Boys in the Education System

Women’s educational advancements in the United States during last century have been nothing short of revolutionary. As recently as the 1930s, debates on the benefits and the drawbacks of co-educational elementary and secondary schools raged nationally. Supporters of single-sex schools argued these schools would be safe and nurturing environments for girls, sheltering them from interactions with the opposite sex while still allowing them to pursue their education. The problem with such arguments was that these all-girl schools frequently did not adhere to the same level of academic rigor found in boys schools. Girls schools often had curriculums focused on home education – including sewing, cooking, and child rearing. Home-Ec was also the most popular major among collegiate women. This structure began to change during the 1940s when strain on national resources created a need for a more effective workforce. To that end, most schools at the elementary and secondary level began to integrate and held increasingly stringent national achievement standards.

This transition did not immediately change the structure of high-end secondary and collegiate institutions. Famous college-preparatory schools such as Andover and Exeter remained male-only until the early 70s. Most of the Ivies did not change until that time as well – Dartmouth specifically only officially admitting women in 1972.

Despite their increasingly liberal agendas these institutions – Dartmouth especially – still look back at the era before gender integration with great nostalgia. There are very valid reasons for doing so. In generations past, schools like Dartmouth were more of a birthright – passed from father to son – than a prize to be earned by the most ambitious students. Gender integration on the collegiate level has contributed greatly to the cut-throat college admissions process that exists today. The fact that the application pool has doubled in size due to the addition of women is only a tiny part of this problem – it has origins long before students begin their Common Application.

In 1965, Lyndon B Johnson’s administration pushed “The Elementary and Secondary Education Act” through Congress. This act was part of Johnson’s war on poverty and was intended to create “equal access to education” and “establish high standards and accountability.” Though Johnson’s attempts to end poverty in America were ineffective, this act played a key role in shaping the present-day American education system, centering the system around long and grueling national tests. This means that students who can sit quietly and focus for long periods of time are rewarded within the system. Such students, particularly at the elementary level, are overwhelmingly girls.

The saying “boys can’t sit still” has more truth to it than even the most seasoned elementary-school teacher might know. William Pollack, director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School commented to ABC news, “in general young boys in kindergarten and first grade are not able to behave as well as girls due to biological and social differences.” This persists well through middle school and often into high school. Kathy Stevens, co-author of “The Minds of Boys” and director of training at the Michael Gurian Educational Institute, believes that these differences may stem from the 15% more spinal fluid that young boys have than young girls, stimulating a greater connection between their brain and their nervous system. Such a connection might explain why boys do not learn or test well when forced to sit still and be quiet for long periods of time. Regardless of the science behind this phenomenon, its existence can be corroborated by anyone who has spent time in an elementary school and seen young boys either categorically uninterested in their classes or being reprimanded for their rowdy behavior.

Complaints from both parents and teachers alike to the Board of Education have been numerous. The present system not only create a learning environment that is difficult for boys – it also punishes behavior they cannot control. More often than not the forms of punishment used only exacerbate the original behavior. It is common practice in elementary schools to punish “disruptive” boys by making them sit alone and quiet through recess or lunch. Experts find this method appalling. It only makes the boys more eager to behave badly in the classroom because they feel so pent up. This also contributes to the dynamic in early education where girls love school but boys loathe it.

To a degree this attitude has changed by high-school. Young men are then much more capable of sitting quietly and completing work. However, the way the US school system is setup, children are placed in “ gifted”  or “advanced”  tracks as early as first and second grade.  By the time boys arrive in high school, they are often already so far behind their female classmates academically that it is impossible for them to catch up.

This is especially problematic given that College admissions offices judge students based on work done starting in grade nine. At that time many boys are only thirteen years old and are still struggling with attention span and learning issues that plagued them in primary school. This is reflected in the demographics of higher education. Even accounting for technical schools, such as a MIT or Georgia Tech, which remain male-dominated, women still make up 55% of all students enrolled in college. At some schools, such as Boston University, this number is well over 60%. Competitive liberal arts schools, like Dartmouth, have to work hard to keep their class equally proportioned between men and women. There is much talk about how it is now more difficult to be admitted at the most selective schools as a female than as a male.  Those who will praise affirmative action often condemn this kind of gender-balancing all in the same breath. They are wrong to do so. Not only is this one of the few checks on a system that is stacked against boys, but also colleges with an even gender ratio are seen as more appealing by both men and women. This factors into many of the national rankings – flawed as they are – and is extremely influential on application numbers.

Furthermore, even with preferential treatment in the college admissions process, boys are still required to meet the same general standard of academic achievement as female applicants. In order to help their sons meet these standards, parents with the financial means frequently seek medical help to keep their children competitive. School-aged boys today are being diagnosed with ADD and ADHD at absolutely alarming, frankly impossible, rates. Today over 20% of all boys in US high schools have been diagnosed with some form of ADD or ADHD. This number is even more pronounced in competitive high schools and is a 37% increase from 2003 alone. Most of these young men are put on medication to “manage their condition and help them focus.” These drugs, such as Ritalin and Adderall, have become household names in the United States. Both of these medications, along with new favorites on the market – Vyvanse and Concerta – are classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as Schedule II drugs. That means that these drugs have “ a high potential for abuse” with “use potentially leading to severe psychological and physical dependence.” This susceptibility to addiction also comes with a whole host of negative side effects including hormonal imbalances, severe mood swings, aggression, depression and suicidal tendencies. Boys are put on the meds none the less. As psychiatrist and author, Ned Hallo-well, puts it: “we are pathologizing boyhood.”

These issues of stimulant drug abuse are rampant in colleges like Dartmouth where young men became dependent on these drugs during their earlier education in order to compete in a system structured against them. Drugs have become a means by which wealthy, educated parents advance their son’s educational careers. The very clear and alarming problems with this system beg the question: do other countries do it better?

Americans often fetishize the European vocational education system where students are placed on tracks early-on during their high school career determining whether they will attend trade-school or a university. Thanks to this program, countries such as Germany do an excellent job maintaining the exact number of electricians, plumbers, and other skilled tradesman that the country requires. At the same time collegiate education is much cheaper and largely publicly-funded because only a small portion of the population attends college. The US, on the other hand, has a chronic shortage of skilled tradesmen but an abundance of college graduates with massive debt and no job prospects. The vocational system seems like an easy fix; however, this system would only do a greater disservice to young American boys than the current one.

The test given in European countries to determine career aptitude and place kids on a career tracks is often administered around age 13. At this point, boys still lag considerably behind girls in academic arenas. If this system were to be  implemented in the United States it would likely result in a disproportional amount of boys in trade-school while girls attend college. Only the wealthy escape this system. Well-heeled Europeans and Brits routinely send their sons to private schools where they are funneled into college regardless of their performance on the national aptitude test. In England particularly, these private schools are frequently single-sex, and therefore give young men who have been disenfranchised by an educational system that favors girls the opportunity to succeed. This is certainly a wonderful thing for the young men whose families can afford the staggering tuition at schools such as Eton or Harrow, but the kind of permanent educated elite that this system creates runs counter to American values.

If we as Americans really believe that “education is the great equalizer,” then all members of our society should be granted the equal opportunity for success: not just our girls and not just the sons of the wealthy. This must begin in elementary school, where teachers desperately need to be educated on the physiological differences between boys and girls and how that informs their learning. Furthermore, boys must be afforded spaces where they can just be boys. The sanctity of all-boys schools, sports teams, and community organizations must be protected. This is not done at the expense girls; in this day and age it is almost unfathomable that all-boys organizations are a detriment to girls given the proliferation organizations that exist for the sole purpose of advancing and mentoring of young women. Progressives who yearn for a genderless, sanitized society need to develop serious compassion for their own sons, and recognize that you cannot beat a boy into being a girl, regardless of how many textbooks you use.

  • na

    I’m a girl, but I went through the whole ADHD thing, on top of tourettes and so on. I was unbelievably hyper as a kid. I was on all those meds too. I teachers that had a problem with me, couldn’t pay attention in class, etc. I still made it through to my master’s. I’m not done yet. What actually needs to happen is that we need to stop acting like boys just inherently learn differently. It would be a little more believable if our education system hadn’t been tailor made for them since basically the dawn of civilization. And now all of a sudden the deck is stacked against them because girls are actually proving to be good at academics and they’re no longer winning by default. Most of the problems I saw were by and large behavioral. When you’re busy pulling kid’s hair and throwing paper balls at the teacher, you’re not going to do very well. That’s not ADHD. That’s a kid with parents who aren’t bothering to teach him how not to act like an idiot.