Boys Are Falling Behind. What Can We Do About It?
Boys are underperforming in school, harming their future job prospects and potential for economic mobility. A new book argues it’s the system that needs fixing, not boys.
Boys and men aren’t doing well. Once ahead by nearly every measure, today they’re underperforming in school, dwindling as a percentage of college matriculants, and rapidly losing ground in the workplace. While the lives of women have markedly improved in recent decades, the outlook for boys and men—especially Black boys and boys from disadvantaged backgrounds—is increasingly alarming.
It’s a problem that Richard Reeves has been thinking about for 25 years. “I knew some of the headlines about boys struggling at school and on campus, men losing ground in the labor market, and fathers losing touch with their children. I thought that perhaps some of these were exaggerated. But the closer I looked, the bleaker the picture became,” writes Reeves, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.
Today, the gender gap in college degree attainment is wider than it was in the early 1970s—“but in the opposite direction,” Reeves notes. While “men at the top” continue to flourish, and women’s wages have risen substantially, wages for most men are lower today than they were in 1979. “One in five fathers are not living with their children,” he writes, and “men account for almost three out of four ‘deaths of despair,’ either from a suicide or an overdose.”
And yet it’s not boys who need fixing, Reeves argues. It’s the social institutions and systems—including schools—that must adjust because they no longer work well for many boys. “It became clear to me that the problems of boys and men are structural in nature but are rarely treated as such,” Reeves writes. “My main message here is that there are stark gender gaps at every stage, and all around the world, many of which continue to widen. But policy makers, like deer in headlights, have yet to respond.”
I recently spoke with Reeves about the book and about boys, not only generally but about our boys—my three teenage boys and Reeves’s three, who are now young men. His insights reflect not only years of scholarship and research but real-life experience as a parent of boys.
Holly Korbey: Let’s lay out the scope of the problem: Today’s men and boys are really struggling, and on quite a few fronts. Can you describe what’s happening to boys?
Richard Reeves: The basic story is that on pretty much every measure, on every level of the system, boys are now lagging behind girls, and men behind women. That’s true in nearly every advanced economy.
In 1972, when Title IX was passed (protecting people from gender discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance), men were about 13 percentage points more likely to be getting a four-year college degree. Today, women are about 15 percentage points more likely to get a four-year college degree. So the gender gap in higher education is bigger today than when Title IX was passed—just the other way around.
In the typical school district in the U.S., girls are now almost a grade level ahead in English. They’ve caught up in math. In poor school districts, they’re a grade level ahead in English and they’re ahead in math. The top 10 percent of GPA scores, two-thirds of them are girls. In the bottom 10 percent, two-thirds of them are boys.
And there are very big gaps in terms of things like school exclusion and suspension. But one stat that really made me stop in my tracks is that 23 percent of boys in K–12 have been diagnosed with some kind of developmental disability—that’s one in four boys.
You really have to ask at this point whether it’s the system that’s failing, rather than the boys who are failing within the system.
Korbey: Why is this happening now? It’s not like boys and men have always struggled—as you point out in the book, men dominated for a long time. What’s changed, and why should we pay attention, considering how long men have had the upper hand?
Reeves: The education system is structured in ways that favor girls and women, on average. To some extent it always was, but we couldn’t see it, because we had these [other societal] brakes on women’s aspirations and opportunities. It didn’t really matter if girls were better if they weren’t going to college. As soon as we took off the brakes, they blew right past.
We’ve done a pretty good job of leveling the playing field, and the result exposes the fact that on this field, girls are better players. They’re more advanced, their brains develop earlier, they’ve got more of the skills that our education system rewards. Even saying that out loud sounds weird, given the history. But I can’t look at the results and see it any other way.
Korbey: A lot of what’s going wrong for boys and men seems to begin in school and is carried through K–12 into higher education. How are boys and young men struggling in K–12?
Reeves: The boys who are really struggling in the education system are those in poorer areas from working-class backgrounds, and above all, Black boys and men. The education system isn’t serving Black girls very well, either. But by comparison to Black boys, girls are doing much better.
What you see is a combination of behavioral difficulties which often lead to these disability diagnoses, which are much more prevalent for boys. You’ll see much higher rates of suspension and exclusion. And boys are struggling with the noncognitive skills: They don’t turn in homework, because they didn’t know there was homework, because it’s harder for them to be future-oriented, etc.
Interestingly, on standardized tests, things like the SAT and ACT, you don’t see much of a gender gap. It’s important to show that there’s no evidence of an intelligence gap.
Korbey: It sometimes feels like today’s schooling, which is language and reading heavy, often with limited recess or hands-on activity, is tough for a lot of boys. What is it about the school environment, or how we structure school, that’s not working for many boys?
Reeves: I think it starts when the first bell rings: the fact that we start school, especially high school, so early in the day. That’s bad for girls too, but it looks like it might be even worse for boys. So I think starting school later is a good idea.
Then there’s the need for more frequent breaks, which does seem to break [down] by gender. There is pretty good evidence that boys find it harder than girls to sit still, to focus. I know I did. I was put in a remedial English class because I just couldn’t focus. Today, I would be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Moving around more is important. We’ve downgraded phys ed and regular movement, regular breaks: Students are flesh and blood, they’re not brains on a stick. Girls will benefit from that too, of course.
Korbey: One of your proposed solutions is to “redshirt” every boy in America—to hold them back a year before they start kindergarten so they’re a year older than all the girls. How did you arrive at this idea, and why do you think this intervention might help?
Reeves: Girls are 14 percentage points more likely to be school-ready at age 5 compared to boys. That’s bigger than any other gap, bigger than the race gap.
The harder I looked at the differences in development, particularly around the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps you get your act together, girls are just ahead there. They develop that bit of the brain about a year earlier than boys; some people say it’s more like two. Anybody who spends time with a group of 15-year-old boys and 15-year-old girls knows what I’m talking about. It’s not just a physical thing—the girls are young women, effectively, and the boys are still boys.
So you would have 15-year-old boys in class with 14-year-old girls, but developmentally they’d be closer, so actually it creates a more level playing field. And I think that would help to close this developmental gap, which, in turn, is one of the drivers of educational outcomes. The boys start behind and never catch up. And that’s because there’s a brain development gap.
Korbey: I have to admit, I’m skeptical—two of my sons are the youngest in their classes and are doing very well! My thought is that this is a one-size-fits-all solution that may not be right for all kids, and it could possibly make many boys feel they’re not up to the task in the same way their female counterparts are. In reactions to your book, the idea of redshirting all boys has met with some criticism—do you think some of those critiques have merit?
Reeves: I think it’s very much something worthy of discussion, and there are reasons to be skeptical. If President Biden were to call me up and say, ‘I’m going to try and pass a law [to redshirt all boys],’ I’d say no, no, let’s try it at a small scale, pilot it. There are costs associated with it—costs of finishing a year later, costs of extra childcare, potentially there’s the stigma that you mentioned.
Yet I think the benefits would be significant enough to outweigh the costs, based on my reading of the literature. But the literature is not well developed yet, so my answer would be: Let’s try it.
I think that the single biggest argument against it is that many boys don’t need the extra year.
But the development gap I’m worried about isn’t measurable at age 5; it is measurable at 15—but that’s much harder to predict. So the reason I want to start boys later is not so that they’re older in kindergarten, it’s so they’re older in sophomore or junior year of high school. And if you do it early enough, the stigma problems will not be as great. It seems weird now, but I can imagine a world where we get used to [redshirting all boys].
The last thing I’ll say is that for the boys I'm most worried about, they actually very often end up doing an extra year of school anyway. One in four Black boys have repeated a year of school by the time they finish high school. We have a lot of boys who are held back anyway, or who just fail out of the education system. If they’re failing out, is that better than giving them a head start?
Korbey: Another one of your proposed solutions has to do with career and technical education (CTE). We continue to struggle to gain traction in American CTE programs. What is it about CTE that would help some boys succeed better than in the traditional college track?
Reeves: The honest answer is, we don't know why [CTE helps boys succeed]. We do know that more investment in vocational training and education seem to particularly help boys and men.
In the book, I call for the creation of 1,000 new technical high schools with federal subsidies. We could double the number of students who had access to a technical high school. There’s very little doubt that greater investments in more vocational, applied CTE-type learning would disproportionately help boys.
Korbey: Another factor at play, you say, is the lack of male K–12 educators. How can we attract more men to teaching jobs?
Reeves: The K–12 teaching profession now is 24 percent male, and only one in 10 elementary school teachers are male. In kindergarten and early years, about 3 percent of educators are male.
There are twice as many women flying U.S. military planes, as a share of the profession, than men teaching in classrooms. But interestingly, what’s happening in the U.S. military is that they’re redesigning the planes to be much more inclusive—the seats and the cockpits were designed for six-foot-tall men, so they’re redesigning them.
What’s the equivalent that we’re doing to redesign the education system to get more men into it? I don’t see us redesigning teacher training. I don’t see us offering scholarships to men. I don’t see any of that happening. We’re just sitting on our hands.
English is a subject where boys seem to benefit really strongly from having a male teacher, yet we have the fewest men in the very subject where I think we would see the most benefit for boys. How about some scholarships to get men to be English teachers? We’ve had scholarships to get women into STEM subjects for decades. And I fully support that—it’s a great idea because we’re trying to make it easier to go against the grain.
Korbey: You write that the solution for helping boys and men “is not to go backward—back to the time of boys getting prioritized in education over girls, or to a wealth of hands-on manufacturing jobs—but instead to help men adapt to the present reality.”
In order to help more boys and men thrive, what role should K–12 schools play in this reimagining of manhood in the 21st century?
Reeves: Have an environment and a culture that recognizes the current reality: Across the board, boys are the ones who are struggling most in our education system.
We’ve replaced an education system where male superiority was taken for granted with a new—and incredibly empowering—script for girls and women. It’s one of educational success, economic independence, and of strong messages of “You go, girl!” and “Girl power!” And I love all that. But where are the equivalent messages for boys?
If we don’t act quickly, my fear is that the very idea of educational success will start to be seen as female. The very idea of loving school, loving English class, loving metaphysical poetry in the way that I did—my English teacher was a Korean War vet, and he taught me how to love John Donne. He would have us in tears reading metaphysical poetry. And that made me feel like it’s great to love words, and love poetry, and love English.
At the same time, don’t be too quick to label as toxic, or somehow pathological, behavioral traits more commonly found in boys or men: If boys need to run around, be more physical, be more competitive, or take more risks, that means that something’s wrong with them. We can’t have educational institutions use a feminine standard against which to judge all students, because by definition that will be bad for the boys.
Be sure that we’re not putting the brakes on empowerment for women and girls—but let’s have equally empowering, strong, and positive messages in our schools and classrooms for boys and men.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.