Student Achievement

Report Points to Widening Gap In Boys’ Educational Attainment

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 17, 2011 3 min read
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As the needs of global labor change and college readiness standards increase, American boys have been slower to adapt than girls, according to a report set to be released this morning.

Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, in Washington, has been arguing since the mid-1990s that American men are treading water economically as women gain ground. His latest report, Economic Change Effects on Men, presented at the Washington-based Boys Initiative meeting this morning, expands his workforce and higher education data to K-12 education.

Mortenson argues that teaching styles and discipline policies cause boys to disengage sooner than girls and drop out at higher rates. Among his findings:

• In 2010, 72.8 percent of children lived with a father, down from 88.8 percent in 1960, when these data were first reported.

• In 2010, 62.8 percent of young men who graduated from high school enrolled in college, up 7.6 percentage points from 1970, but far below the continuation rate for young women—74 percent in 2010, up 25.5 percentage points from 1970. “Each spring, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out its spring study on recent high school graduates, and I’ve been compiling that data since 1959,” Mortenson told me. “The gap between males and females is now greater than 10 percentage points, and it’s never been that wide before” favoring girls during his years of analysis.

• Boys ages 6 to 14 are more than twice as likely as girls to have a developmental disability and three times as likely to be diagnosed with mental retardation.

Mortenson told me he thinks school format is partly to blame, with greater focus on writing and test preparation and fewer opportunities for active projects. As he puts it: “Boys have to be doing something: Things have to be blowing up or being built or going really fast. If you ask them to sit down and write and read, more physically passive activities will turn off boys before they turn off girls.”

That requires a bit of a gut-check, I think, because active, engaging instruction (including the occasional explosion where appropriate) has been shown to be better for students of either gender, not just boys. For a few examples, take a look at my blog yesterday, or other perspectives here .

Yet I find it interesting that Mortenson also argues that educators and parents have not encouraged boys as much as girls to branch out from traditional gender stereotypes in careers. He recalled the experience of his own daughter, who favored reading and writing in elementary school, but who had a high school math teacher who refused to accept that she “wasn’t good at math.” She is now studying advanced statistics and quantitative analysis in college.

“My perception over the last 40 years is we’ve provided a lot of support and encouragement for girls to try and take on new things,” he said, “but I’ve also seen no special effort to encourage boys to take on different subjects.”

“A growing percentage of boys are not getting the education they need for the industries that are growing, like health and service sectors,” he added. “I’ve tried to say to boys, ‘If you want a good job, think about becoming a nurse’ ... but nobody ever introduces boys to entering these traditionally female occupations, and someone needs to do that.”

What do you think, readers? I know there are big pushes from high-profile organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science to encourage girls to enter math and science fields, but I admit I can’t bring to mind many programs specifically trying to get boys interested in careers where there are a dearth of men, like elementary education. Can anyone offer some suggestions?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.