How schools need to change to help young men

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In a recent New York Times essay, “It’s getting harder and harder for them to feel good about themselves,” Thomas Edsall reviews a variety of research studies highlighting the plight of young men in the United States. As a frontline educator who worked in boys ‘schools for 30 years and ran a boys’ school for 20 years, I was an unfortunate witness to this dilemma.

The data supports the claim that boys lag behind, and dramatically. For example, there is a growing gender gap in high school graduation rates. According to the Brooking Institution, in 2018, about 88% of girls graduated on time, compared to 82% of boys.

For university enrollments, the gender gap is even more striking, with men now trailing women in higher education at record levels. Last year, women made up 60% of students while men made up only 40%, according to statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse. College enrollment in the United States has declined by 1.5 million students over the past five years, with men accounting for 71% of the decline.

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The circumstances affecting these outcomes begin much earlier in life, during a boy’s formative years. A 2013 study highlights family structure as a driver of boys’ behavior and reported that in eighth grade, for children raised by single mothers, the school dropout rate is 25% higher for boys than for girls.

That’s not to say that there aren’t legions of single moms doing a fantastic job raising their children. But, undeniably, there is a “no daddy” crisis in our country.

According to the US Census Bureau, 18.3 million children, or 1 in 4, live without a biological father, by marriage or adoptive at home.

There is also a lack of male role models in our schools. In 2018, only 24% of all K-12 teachers were male, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The structure and climate of our schools are equally important influencing factors in the academic success of young men. A big study of 2015, which collected data from nearly 5,000 subjects, concluded that school environments may be more suitable for female personalities, which generally results in better grades for girls in school.

Boys face more discipline

A American Sociological Association Report 2016 found that how teachers react to boys’ behaviors plays an important role in shaping their academic performance years later. The study found that elementary school boys were much more exposed to negative school environments than girls. And in high school, boys reported significantly higher repetition rates and lower academic expectations.

Since boys are more likely to be restrained and punished, it’s easy to see why teachers can approach male students with certain unconscious biases, which can lead to self-fulfilling results.

Imagine being bombarded with a constant refrain of “Be careful. Stop fussing. Don’t touch that! Yet this is what many of our boys experience in school every day.

I am not suggesting that the structure of the school should be relaxed. A structured learning environment is very important for boys, but this can be achieved using teaching techniques that work especially well for boys.

Arts and crafts class while thinking of boys

We know that boys benefit from the introduction of lessons through dramatic entry points that grab their attention. We know that boys are kinesthetic learners who benefit from hands-on activities where they learn through touch, exploration and manipulation.

The lack of these opportunities during the pandemic, when so many students were learning online, had a huge impact on academic advancement, especially for boys.

In boys-only schools and classrooms, where teachers focus on boys’ unique social, emotional and learning needs, young men thrive. But I am not launching a rallying cry to nationalize single-sex education.

Boys and girls schools work well for some students and not so well for others. It is common sense to explore different education options for your child.

What I am saying is that in almost any school setting there is room to improve our practices to ensure that boys are not unintentionally marginalized or excluded. Working to make our classrooms more boy-friendly is an important step in addressing the crisis young men face in our country.

Christopher Brueningsen has been a private school educator for 30 years and since 2002, principal of The Kiski School, a boys’ boarding school near Pittsburgh, Penn.


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