Why boys fail in school

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Are schools and the way we teach anathema to boys? Do standardized tests distort the true reflection of boys’ abilities? Does peer pressure sap motivation? Do social norms around masculinity have an impact on boys’ interaction with the school environment? Are we elevating emotions as more important than risk taking and physical strength?

Garth Stahl, a social theorist in education at the University of Queensland, says there is no single or simple explanation. He leans towards four main explanations: the socialization of childhood; peer pressure; school culture and relationships with educators.

“Many boys don’t find literacy-based practices particularly engaging,” says Dr. Stahl. “Even very capable boys can be reluctant.”

Catherine Driscoll, professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney agrees, particularly with the socialization argument.

“It’s about expectations people have of boys when they walk into a classroom – what is considered boyish and what isn’t and how those expectations shape experiences in class,” says Professor Driscoll.

“When a boy walks into a classroom, he doesn’t come in as a neutral body, he comes in as a boy and with a mixture of expectations that he and his family bring with them and his teacher, who is usually a woman, also brings in. Social psychology shows that these expectations have a huge role to play in shaping what happens in those early years.

Are boys wired differently?

Educators agree that there are biological factors at play. As parents preparing to send their children to prep or kindergarten will tell you, boys mature later than girls. Increasingly, in a phenomenon known as redshirting, boys are restrained until the age of six – a year older – sometimes longer – than their classmates.

The delayed maturity of boys is a fact supported by neuroscience. A study from Newcastle University is just one of a long list of studies that have found that in girls’ brains, the process of synaptic pruning ends between the ages of 10 and 15. In boys, however, the process only stops between the ages of 20 and 21.

Damon Thomas, a former teacher and lecturer in literacy at the University of Queensland, says that even before they start school, girls have a maturity advantage. And then what’s called the Matthew Effect kicks in – the gap widens over time.

By the time they reach Grade 3, boys are already four months behind girls in reading and eight months behind in writing. By grade nine, months have turned into years, which is further exacerbated by poverty and disadvantage.

There is a well-established and oft-cited link between education and personal wealth. In Australia, a person with a postgraduate degree is estimated to have accumulated three times the assets of a person whose highest level of education is grade 11 or less.

People with a postgraduate degree are much more likely to own stocks and have larger retirement accounts than others, while having more diversified sources of income. While those who complete their education before the end of grade 12 hold around 30% of their financial assets in bank accounts, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

No alternative

One theory for why girls do better than boys in school is that they don’t have many alternatives. Structural adjustments to the economy in the 1970s and 1980s saw menial, unskilled jobs for women – secretaries, stenographers – largely disappear.

At the same time, feminized professions such as teaching, nursing and social work have become more professional and now require diplomas. Women, in this scenario, make rational decisions to do well in school and go to college because there is no fallback position.

It’s definitely saved in the data. A Curtin University study found that women with a vocational qualification earned half of those with a postgraduate degree and that there was little difference in earnings between holding a vocational qualification and just finishing year 12. Men with a vocational qualification or business certificate earned twice that of women with a VET qualification.

This indicates that boys have trades and a host of other jobs that pay better than typically female jobs and do not require degrees.

A study conducted among 16-year-olds in 2016 confirms this. Asked about their intentions after school, 55% of girls said they wanted to go to university, while only 46% of boys had the same aspirations.

However, over 15% of boys said they would take vocational training, including 10% who said they wanted to take up an apprenticeship. Only 2% of girls were considering an apprenticeship.

Youth retirement villages

Women make up 60% of all university graduates. Only five Australian universities – University of NSW, University of Technology Sydney, Western Australia, Swinburne and Adelaide – have more male enrollment than female. Even within these outliers, the difference is only 300 enrollments at UWA versus 4,500 at UNSW (out of a total of 63,000).

On the other hand, at Australian Catholic University and Notre Dame, women outnumber men by three times, while the country is dotted with small regional campuses that are almost entirely female, like retirement villages for young people. This is where the education-wealth nexus breaks down. While only 72 men graduate for every 100 women, men outperform their female counterparts in full-time employment rates and graduate salaries.

In other words, the Women’s Gender Equality Agency found that the gender pay gap is 2.5% for people under 24, and it increases at a constant rate before peaking at more than 30%, or an income difference of more than $40,000 a year for those aged 45 to 64 – despite their significantly higher levels of education.

Is this one of the reasons why men don’t have to try so hard – that the economic results always weigh on their side, even if they don’t succeed? This could change, however, as automation and AI take over more low-skilled jobs. It has been predicted that the professions that will pay the most will require qualities such as reasoning, creativity, negotiation and the ability to communicate – all qualities that are honed through the process of education.

Functionally illiterate

But back to grade 9 boys and the depressing results of this year’s NAPLAN which found that 13.5% of boys did not meet the minimum national standard in reading, while 79.2% did not meet it in writing. This means that four out of five boys could be described as functionally illiterate.

In numeracy, however, 94.4% meet the minimum national standard. Experts say boys are more attuned to math because it doesn’t require long periods of concentration and there are right and wrong answers.

Bill Louden, one of Australia’s most esteemed education experts, says you only have to look to Western Australia to see what happens in Year 9. Since 2014, 9th graders in this state have outperformed other states in math and reading. NAPLAN and are third best for writing.

The reason can be quickly identified. In that year, the requirement to demonstrate basic skills in a test in year 10 in order to enter an academic stream for their final year was introduced. But they don’t have to take the Online Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (OLNA) if they score in the top two NAPLAN groups in grade 9.

Boys fail to read and write, especially when they enter high school, NAPLAN reveals. Arsineh Houspian

“It’s a matter of free will,” says Professor Louden. “If they don’t see any point in making an effort for NAPLAN, they won’t try. But OLNA encourages them to try. Does NAPLAN underestimate the real academic abilities of boys, especially as they get older? “Yes. If they are incentivized to do well, they perform better.

This is a lesson that other states should heed. Professor Driscoll agrees that NAPLAN does not accurately reflect the true academic performance of boys. “At the age of 15, they were divided between those who will stay in school and go to university and those who will leave. There are plenty of other validated options for boys to leave early; they have a lot more exit routes,” says Professor Driscoll. “There is no point in pretending that these tests are a mirror of the real abilities of these children.”

Professor Driscoll says there is ‘no wall between nurture and nature’ in why boys perform poorly in school. “Social environments change our physical being over time in a slow way. By the time you become a boy in grade 9, there has been a long period in that person’s life of social expectations and social pressures.

“So these discussions of our innate differences are much more relevant to early childhood learning than they are to someone 15 years old, because personal choices and feelings about taking a NAPLAN test make havoc,” says Professor Driscoll.

Dr. Stahl argues that schools and teachers need to be more sensitive to boys’ needs, their motivations, their learning styles, their attitudes towards literacy. “Just because boys are reluctant to read in childhood doesn’t mean they won’t read throughout their lives,” he says.

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