Boys in crisis: It’s worse than expected

Debbie Jacob -
Debbie Jacob -

Debbie Jacob

WE OFTEN speak about how our schools are failing boys from lower socio-economic groups, but the UK, the US and China now note an alarming academic crisis with men and boys across the board.

In an article entitled A Review Study of the 'Boy Crisis,' found in the academic journal Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research Volume 586, five Chinese social scientists presented views on the boy crisis as “a global phenomenon.”

They examined underperformance and underachievement in boys compared to girls. Researchers argue that girls enter school with higher levels of language and fine motor skills, longer attention spans and greater impulse control. In all countries, girls still tend to outperform boys in English and boys outperform girls in maths, but girls are closing the gap in maths.

Throughout secondary schools, girls outperform boys in grades with only 41 per cent of males making up those students who earn top marks.

The researchers say performance on college entrance exams dropped since the 80s from 66.2 per cent to 39.7 per cent for males and rose for female students to 60 per cent, a 33.8 per cent gain. Also, 59 per cent of women now earn bachelor’s degrees.

In 1972, 56.4 per cent of males earned college degrees and 43.6 per cent of women. The women’s liberation movement and greater emphasis on women’s education in the 70s reversed the trend of women lagging behind in earning university degrees. In 2022, nearly 58.6 per cent of bachelor’s degrees were earned by women.

We seem to be getting a clearer picture of what is going on. As the US and England addressed girls’ and women’s identity in school and the workplace and boosted women’s confidence, no one was paying attention to how that shift in social consciousness impacted boys and men.

No one addressed what it meant to be a man as more women entered the workforce. (Even more puzzling is the fact that women still earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. Most of the highest positions in business belong to men.)

A World Bank study in February 2023 showed that in Caribbean countries, school enrollment starts to diverge significantly for boys at upper secondary. Here, we’re looking more at boys in lower socio-economic groups. The study said “inequitable access to education continues at the tertiary level, where male, rural and socio-economically disadvantaged populations are less likely to attend university.”

The World Bank points out that “while poverty accentuates educational underachievement for all, this relationship is even stronger for boys and young men. Underachievement in education comes with a higher likelihood of engagement in risky behaviours, and worse future labour market outcomes. Underachievement in higher socio-economic brackets seems to result in greater mental health crises for men.

The World Bank says it “is working to address the problem of underachievement in boys. Teacher training, early warning systems, and financial incentives could help boys in education and increase their chances of success later in life.”

In other words, it sounds like that idea of work/study that I keep writing about is being tossed about as a possible solution. We can’t expect poor children who don’t have basic needs of food and clothes to engage in the delayed gratification that sacrificing work for an education requires.

We need to examine the relevance of education. If boys found education exciting and relevant they would go to school, but we’re not looking at boys’ needs in any subjects. English classes emphasise fiction. My daughter Ijanaya’s Master’s in library education project in Port of Spain Prison showed that 80 per cent of inmates preferred non-fiction to fiction. My teaching experience from the International School of Port of Spain to prisons always showed boys preferred non-fiction.

Literature, history, social studies and elective courses need to address confidence, appropriate risk-taking, mental health, communication and relationships. Boys don’t know what their relationship with girls is supposed to look like as girls outperform them and exhibit more confidence and independence.

Boys would benefit from having subjects that relate directly to business, money management and real-life experiences. Maths classes should explore successful business models. History should be the opportunity to study leaders – good and bad – so boys can learn leadership qualities.

My teaching taught me that boys learn differently from girls. Studies back this up. Boys are usually more visual learners and they need to move to learn. Making a boy sit in a chair for class is torture. They process information when they move.

Clearly, education must undergo some drastic changes to engage boys in all socio-economic levels, or the situation will only get worse.


"Boys in crisis: It’s worse than expected"

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