Young male student in school uniform


Given all the news about male students falling behind in school and college, you may be wondering if there is a boy crisis in education.

Learn more about the biological differences, why this is happening in schools, and check out the ways some private schools are closing the achievement gap.



Reasons for Male Underachievement in Schools 

Many schools, both public and private, do not focus on the science behind how boys learn; therefore, they do not incorporate this into their teaching methods. Unless schools address the science behind gender differences, we will continue to see male underachievement.

Here’s a brief list of the biological differences and some of the physiological ramifications, gleaned from decades of research.  

Boys are Wired Differently

  • Male brains are more often at rest in the brain stem, which directs fight or flight response. This may make males more likely to take physical action if given a threat stimulus. Check out how one boarding school converts boy energy to leadership training.
  • Males have a larger amygdala, a center for processing anger and fear. This makes males more aggressive.
  • In males, the prefrontal cortex, a center of decision making in the brain, is still incomplete at age 12.
  • Males tend to have a larger cerebellum, resulting in better sensory perception, coordination, and motor control; coupled with the higher levels of spinal fluid in the male system, messages between the brain and body tend to move more quickly and with less impulse control in males.
  • The limbic system, which contains structures including the amygdala and

hippocampus, has fewer connections in males to verbal processing areas. This gives them less access to emotively descriptive language and less speed than females in responding verbally to stress and emotional situations.

Males Communicate Less 

  • Boys speak their first word later than girls. The frontal lobe matures later and tends to have less blood flow in the male brain, and may cause less verbal communication. Look at how one school approaches English with this in mind.
  • Males’ arcuate fasciculus, a curving bundle of nerve fibers in the central nervous system that has to do with linguistics, develops slower than it does for females.
  • Broca’s area, the motor area for speech and processing grammatical structures and word production, is less active in males.
  • Males’ corpus callosum tends to be less dense, allowing for less connection between the hemispheres. This impedes cross-talk that would allow links to form between logical/rational thinking and emotional/metaphysical thinking.

Boys’ Thought Process is Different 

  • Males tend to prefer mechanical and structural thinking. Check out how one school offers electives geared for boys.
  • Males tend to have fewer neurons that promote higher intellectual functions and memory, and that interpret sensory impulses in their cerebral cortexes. This results in slower processing speed.
  • Smaller hippocampus in males lead to less memory storage available for accessing information for recall.
  • Differences in males’ and females’ occipital lobes make males more likely to see better in bright light.
  • Males have better narrow vision and depth perception.


Male Maturity and Motivation Matters   

  • Male puberty starts anywhere between ages 9 and 14. In turn, boys want structure, motivation, adventure and challenge.
  • Male brains have less oxytocin (the “tend and befriend” hormone) functionally present. As a result, males tend to be less motivated biologically to please parents, teachers, and peers as they establish and maintain relationships.
  • Males’ cortisol (the stress hormone) levels tend to drop quicker after the stressor is removed.
  • Males have more testosterone, resulting in more aggression, competitiveness, self-assertion, and self-reliance.
  • When males feel overstimulated and frustrated, there is marked swelling in their amygdala. This is an anger and aggression center in the brain with significantly higher volume of tissue in males.
  • Boys’ testosterone develops the body at a ratio of 40% muscle mass to 15% fat.
  • By the end of adolescence, boys have 10 times more testosterone than they did before puberty.


Boys Like to Focus vs. Multitask

  • In males, less data moves through the parietal lobe; making the male brain better at “zoning out.” This also affects males’ tactile sensitivity. Check out how a military academy uses stand-up desks, hands-on activities, fidget toys and other methods to help boys focus.
  • Male brains tend to have more gray matter (cell bodies of nerve cells), therefore, making them less efficient multitaskers. Boys are better at learning through task and project focus.
  • Boys’ brains overall operate with 15% less blood flow than do girls’; therefore, they learn more effectively with less multitasking.
  • Males’ basal ganglia is likely to engage more quickly, resulting in males generally being quicker to respond to attention demands in their physical environment.
  • The male brain has an essential rest state that it reverts to while switching between tasks to recharge.


Why are Boys Falling Behind at School 

Thus far, we have explored some of the science, but now let’s turn to some facts about boys and their school performance.

Some of this data may alarm you, but don’t be discouraged. There are schools that are specifically geared for boys. In the final section, we will go over how some private schools are making a difference.

Boys are Falling Behind in Reading and Writing

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) notes the gap between girls and boys is most pronounced in eighth grade, with the average eighth-grade girl writing at the level of the average eleventh-grade boy.
  • 41% of children in the United States are not reading at a basic level by third grade, and a majority of them are boys.

Homework and Grades are Crushing Boys

  • For every 100 girls 6 to 14 years old who have difficulty doing regular schoolwork, 176 boys have difficulty doing regular schoolwork.
  • In 2007, the average GPA of boys taking the SAT was 3.42, while girls had an average of 3.54.
  • Males earn 70% of “D”s and “F”s and 40% of “A”s.

Males are Attending College at a Lower Rate 

  • 40.5% Males
  • 59.5% Females

Males are Earning Lower Grades 

  • Boys earn 70% of D’s and F’s.
  • Girls earn 30% of D’s and F’s.

Grade Repeats for Boys are Rising

  • For every 100 girls who repeat kindergarten, 194 boys repeat kindergarten.
  • Boys are 50% more likely to be held back a grade than eighth-grade girls.

Boys Get into Trouble for Being Boys

  • Boys constitute 95% of children diagnosed as hyperactive.
  • For every 100 girls suspended from public elementary and secondary schools, 215 boys are suspended.
  • For every 100 girls expelled from public elementary and secondary schools, 297 boys are expelled.
  • For every 100 twelfth-grade girls who engaged in a physical fight on school property, 226 boys got into a fight.
  • Although there are many gifted, but undermotivated girls, the actual ratio of non-achieving males to females is 8 to 1.
  • Of high school dropouts, 80% are males.

Boys are more likely to be Medicated and End up in Special Ed

  • Boys make up 70% of medicated preschoolers and kindergarteners.
  • Nearly twice as many boys as girls have trouble reading, are diagnosed with language disabilities, and are referred to special education classes.
  • Boys make up two-thirds of special education classes.

Solutions to Achievement Gaps

So, what can be done to resolve this boy crisis in education? How can we build schools that are more equitable and build a boy-friendly learning environment?

Here are some findings and methods that are being employed at some all boys’ private schools.

  1. Boys’ brains are alerted by things moving through space. A case in point, one boarding school in California even offers courses in aviation and unmanned aerial systems (UAS). They take this literally and get boys exploring space! They also employ all of the other methods cited below.
  2. Boys learn well visually. Allowing boys to draw their thoughts before they start writing, allows them to be more expressive and more detailed in their writing.
  3. Giving brain breaks to boys is essential. Providing a short break in class where they can stand up, stretch, and exercise in place makes a huge difference. It moves their brain from a resting state to one that is now more prepared to learn.
  4. Boys like to move, so employing techniques in the classroom that allow them to do this promotes better results. Army and Navy Academy, a boarding and day school for boys,  provides fidget toys, stand-up desks, and lots of hands-on lessons.
  5. Boys like to compete, so activities, both inside and outside the classroom are very effective. Sports, Officer Candidate Course, Harvard Model Congress, Debate, Model United Nations and Boys Scouts are just some of the kinds of activities that excite boys.
  6. Boys respond well to both relevant and novel information in the classroom, so designing projects with this in mind is beneficial.
  7. Where expectations are high, and in single gender classes where boys are consistently directed, they are more likely to thrive. Class structure by way of size is important to boys.
  8. Fun reading assignments are important. Oftentimes, boys see reading as a chore, so providing fiction that engages their minds, as well as non-fiction tied with real-world skills can make a difference.

In summary, now that you know more about the boys’ biology and physiology, as well as what is happening in schools, you are now able to take a more proactive approach to finding the right school for your son. You can also incorporate many of these methods at home.

References: OECD, NAEP, Gurian Institute and National Clearing House.