The Boy Gap

As a volunteer in my daughter’s kindergarten class, I was asked to help children write a “story” (a few words) to illustrate their pictures. Only one girl needed my writing help; only one boy could write for himself. Nearly all the boys seemed to be a full year behind nearly all the girls in their ability to pay attention, follow directions, control frustrations, sit still, handle a pencil or crayon and do what used to be considered first-grade work.

As reading and writing are pushed down to earlier ages, boys are struggling harder to meet higher expectations, writes Richard Whitmire, a former USA Today reporter, in Why Boys Fail.

“Each year since 1988 the gap between boys’ and girls’ reading skills has widened a bit more,” Whitmire writes. Boys aren’t wired for early verbal skills -- and teachers aren’t trained in “boy-friendly” techniques to help them catch up.

Boys are asked to do too much too soon -- and labeled hyperactive or bipolar or autistic if they act like little boys, writes psychologist Anthony Rao in The Way of Boys. “Girls use more words; they cooperate with others; they use social skills effectively. A boy’s brain by contrast, is working on other tasks that are equally important but not always valued as highly in schools, such as learning through touching and exploration, developing motor skills and engaging in spatial tasks. Boys also engage in normal aggression, and they have a healthy interest in challenging rules to test the limits of their power.”

Most boys will catch up in a few years. But some never do. While girls are doing better in all academic areas, boys are not. They earn lower grades, acquire “learning disability” labels, get in trouble and drop out.  Boys who finish high school are less likely than girls to go on to college and those who do are less likely to earn a degree.

As a result, colleges are practicing affirmative action to keep enrollments from tilting so far female that girls don’t want to enroll either. A New York Times story profiles the University of North Carolina, 60 percent female, where coeds lament the shortage of males. 

Overall, 57 percent of college students are women, reports the American Council on Education.

Other countries are seeing similar gender gaps. Women 25 to 34 years old are better educated than men in 20 of 30 OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries with especially wide gender gaps in Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Men have more schooling only in Switzerland and Turkey.

In the U.S., the problems of boys are seen as a racial issue. Congress has mandated a $2 million study on minority male achievement. Certainly, black and Hispanic males are performing very poorly in school, falling way behind their sisters. Black females are twice as likely as males to go to college.

But some white boys are struggling too. “At the end of high school, nearly one in four white sons of college-educated parents scored ‘below basic’ on the reading section of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), compared to 7 percent of their female counterparts,” Whitmire writes. That means they can’t read a newspaper with understanding -- or a technical manual.