"Information That Works"


Why boys under-perform in school
By William A. Draves, draves@lern.org


A. Introduction
B. Ruling out other theories
C. Some important data and trends
D. Schools, not boys, are the problem

E. It all happened once before
F. Should boys go to college?
G. Why boys are into technology
H. The solution

A. Introduction

There is a growing and widespread concern about the academic performance of boys in school. As few as 35% of todayís college graduates are men, (1) down from 50% in 1981 (2) and 76% a half century ago. But the problem doesnít begin in college, because only 35-40% of people entering college these days are men. (3) The problem of boys and young men and academic performance runs the gamut from secondary through higher education.

The issue is not confined or particular to the United States. A recent provincial report in Canada begins, "Over the last 15 years, it has become apparent that girls do better than boys at school, not only in Quebec but in most of the developed world." (4)

A Guardian article in the United Kingdom on A-level results is headlined, "The trouble with boys: getting them to study is no easy matter." (5)

It is a problem in New Zealand. And a special report on the issue in Australia called "The Education of Boys" states that "females dominate higher education enrolments." (6)

There is a striking similarity in percentages and numerical differences in the studies in all five advanced countries.

In this article we look at some of the theories as to why boys under-perform in school, and then offer a different rationale for why boys under-perform in school, as well as suggest a solution to resolve the problem.
This article is strictly concerned with the performance of boys in the upper half of their classes in terms of ability, test scores, grades and future work. While there are legitimate and serious concerns about boys in lower income families, those significantly behind their counterparts in school, that issue has been with us for a long time.

top ten graudates
Boys were not always behind girls in achievement. A picture of the top ten students out of a class of 592 in the authorís senior year of high school in 1967 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin

What is different now is that smart boys from upper socio-economic levels are now falling behind their female counterparts. The Quebec research notes, "Given the same social origins, girls do better than boys at all levels of education." While the roots of the problem go back one to two decades, the issue has only recently surfaced and become an issue.

B.Ruling out other theories
Here are other theories that do not hold up to scrutiny.

* Boys are inherently inferior academically. No educator or research has suggested this, and the data indicate otherwise. Indeed, as recently as 1998 boys in several achievement test studies did better than girls in computer studies, economics, math and science.(7)

* Parents are not raising their boys with good academic habits. No research indicates this is the case. The probability that parents would raise their female children with totally different standards and parental behavior than those from their male children is improbable, and unsupported by any data. On the other hand, there is evidence that in the same family a smart boy will get grades of about 20% lower than his similarly smart sister.

* The statistics are skewed because of changing participation of minority and low income students. While this indeed is a problem in the United States, this alone would not explain the identical concern in other countries with very small minority populations, such as Australia and New Zealand, nor that of countries where minorities experience less discrimination, such as Canada.

* That the problem lies in recent social problems in families, particularly the increased number of single parent families and greater numbers of children from divorced parents. There are at least two problems with this theory. One is that girls are also affected by families under stress. The other is that the issue of academic underperformance of boys is well documented in two-parent traditional nuclear families where no family stress has occurred.

* There are psychological and/or behavioral issues with boys today. There are two indicators which suggest this is not the case. The first is that these psychological and/or behavioral issues are not found in boys outside of the school setting. The second indicator is that young men who bypass further education for the work place do not exhibit these psychological and/or behavioral issues.

C. Some important data and trends
In order to understand the real reason why boys are under-performing in school, it is necessary to understand some important data. They include:

1. This is a recent phenomenon.
It did not occur 30-60 years ago, when boys were roughly scholastically equal to girls. While girls overall have had better grades, the differences have been much slighter. In Australia, for example, the differences were marginal until 1981 when girls had 0.6 marks more than boys. This difference jumped to 19.4 marks, most noticeably in 1992 when the difference increased to 12.2 from 4.4 marks the previous year. (8) 1992 was also the first year after the invention of the World Wide Web.

Chart of Australian archievemnet scores by gender
Chart of Australian achievement scores by sex, showing a growing disparity after 1980, especially after 1992. Click on the graph for a large version.

2. There is no performance problem in the workforce.
For talented boys who go from secondary school into the workforce, bypassing higher education, there is no performance problem. Young men in technical jobs perform so well they are in high demand in todayís economy. In a recent article, columnist Bob Weinstein says that boys are succeeding in the workforce, particularly if they have a computer certification. (9) Technically oriented young men recently found 7 jobs for every 1 qualified candidate. Technically oriented young men are so much wanted in the workforce today that the United States Congress recently passed legislation allowing up to a half-million technical workers from other countries to work in the United States.

Technically oriented boys are not experiencing either behavioral problems or achievement problems in the workforce.

3. Intelligence is not the problem.
"See that boy," my son told me as we pulled up to the front of his middle school. "His name is Marvin. Heís a genius but heís failing school." Later I asked my son to recall the incident and he replied, "I donít who it was exactly. There are lots of kids I could have said that about."

The stories are endless. A techie who shut down his schoolís computer system when in middle school, who now has a top job as a computer and Internet technician. Boys being punished for exploring on computers and getting into school records, which should have been protected by school administrators.

When our oldest son was in high school, he was able to take college classes at the nearby university at the same time he was in high school. When he received his report card, we were initially puzzled that he was getting poor grades in high school and getting an ĎAí in his college class.

D. Schools, not boys, are the problem
Teen crime is down to a 30 year record low. Teen pregnancy is down. School violence is at an all time low. Teen drunken driving is down. Teen employment is up. Teen driving fatalities are down. Television viewing is down. Reading is up. Yet everyone knows boys are behaving poorly.

The primary battleground is in the nationís schools. Boys win hands-down on demerits and detention. Worse, boys are now subject to more verbal punishment than ever before.  "Today the girls all were well behaved, and will get suckers," a middle school teacher announced in class recently. "The boys will get the broken suckers." "Everyone knows boys donít behave," she reported at another time, reflecting a widely held view among educators and adults in general.

Our schools are failing to help boys learn, and blaming the boys.

The reason there is a war on against boys is that boys are into the Internet and technology. The Internet terrifies most teachers, and some boys know more about the Internet than do many educators. Boys also exhibit those accompanying attributes which go with a future dominated by the Internet, like taking risks, being entrepreneurial, and being individualistic.

On the other hand, what is bad behavior for boys in school is good behavior for young men in the workplace. The very same behaviors for which they are punished in school, boys are rewarded for when they enter the workforce. This is because taking risks, being entrepreneurial, being individualistic are all behaviors that lead to success in the workforce today.

Todayís schools, in contrast, were meant to prepare youth for the factory and the office, where conformity, teamwork and Ďbeing normalí are valued.  So todayís schools are bent on conformity, discipline, and other behavior totally unrelated to learning and academic achievement. The Wisconsin Public Schools, arguably one of the best in the nation, currently has a statewide advertising campaign where it proudly boasts of its ban on hats in school.(10) Wearing a hat, they claim, deters learning. By contrast, young men are often allowed to wear hats in the work setting, particularly in technology companies. A recent New Yorker cartoon, for example, has a young worker with a T-shirt and a baseball cap turned backwards telling an older worker dressed in a suit that he will need to change his dress code in order to remain at the company.

Schools and teachers fear technology, do not have a sufficient understanding of the Internet, and do not employ the web in their teaching. A recent National Center for Education Statistics report on what teachers feel most trained for is discipline (80% report feel adequately prepared). At the bottom of the list is the employment of technology, where only about 20% of teachers feel adequately prepared.

Indeed, teachers and schools are usually far behind their own male students in terms of technology.

And the situation is further complicated by the fact that schools and teachers often refuse to learn from their technically skilled students, thus furthering the rift and suggesting to boys that school is no longer relevant for their present and future.

Both boys and girls perceive teachers as favoring girls over boys, according to The Metropolitan Life Survey of The American Teacher, 1997 (11).

- Both girls (57%) and boys (64%) say the teacher pays more attention to girls.
-Girls who raise their hands see themselves as getting called on "often," by greater margins (72% vs. 66%), than boys.
- More boys than girls (31% vs. 19%) feel that it is "mostly true" that teachers do not listen to what they have to say.
- Boys demand more attention in class than girls, according to the majority (61%) of teachers.
- And teachers (47%) say that girls asked for more help after class.

Chart of Teachers' feelings of preparedness
A study by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that teachers themselves report being most prepared for discipline, and least prepared for using technology in the classroom

When given a computer, however, so-called bad boys immediately turn into good behavior role models. On a recent school day, a LERN staff member observed boys in the computer lab so well behaved that there was no teacher in the room, nor one needed.

Boys are leading the technology revolution, the new economy, the Internet Age, and the workforce of the 21st century. But before they get there, they are being roundly punished.

Until our educational system is redesigned for the needs of the 21st century, the war against boys will continue.

E. It all happened once before
This all happened once before, exactly 100 years ago, as our nation went through the transition from an Agrarian society to the Industrial Age.

* Men are wimps.
Gibson GirlMen 100 years ago were portrayed as wimps, small minded, and lacking. The most famous caricature was the Gibson Girl, a beautiful but also intelligent, strong and assertive woman, who was commonly portrayed next to a weakling, passive man.(12)

Watch any commercial, and you will see the same image of men nowadays. Today the most well known male on television is Homer Simpson, who says things like: "Wow, the Internetís on computers now."

* Boys choose work.
Boys 100 years ago opted out of school and chose to work in factories 12 hours a day. Of child factory workers aged 10-15, 67% of them were boys.

Today boys opt for the workplace once again, especially the technology workplace, as soon as they get past the mandatory school age.

* Boys are punished in school.
In the first decade of the last century, the Chicago child labor inspector surveyed over 500 teenage kids, asking them if their family did not need the money, would they prefer the factory or school. Some 80% chose the factory. As one young boy noted about school:

"They hits you if ye donít learn, and they hits you if ye whisper, and they hits you if ye have string in yer pocket, and they hits you if yer seat sqeaks, and they hits you if ye scrape yer feet, and they hits you if ye donít stand up in time, and they hits you if yer late, and they hits you if ye forget the page." (13)Substitute "yell" for "hit;" verbal punishment for corporal punishment, and this is what too many boys experience once again in school.

* Boys choose play.
Today boys choose to play with computers, video games, and the Internet. Only a few educators understand that play is learning, central to preparing one for the workplace.

Again, 100 years ago boys played with automobiles, which were thought in 1901 to be only a leisure play toy for rich people. No one thought the car had any value.

At that time, G. Stanley Hall, one of our nationís educational leaders and the President of Clark University wrote: "In play children both practice and train themselves for future vocations, and what is still more important, are rehearsing many, if not most, of the practical activities and vocations of the race. "So in right play-teaching we are working in the very depths and not in the shallows of the soul." (14)

One-room schoolhouse
100 years ago the rural one school house became obsolete, unable to meet the needs of the Industrial 20th century

By 1920 the school system was totally redesigned for the Industrial Age of the 20th century.

Industrial arts were incorporated into the secondary school curricula. Rural one-room schoolhouses were deemed inadequate for an industrial urban society. "The type of public school instruction is unsuited to the modern child," noted George W. Alger in 1921. "This is partly due to our inadequate system of rural schools: a school house which is an architectural miscarriage; a teaching force without normal training and hired at less than a janitorís pay... This is the combination the rural child laborer has to break if he is to break into the world of education. The effects of this impoverished system of rural school life are beginning to be felt by our educational statesmen and to be met by the modernized departments."(15) Indeed, the rural one room school house faded and was replaced by the unified or consolidated school district more relevant to the needs of an industrial society.

Until the Industrial school system of the 20th century becomes web-based and meets the needs of society in the 21st century, boys will continue to be ill-served by schools. For example, boys may continue to do less well on achievement tests as the tests themselves become more obsolete. The SAT, for instance, was designed in 1901 for the newly industrialized schools and college entrance requirements. But the tests are based on the knowledge needs of the last century, not the current century. Just as we have a hard time passing a math test from the agrarian curriculum of 100 years ago, so technically and Internet oriented boys will find the industrial tests increasingly irrelevant to their learning needs. Here is a common math problem from schoolbooks of agrarian oriented schools of 100 years ago: "How many bushels of oats in a bin 12 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 8 feet deep?" (16) While few of us can answer that question today, it was an important, almost critical, knowledge skill for a society where more than half of the population resided and worked on the family farm. Internet oriented boys today are learning about the frame rate of video (35 frames per second) and other information vital to the information age, but found nowhere on todayís outdated achievement tests.

Is this a school or a factory? Todayís schools were designed to meet the needs of the Industrial 20th century and are now obsolete for the Information Age of the 21st century.

Adding to the problem of achievement in school is that boysí social skills, never on a par with those of girls, are also changing, or Ďworseningí by the standards of older generations. Julie Coates, an authority on generational learning styles, says that boys use certain terms and vocal behaviors which are misperceived as being disrespectful. She notes that many boys end their sentences on a high note, which is misinterpreted as being disrespectful by older adults. And certain language is also misinterpreted. A common phrase among boys, "Shut up," is a negative and disrespectful statement among adults, but has no such negative connotations among children. These changing mores and behaviors are not understood fully by adults and teachers.

F. Should boys go to college?
Only 35-40% of our nationís college students are men now, down from 50% in 1980 and an estimated 90% in the early parts of the 20th century. But should boys go to college now?

Our current educational system, including K-12 and higher education, was designed for the Industrial Age of the last century and does not prepare young men for the workforce today. By 2020 our educational system will be redesigned for the 21st century, just as it was redesigned in the first two decades of the 20th century for the industrial and office workplace.

But until then, some intelligent parents and educators are arguing that boys do not have to go to college to be successful, and that college is either unnecessary or can wait until later.

The new economy and technology needs of business are undoubtedly driving the opportunity for young men to go straight into the workforce.

There are an estimated 7 jobs for every 1 qualified candidate in the technology sector. The job shortage is so bad that the U.S. Congress recently passed legislation allowing up to 500,000 foreign workers to gain long term employment in the U.S., provided they are qualified to work in high tech fields.

Young men can get good paying jobs with only a short term computer or Internet certification course.

And college no longer offers the long term higher pay record it once had. True, college graduates earn more than high school graduates, but that is due to the declining wages being paid to semi-skilled high school graduates, reports New York Times education writer Richard Rothstein. High tech jobs pay the same or better than other jobs where a four year degree is required.

College also does not provide a supportive environment for many young men. Limited curricula in technology related subjects, professors ill-prepared to teach using the web, and the lack of 21st century relevant models are all too obvious. Colleges still donít "get it."  Thereís no question that college provides non-work education, and that it is a nice warehouse as boys mature emotionally and socially. But whether qualified boys should go to college or directly into the high tech work force, the debate continues. Meanwhile, boys are making their own decisions, and colleges are more likely the losers.

G. Why boys are into technology
Boys are demonstrably more competent with new technology than girls. In several different studies in several different countries, boys score much higher on computer subjects, as well as the related math and science subjects.

Boys are naturally more into new technology than girls. Dr. Judith Kleinfeld, a professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, in her groundbreaking article " The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls," provides the documentation on why this is so.(17)

She says boys have a greater variability in many human characteristics than do girls. So boys and girls have different bell shaped curves to describe their variability. Both curves have the same averages, she notes, but they have different peaks and slopes.

Girls have a much higher peaked curve than boys, putting girls much more in the middle or being similar in terms of human characteristics.

Boys, on the other hand, show a bell shaped curve with much more variability, according to Kleinfeld. Thus, at the leading edge of the curve one finds more boys than girls. Applied to technology, there are more boys than girls engaged in the new technology and the accompanying behavior required in the new economy of the Internet Age.

boy/girl bell curves
Different boy and girl bell curves show why boys are more on the cutting edge of technology, from "The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls" by Dr. Judith Kleinfeld

This can be demonstrated by the numbers of young men in technology related occupations.

To relate this to the 10,000 or more year span of human history, girls have more likely to have taken the role of the keeper of the cave, which meant establishing and keeping relationships and holding the family and society together. Without women, everything would fall apart. To keep things together, women are more likely to be able to make things go better, and are better at adapting and keeping others in harmony. That means as students they not only are better able to respond to teachersí expectations for behavior, but also cluster together on the characteristics curve that Kleinfeld cites. This also means there is less variability to the female curve, with fewer Ďstand-outsí at either end of the spectrum.

The male role over the last 10,000 years has more likely to have been the hunter and gatherer, going out of the cave and exploring new territory, trying new things, hunting, fighting and stealing. It is only Ďnaturalí (either biologically or socially acculturated) that boys would explore the new technology first.  Women are just as capable with technology, but do not explore new technology in the same ways as men nor at the same rate. For example, girls use the Internet just as much as boys, but they use it in different ways than boys. And they are less apt to fix, explore, hack, take apart, or put back together as are boys. Thus, there is a biological reason why boys learn differently than girls, accoring to neurological development expert Michael Gurian (18).

H. The solution
The solution is for schools to change and adjust to the new requirements of the Internet Age and the 21st century. This happened in the past, and will happen again.

Between 1900 - 1920 schools were totally redesigned to be relevant to the needs of the Industrial Age and the 20th century. Rural one room schoolhouses were abandoned. Unified school districts were created with large buildings resembling factories, including the bells that prepared students for the factory whistles that lay ahead. Students were age-graded to create conformity and the myth of the "normal" student was developed. Importantly, "industrial education" was brought into the curriculum, a central feature of Industrial Age education and preparation for the workforce.

Boys dropped out of school in huge numbers in the 1900-1920 period as soon as they were allowed by law. But after schools were redesigned, boys stayed in school after 1920 even after they surpassed the minimum age of schooling.

Today business leaders are calling upon schools to bring "technical education" into the curriculum. (19)
By 2020 schools will be redesigned to meet the requirements of the 21st century and to prepare students for the workforce of the Internet Age. Some of the changes include:

* Education will no longer be a place but an activity. Thus students will spend their day at home and at other places in the community as well as at school. The requirement that study and learning occur only in a particular single building labeled a school building will disappear as a relic of the factory-Industrial age.

*Schools will be web-based. Records of learning, monitoring of student progress, communication, dialogue and learning will be done on the Internet. The Internet will replace the school building as the "place where the school is."

* Face-to-face learning will occur daily and be a substantial part of a studentís interactions with other students and with teachers, but face-to-face learning will be more small group oriented and be facilitative of learning. The introduction of online learning, home study, and community learning will make it possible for teachers to have smaller face-to-face classes and spend more time and attention to helping students learn.
Schools have always replicated the structure of the larger society. Schools will change because they have to remain relevant.

Between now and then, teachers and school administrators can do the following:

  1. Reduce punishment of boys. Reduce or eliminate demerits, detention, and other punishment.

  2. Teachers should reduce and stop yelling at students, both boys and girls.

  3. Behavior should be separated from academic achievement. The assignment of grades often include behavior unrelated to learning.

  4. Teachers should learn from their own students about the Internet.

  5. Students should be allowed and encouraged to use computers and the Internet as often as they want.

  6. Online courses should be incorporated into the curriculum.

  7. Students should be allowed to study at home and have individual schedules which allow them to study at home during part of the traditional school day.

  8. Computers should begin moving out of "computer labs" and other isolated areas, and into the classroom.

Boys today are leading our societies into the Internet Age. They are developing the necessary skills for them to perform in the knowledge jobs they will be doing after their education. Todayís schools prepare students for an Industrial Age and for jobs in the factory, skills and jobs that are obsolete in advanced societies. By 2020 schools will be redesigned to meet the needs of the 21st century. Until then, schools will fail to meet the needs of boys as students.

William DravesAbout the Author
William A. Draves is President of the Learning Resources Network (LERN), an international education association with 4,000 members in 16 countries. LERN can be found at http://www.lern.org.

He is author of "Teaching Online" and "Learning OntheNet." Draves did his graduate work at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, receiving a Masters Degree in Education in 1976. He does consulting, teaching and writing about online learning, lifelong learning, and education. Online courses for teachers are available at http://www.TeachingOntheNet.org (for faculty in higher education) and http://www.K12OntheNet.org (for K-12 educators).

His email address is draves@lern.org and more information is available at http://www.WilliamDraves.com.

(1) University of Wisconsin-River Falls Graduation, December 2000.
(2) Degrees conferred by institutions of higher education, by level of degree and sex of student, 1949-50 to 1993-94, National Center for Education Statistics, Earned Degrees Conferred
(3) "Where the boys arenít," by Brendan I. Koerner, U.S. News, February 8, 1999.
(4) "Improving Boysí and Girlsí Academic Achievement," Conseil Superier de LíEducation, Government of Quebec, Canada
(5) The Trouble with Boys, The Guardian, August 21, 2000.
(6) The Education of Boys, Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Australian Government, August 2000
(7) The Education of Boys report.
(8) From The Education of Boys.
(9) Self-taught young techies donít see point of college, by Bob Weinstein, King Features Syndicate, February 2001.
(10) Wisconsin Public Schools radio advertisement, Fall 2000.
(11) Metropolitan Life Survey of The American Teacher 1997, as reported by Dr. Judith Kleinfeld in "The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls."
(12) The Americans, A Social History of the United States 1587-1914, J. C. Furnas, G.P. Putnamís, New York, 1969, pages 886-887.
(13) United States Congress, House Committee on the Judiciary, March 28, 1924. Child Labor, compiled by Julia E. Johnsen, HW Wilson Company, New York, 1924, page 145.
(14) G. Stanley Hall, President of Clarkson University, in The Home Teacher, The Chautauqua Industrial Art Desk, Lewis E. Myers and Company, 1903, page 120. G. Stanley Hall was called "Americaís Foremost Teacher" (The Standard Reference Work, 1920).
(15) Owen R. Lovejoy, National Child Labor Committee, in Child Labor.
(16) The Standard Educator, page 238, Welles Brothers Publishing Company, Minneapolis and Chicago, 1919.
(17) "The Myth That Schools ShortChange Girls: Social Science in the Service of Deception," Dr. Judith Kleinfeld, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, 1998.
(18) Boys and Girls Learn Differently! by Michael Gurian, Jossey-Bass, 2001.
(19) See, for example, "Education Leads Silicon Valley Wish List," The New York Times, January 22, 2001.