We Need to Face Facts About Boys' Academic Struggles | Opinion

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from Kay Hymowitz's essay in City Journal, "Where The Boys Aren't."

As the slogan says, "the future is female." On college campuses, that future has arrived. Women are now 60 percent of college graduates. The fading male presence in higher education has ripple effects—including male underemployment, falling marriage rates, and family instability—that should prompt concerns about the country's social and economic future. Dig deeper into the issue, however, and you'll discover that focusing on college, as many do, misses a big part of the problem. In fact, the education gender gap favoring girls goes all the way back through the education pipeline.

Trying to analyze this gender gap lands one in the middle of a red-hot culture war zones: the conflict over sex and gender identity. A powerful group of activists, educators, and academics seeks to dismantle—or at least, blur—the sex binary. But there's no way to help boys, or to alleviate the societal woes that follow from their struggling school performance, without directly confronting the fact that they develop differently from girls. The boy problem isn't going away, whatever pronouns kids want to use.

Consider some specifics. Boys get lower grades than girls throughout their primary and secondary school years. They have more behavior problems. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder; to wind up in special-education classes; and to be held back, be suspended, or drop out. Hence, they're less likely to graduate from high school. Data indicate that socioeconomic advantage improves boys' performance relative to girls, just as disadvantage, whether racial or economic, worsens it. But the puzzle remains: rich boys remain in the shadows of their female siblings just as poor boys trail behind their sisters.

A good place to start digging into the gender gap is reading. Deciphering and understanding texts are crucial skills for any knowledge-economy work, including in STEM fields. A widely cited study by Esteban Aucejo and Jonathan James discovered that verbal skills are a much better predictor of college attendance than math skills. Girls' superiority in "language arts" is the largest and most persistent finding in all the gender-gap data relevant to school performance. In teacher–student assessments in the early grades, the girl–boy gap in reading is more than 300 percent larger than the white–black reading gap.

Girls also get a boost from stronger "soft" or "noncognitive" skills. Teachers know firsthand that male–female differences in sitting still, paying attention, and waiting to be called on are not mere generalizations. Boys tend to be less organized, a quality that most parents who have had the misfortune to peer into their sons' backpacks can attest to. A number of studies support the idea that girls have superior self-control when they begin school, and even gain on boys over time.

What about math? Boys of all racial and ethnic groups outperform girls on standardized math tests like the NAEP and the SAT, and their advantage is particularly strong in subjects like calculus and physics. However, boys' math scores exhibit what psychologists call the "male variability hypothesis." On a range of abilities (IQ tests included), interests, and personality traits, no mean difference exists between the sexes, but male scores range disproportionately widely, from very high to very low.

Since 2005, as many girls as boys have been taking AP chemistry, statistics, microeconomics, and calculus, and they earn higher grades in math class—not just in the United States but in a cross-section of 30 countries. The apparent discrepancy makes sense if we consider girls' self-discipline and work habits. Because they work harder and better, they surpass boys in situations where studying and applying learned concepts to new material offers an edge.

Arizona social studies classroom
A student is learning teaching skills with the teacher Alexxa Martinez, in her classroom in Nevitt Elementary School, in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 26, 2022. Olivier TOURON / AFP/Getty Images

Over the past decades, the prevailing assumption among social scientists and the journalists who report their findings has been that any innate cognitive and behavioral differences between the sexes are so small as to be inconsequential. Male and female identity, in their view, is a purely social, and largely arbitrary, construction. Many of the most widely quoted social scientists studying boys' academic status rely on gender theory as a starting premise. If boys are falling behind, it must be because of "the messages [they] receive about how to be masculine," as one New York Times article puts it.

But there's reason to consider a more biological explanation for boys' disadvantage. Signs of boys' relative verbal and social delay show up long before ideas about masculinity could infect their minds. On average, girls start talking earlier than boys. At 16 months, girls have a vocabulary of 95 words, while boys' vocabulary is, on average, only 25. At 12 months, boys don't make as much eye contact as girls do, and they're not as proficient at imitating gestures. As they grow older, boys are at greater risk of developing dyslexia, stuttering, and autism.

Though neuroscience was once committed to the notion of the androgynous brain, the discipline has, in recent decades, piled up countless examples of male–female differences. This research supports the conclusion that while brain anatomy in the sexes is very similar, sex hormones and chromosomes affect cognitive development. Most suggestively, researchers have found that girls' brains establish connections and "prune" unused brain circuitry earlier and faster than boys' brains, and therefore work more efficiently.

Neuro-imaging is not yet refined enough to detect all differences in brain circuitry or the interplay between the brain's various structures, much less explain the significance of the sex differences that researchers see in the images. More generally, we don't know just how much the environment shapes gene expression. What we can safely say is that the old-fashioned notion that boys mature more slowly than girls is a credible hypothesis.

Delaying kindergarten for children with later birthdays—a practice called redshirting, which is more common with boys—has given researchers a useful natural experiment to explore the theory further. Older students, it unsurprisingly turns out, are generally more self-regulated—more mature—than younger ones. Some studies have found that a one-year delay in the start of school reduces a student's likelihood of an ADHD diagnosis and drug treatment.

The long-term effects of redshirting remain unclear. One paper finds that redshirting reduces the overall gender-achievement gap by 11 points, but other studies note that older students are more at risk of dropping out of high school. On the other hand, there's no evidence that putting off academics until children are a bit older damages kids' long-term achievement.

The stakes for resolving the tension between classroom discipline and boys' temperament are higher than ever. In advanced economies, education and literacy are not optional, and a society with far more educated women than men is bound to suffer pernicious social and economic fallout. Recognizing that boys mature more slowly than girls and are thus less suited to early academic training would be a good start to addressing the problem—and would offer the extra potential benefit of reducing callous talk of boys' purported toxic masculinity.

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.