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  • Improving outcomes for boys means utilizing interventions that appeal to boys as boys. Tweet This
  • Attempting to create a completely equal environment can lead to unequal outcomes because boys and girls react differently to the same sets of policies and exhibit generally different behavior. Tweet This
  • I propose a rebalancing of reading material in schools specifically targeted at boys. Tweet This
Category: Men, Education

In my final college semester, I had the privilege of being a full-time student teacher at a Catholic middle school, teaching 7th and 8th grade history and theology. It was the highlight of my life. The students were curious, polite, and thoughtful, caring to one another and welcoming to me. The boys in particular took a liking to me, and staying after school for sports club and playing recess football with them was a blast. But in the classroom, nearly all of the top students were girls. 

My experience is not merely anecdotal, but part of larger educational trends. Boys are not faring as well as girls in the classroom. Women outperform men in school in terms of school readiness in kindergarten, GPA, and increasingly in college enrollment and degree attainment. According to Richard Reeves, of the top 10% of students, two-thirds are girls. On the flip side, boys comprise nearly two-thirds of the bottom 10% of students. While boys outperform girls overall on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT, girls perform better on the written and verbal portions of the exams while boys outperform on STEM subjects.

Not only from a grades standpoint but also a disciplinary standpoint, boys are not faring as well. Boys are roughly 2.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than girls; of all expulsions from public school in the 2017-2018 school year (the last year the National Center for Education Statistics has available data), 72% of all expulsions and 70% of suspensions were of boys. 

Why These Disparities Matter 

Boys who lag behind in school are less likely to graduate high school than girls. More high school dropouts means more crime, more suicides (even after controlling for gender disparities in the suicide rate), greater poverty, and greater unemployment. Rather than producing productive, well-adjusted citizens, high-school dropouts threaten the social fabric and increase stresses on the tax base. 

At a cultural level, marriage suffers. Charles Murray showed in Coming Apart that people in “Fishtown,” who were non-college-educated, were much more likely than the college-educated “Belmont” sample to never marry, be divorced, and have children living with a single parent, and less likely to report a “very happy” marriage. Those in “Belmont” suffered very little of these negative effects, and the single-motherhood rate for highly educated women was very low.1 We should try to arrest the deterioration of life outcomes for the lower and working classes that comprise the demographics of “Fishtown,” but absent that mighty task, reversing the decline in male college attendance is an important priority for helping build strong families with the necessary elements for success and stability. To do this, we must start earlier.

What Drives These Disparities?

It should be stated at the outset that no one intends these outcomes. America’s schools today intend to provide an equal playing field and give equal treatment to boys and girls. However, attempting to create a completely equal environment can lead to unequal outcomes because boys and girls react differently to the same sets of policies and exhibit generally different behavior. For instance, if boys and men are more aggressive, competitive, and prone to antisocial behaviors (the vast disparities in the prison population show that this is true at the extreme), then it makes sense that they would be more likely to be suspended or expelled from school given a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding playground fights. 

But are there policies that give girls a natural advantage in reading or social studies? As recently as 2023, a study by Emil Smith and David Reimer showed that girls spend more time reading outside of school than boys; starting in 4th grade, girls read 100,000 more words than boys, which adds up over time. Without anyone intending it, there are policies that affect this outcome, specifically in curricular decisions about reading: schools overwhelmingly assign fiction books. 

There is research on reading interest in school-age children that explains the problem of over-assigning fiction. A 2021 study by Chantal Lepper, Justine Stang, and Nele McIlveny showed that girls were more interested in fiction than boys, and boys were more interested in non-fiction books than fiction (though both boys and girls were equally interested in non-fiction). Boys were more interested in war, comedy, sports, and science fiction, and more excited about informational texts, whereas girls preferred narrative books and romantic stories. According to Deloitte, boys are also far less likely to read books by female authors or with female protagonist, but girls were willing to read books written by men and with male protagonists. Lepper, Stang, and McIlveny’s findings showed the same pattern, and actually showed that girls ranked higher interest in books with male protagonists than boys!

As for what is being read in schools today, it is overwhelmingly fiction. I used Renaissance’s What Kids are Reading: 2024 Report, which shows the top books for grades K-12 in every state, to analyze what is being read, looking at the breakdown between fiction and non-fiction works in the top 10 for grades 5-12 in each state. Overwhelmingly, there was little-to-no non-fiction on offer. Only two grades in the entire country had five non-fiction books in the top 10. Six grades had four non-fiction books, seven grades had three, 35 had two, and 90 had one non-fiction book; 213 grades had only fiction in the top 10.2 Of the non-fiction books, it was overwhelmingly memoirs, featuring a narrative structure more appealing to girls. 

What Can Be Done?

There is much to be said about possible interventions to help boys: the importance of recess, the need for more male teachers, and more hands-on activities such as labs or even resurrecting shop classes. 

I propose a rebalancing of reading material in schools specifically targeted at boys. This is tricky, in part, because English classes seek to introduce and immerse students in a literary canon. Everyone reading the same core texts gives stronger cohesion in terms of shared language, ideas, and referents. That said, improving male performance in the classroom is an important goal, and making appeals to boys with targeted reading material is a necessary means to do so. 

History and science classes offer the most potential for introducing non-fiction books into the curriculum. If students love and can learn from the musical Hamilton, why not learn from reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton? Similarly, books like Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided lays out detailed arguments on each side of the “Lincoln-Douglas debates,” offering a potential launchpad for reworking those debates in the modern classroom. The Barnes & Noble science section offers a wide array of contemporary reads interesting to most boys. In English classes, making appeals to books with male protagonists would be worthwhile for helping engage male reading interest. 

“Equality” in schools can only go so far. Improving outcomes for boys means utilizing interventions that appeal to boys as boys. For teachers and librarians, preparations for next year can be as simple as restocking libraries with books that boys want to read. For administrators, moving towards subjects, disciplines, and skills that appeal to boys should be introduced back into the curriculum in future years, and recruiting more male teachers is an important and tangible goal. More generally in our culture, “letting boys be boys” must become a cri de couer for raising our future generation of boys into the successful men that we need.  

Tom Sarrouf is the Senior Academic Programs Manager at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and co-hosts ISI’s podcast, Conservative Conversations with ISI. He graduated from Boston College in 2022, and was a Publius Fellow with the Claremont Institute in 2023.

1.  Charles Murray. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. New York: Crown Forum, 2012. Pp. 149-167.

2.  Taken together, a total of 215 books were in the top 10 in my sample, out of a total of 3,530 books (for these calculations, I excluded grade levels in states where no data was available), which means that only 6.1% of the books sampled were non-fiction. If we want to know why boys are reading less than girls, this would be it: we aren’t appealing to their interests.