell him that he gives the boys in their classes someone to look up to.
Jones wants to see more schools encourage fathers to be those role models for their sons and to help single mothers raise sons who don’t have a male role model in the home. He pointed to bow tie days or professional dress days that some schools incorporate regularly. For some boys, Jones said, an all-boys school might be the perfect fit.
Cid, who attended an all-boys Catholic school, hesitated to recommend the model. “You always give up something,” he said. “If you do one, then you’re going to fail to do the other.” Cid fears what boys and girls lose out on when they are isolated from each other.
Since Christ School students can’t interact with girls like their peers at co-ed schools, faculty members organize mixers with similar schools for girls. Female students from an all-girls school in Raleigh attend Christ School’s Halloween dance.
“Both boys and girls have the capacity to be successful at entering college and finishing it,” Cid said, adding that some students may not desire college. But if certain groups of students struggle to succeed, he said it’s time to reevaluate how students are taught: “We have to ask of the system, what is it that’s preventing them from doing so?”
Today, Pulsifer teaches English and is the dean of academics at Christ School in Arden, N.C. The school serves 295 male students in eighth to 12th grades. About three-quarters of the boys live at the school.
For an upcoming review period before exams, Pulsifer plans to hold a Jeopardy contest with teams competing against each other. “We are always looking for ways to get the boys up and moving around in the classroom,” she said. “There tends to be a little more commotion.”
Pulsifer celebrates female students’ advancement in the last few decades, but she worries about the messages modern culture sends boys about manhood and leadership. She hopes at Christ School, boys find the freedom to explore their interests without extra cultural pressure. “None of us can learn when we feel that we’re misunderstood,” she said. “We are … always looking for ways to bring that to the classroom so that they feel appreciated for who they are and what they bring to the conversation.”
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