With the school year underway, it looks increasingly likely that many students will not be returning to the typical K-12 learning environment in 2020. Many school districts and states are investing in technology and building up their virtual-learning infrastructure to be used even after the COVID-19 threat subsides.
An increase of families choosing homeschooling and micro-schooling this year is also driving traditional school districts to explore a range of learning alternatives for students going forward.
While policymakers and education thought leaders continue to debate the sustainability and risks associated with these pandemic-related education changes, they should consider a large group of students that might benefit from a new normal: boys.
The performance disparities between boys and girls in the existing education system are striking. Robust research from 30 countries (including the U.S.) now shows that girls are earning better grades than boys in all K-12 school subjects. It is important to applaud the remarkable strides made by female learners over the last few generations and while educational settings have been improved to afford women more opportunities, sexism can still be a problem.
Even so, in the United States, national testing results reveal that girls have closed the gender achievement gap in math by scoring on par with boys and far out-performing boys in English language arts. In American higher education, girls have surpassed boys in college enrollment and college graduation rates. American boys — especially minorities and those with disabilities — are also far more likely to be expelled or suspended from school.
Experts pose many possible explanations for these achievement disparities between gender groups. Boys’ brains develop more slowly than girls, and they are much more likely to have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or be diagnosed with a disability. Girls also edge out boys on measures of self-discipline, on average, which helps them be more dependable with homework, stay on track with their studies and function well in a highly-routine schooling environment.
Common schooling practices — like counting homework as a major grade, requiring students to sit still for long amounts of time, heavily relying on teacher instruction rather than student-directed learning — all generally play to female strengths. The fact that 77% of all American teachers and nearly 90% of American elementary teachers are women may play a role in female student achievement as well.
It’s also important to note that, while there are average empirical differences between male and female personalities across cultures, there are also wide variations in personality traits within gender groups. Effective education requires that considerations be made for many individual differences, beyond just gender.
Research strongly indicates that boys and girls have overall differences that can’t be fully explained by social context and these differences affect their learning styles. This means that an overly standardized schooling system like that of the United States can make education a zero-sum game between genders. Because most schools have similar environments that often deliver instruction the same ways — a set-up that’s reinforced by federal and state education rules — the system is forced to choose which types of learners to favor at the expense of others.
Small tweaks like changing grading policies, recruiting more male teachers and having more interactive classrooms may make some differences for boys. But it’s also important to avoid changing education in a way that may then disfavor girls. Alternatively, the current pandemic-related adjustments could be providing significantly different learning environments in which many boys can thrive.
Teachers have already noted that some of their students have done quite well with flexible virtual learning, particularly the hyperactive or easily-distracted ones. If more hybrid and student-driven learning carry forward after the pandemic, it may be a welcome change for the many boys who were falling behind in traditional classrooms.
As much as schools have struggled to effectively deliver asynchronous and virtual instruction, there are many potential upsides if some of these practices are refined and continued after the pandemic. Many students — not just boys, of course — could benefit from the individualized attention and the ability to work at their own pace.
By embracing approaches such as competency-based learning, technology-driven teaching or hands-on experimentation, education leaders can better accommodate and validate the different learning styles of students who may have felt neglected or misunderstood before. Whatever happens, one thing seems clear: If classrooms just go back to how they were, boys will continue to fall behind.
• Christian Barnard is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation and a senior contributor with Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter at CBarnard33.