Leaving boys behind?

We know how to educate girls. Do we know how to educate boys?

October 29, 2019 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
4 minutes read
Two middle-school boys in Escuela Nueva school. Outside Armenia, Colombia (October 2014). Credit: Mary Burns
Two middle-school boys in Escuela Nueva school. Outside Armenia, Colombia (October 2014).
Mary Burns

If you want to be educated on this planet, it helps to be male. Globally, millions more boys than girls are in school. In sub-Saharan Africa, boys are far more likely than girls to attend primary and secondary school. And, though the gap is closing, boys generally score better in international assessments of science and math (GEM, 2015).

Not surprisingly, given these inequities, the global community has increasingly focused on educating girls—and girls have proven to be a most worthy investment. Educated females are healthier; have fewer children and higher income; take better care of themselves and their children; and make sure their children are educated. These benefits accrue from one generation to another, to the surrounding community, and to society as a whole.

Moreover, once in school, girls are more likely to reach the upper grades of primary school (Gambia, Malawi and Nepal are three examples). Where there are well-developed secondary systems --and girls are not pulled out to get married—girls are more likely than boys to finish secondary school (GEM, 2018). Indeed, in most of Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States, girls complete secondary school at higher rates than boys (GEM, 2018).

This is generally true, regardless of how rich or poor a country may be. In terms of tertiary education, across the globe--with exceptions like Turkey, Korea, Greece and Egypt--women enroll and complete university at increasingly higher rates than their male counterparts.

It's a man’s world…but what about in school?

The work is far from complete in terms of equitable access to education for girls, but it does appear that girls are generally trending upward educationally. However, the same cannot be said of boys.  

Across the European Union, Australia, the Americas, and much of Asia, boys are more likely to drop out of school, repeat a grade, say they hate school, have discipline problems, and perform worse on assessments of reading ability (GEM, 2015 & 2018; OECD, 2015).

With the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, this is true almost everywhere. In most of Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and in the US, boys are much more likely to leave school than girls and more boys than girls are out of school.

The very worst performers in the PISA—those who do not reach proficiency in any subject—are overwhelmingly male (OECD, 2015).  These problems do not affect wealthy boys, just poor ones—and almost everywhere (Kuper & Jacobs, 2019).

This widening gender gap may not elicit too much sympathy—after all education systems have historically favored educating boys at the expense of girls. Further, the education gap disappears once men hit the workforce, where almost everywhere, they earn more money and assume more powerful positions than women.

However, poor young men who leave school before the age of 16 are more likely to be unemployed and unemployable; poor; at higher risk for recruitment by gangs and extremist groups; incarcerated; engage in domestic violence (and violence in general); hold discriminatory, racist and sexist views; father children out of wedlock…The list of anti-social behaviors is depressingly long.

In short, young men who drop out of school are an economic liability; they are a social liability; and they are a security liability (as we see in so many conflicts).

 Junior secondary classroom in rural Guatemala where girls far outnumber boys (May 2019)
Junior secondary classroom in rural Guatemala where girls far outnumber boys (May 2019)
Mary Burns

Why do so many boys leave school?

In many of the countries where GPE works, significant numbers of boys drop out of school early due to poverty and work obligations. But school itself also seems to alienate boys. If you’ve been a teacher most of your discipline problems have probably been boys.

In almost every secondary classroom I’ve been in in Southeast Asia, North Africa and Central America, I often see teachers teaching to the girls (and some boys) but with most boys relegated to the physical margins of the classrooms where they are distracted by each other or their phones.

When I’ve asked adolescent boys in Timor-Leste, Grenada, Honduras, Indonesia, Morocco, Lebanon about school, they essentially say the same thing: School is boring. It’s irrelevant. It won’t get them a job. They don’t see the point. Their teachers hate them.

Addressing the “boy problem”

Research offers numerous potential solutions to helping boys do better in school: recognizing gendered biological differences and accommodating these differences in curriculum design and teaching; focusing on correcting—versus punishing—misbehavior; more male teachers; more recess; single-sex schools; programs linking school to work; more vocational and technical education (here the challenge is getting girls into these programs); ending ranking; encouraging boys to read—anything; teaching teachers about their own gender biases and stereotypes; and having more competitive activities in schools (something I found in my own teaching that often galvanized the most recalcitrant boys).

But first we have to recognize that there is a problem. And we need to avoid casting education as a zero sum game. Helping girls does not hurt boys, nor should supporting struggling boys hurt girls’ continued progress.

To fulfill the potential of education to advance gender equality, we need to continue to focus on getting girls into school and making schools safe spaces for them. However, we must also recognize that true educational progress; real equality for women and girls; and stable and safe families, schools and societies depend, too, on successfully educating young men.

This post is based on a lecture by the author at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, England, July 9, 2019


GEM Report (2018, June 15). Did you know? There are just as many boys out of school as girls  

GEM Report (2018, April). Don’t forget the boys

Kuper, S. & Jacobs, E. (2019). The untold danger of boys falling behind in school

OECD (2015). The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence

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Well done, again, Mary. Bottom line seems, we can educate boys better as we educate girls better and can educate girls better as we educate boys better; but "better" does not mean always the same strategy for the two groups.

This is a great paper, with great learning points. If educated girls and women are in the same community as uneducated boys and men; it would mean delayed progress towards gender equality.

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