A recent New York Times op-ed examined the disparity between math scores for boys and girls on average across thousands of American schools. The story begins by noting that “The stereotype that boys do better than girls at math isn’t true.” It goes on to highlight the exception to that rule, which are boys in rich, white suburban school districts.
While the story focused on the gap in achievement between boys and girls in math, what the story did not expand on was the significant gap in reading achievement. Despite having a graphic showing the major disparity between boys and girls in this regard (almost a full year level difference, on average), the New York Times article did not explore this. It is reflective of a media narrative which downplays the widening gap between boys and girls in terms of educational achievement, especially in regards to literacy skills.
These findings have significant implications for schools. Higher education is more important than ever before for future prospects. The extent of the gap is examined in a recent article in The Atlantic. For decades, women have been graduating college at higher rates than men. However, the caveat to this has been that this has mostly been among wealthy families. In recent years, working class women have also attained college degrees at a higher rate than men. As traditional working-class jobs and trades fall by the wayside, this gap is likely only to become more pronounced. Yet, it appears that boys are often being forgotten about. How has this issue arisen, and how might this problem be alleviated?
One of the contributing factors may be the lack of male teachers, particularly at the primary school level. In Australia, for instance, recent research has shown that only one in 10 teachers at this level is male. At the secondary school level, the ratio is not much better. There has been significant research done showing that male role models in the classroom can have a positive effect on boys’ self-efficacy in learning. In many instances, boys will go through the school system for years without having a single male teacher. With a lack of positive male role models for boys to look up to in the school system, boys often disengage from the learning process. According to data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey (ECLS), 67% of girls in eighth grade enjoy school, compared to only 59% of boys.
This is particularly important when considering things such as reading scores, where boys find themselves falling particularly far behind in comparison to girls. A contributing factor to this are the gender stereotypes many teachers hold about boys and girls in relation to reading ability. Often, it is assumed that girls are better at reading than boys Expectance-value theory posits that as a result of these stereotypes, attitudes towards boys and girls by teachers are influenced. This impacts the self-efficacy of those students. In some cases, boys are graded down because of these biases from teachers, even though boys generally scored similar marks to girls on standardised tests.
Following on from this, there are differences between how boys and girls learn which are sometimes overlooked by the education system. One of the differences that may account for the difference in outcomes, at least at the primary and lower secondary levels is the difference in the rate of cognitive development. Skills directly related to school achievement such as social and behavioural skills, as well as skills or organisation and planning, develop earlier in girls than in boys. Many courses are not designed with these factors in mind, which results in boys disproportionately being ‘left behind’ at this level compared to girls. Certain proposed solutions to this problem, such as alternative ‘learning styles’ or emphasising the use of engaging ICT, have not worked out. The scientific, evidence-based case for these solutions are dubious at best, while being costly to roll out (Reichert, 2016). What has proven to work is a pedagogy which acknowledges and works with the unique traits boys bring to the classroom environment, and taking advantage of these to produce the best possibly academic results. The adjustments made between teaching boys and girls are often subtle yet crucial. Previous efforts to bridge the gap between girls and boys have utilised pedagogical approaches which account for the unique ways girls tend to learn. Schools can, through a similar focus on pedagogy and school structure do likewise for boys.
While some efforts have been made to address parts of the problem, such as a lack of male teachers, far less focus has been placed on this issue than the achievement and participation gap for girls, especially in STEM subjects. Part of the issue, some researchers posit, is because the issue is framed in zero-sum terms. If attention is paid to boys’ issues in the classroom, it is often assumed this must be at the expense of girls. However, there is no reason why this has to be the case.
While the importance of increasing the presence of male teachers in the education system has been recognised, recruiting and retaining teachers has proven to be significantly harder. One of the key reasons for this, particularly at the primary level is the relative lack of pay. The median salary for an elementary school teacher in the United States was $43,737. Compared to other industries with similar qualification requirements, the pay in education generally does not compare favourably. There are also cultural issues about the profession which keep men away. The stigma of teaching being a women’s profession plays a significant role in keeping men from becoming teachers. As the gender disparity among teachers becomes more pronounced, the issue will only become harder to rectify.
What is clear is that the gap in achievement is growing more pronounced each year, and the present response has not been sufficient. The problem is multi-faceted and has been developing for a while. Similarly, any solution to bridge the gap in education outcomes between boys and girls requires a multi-faceted approach. Teacher pedagogy has a central role to play in solving the issue. Acknowledging the unique ways in which boys learn in contrast to girls and adjusting teaching strategies accordingly is essential. There are also broader structural and cultural issues within schools which must be acknowledged, such as the crisis of male teacher recruitment and retainment. Finally, teaching must become a more enticing profession for men to enter, and the profession in general needs to be valued more highly by society, both in terms of increased salaries and prestige.
 Scheiber, C., Reynolds, M. R., Hajovsky, D. B., & Kaufman, A. S. (2015). Gender differences in achievement in a large, nationally representative sample of children and adolescents. Psychology in the Schools, 52(4), 335-348.
 Reichert, M. C. (2016). Unlocking Boys’ Potential. Educational Leadership, 74(1), 22-26.
 Retelsdorf, J., Schwartz, K., & Asbrock, F. (2015). “Michael can’t read!” Teachers’ gender stereotypes and boys’ reading self-concept. Journal of educational psychology, 107(1), 186.