Why US boys are failing at school—and men are losing in life


In New York, boys are now lagging behind girls in math and a full grade level behind in English. Similar patterns can be seen across the nation. Boys graduate high school at about the same rate as poor students, while girls account for two out of three high schoolers in the top 10% ranked by GPA. One in four black boys repeat a grade, and 60% of students on college campuses are now women. 

When almost one in four boys (23%) are categorized as having a “developmental disability,” it is fair to wonder if it is the boys — or the system — that is not functioning properly. 

As many boys struggle through school, many men are also having a hard time in the labor market. The jobs men used to get without much formal education are disappearing: Fewer than one in ten jobs now require what the Bureau of Labor Statistics describes as “heavy work,” requiring “occasionally lifting or carrying 51-100 pounds or frequently lifting or carrying 26-50 pounds.”

Even before COVID cratered the economy in 2020, nine million men of prime working age were not employed. (Economists define the “prime” years as beginning at the age of 25 and ending, unnervingly, at 54.) Among men with just a high school education, one in three are not working. That’s 10 million men, a reserve army of labor five times the size of the People’s Liberation Army of China. 

Nearly one-fourth of all boys are categorized as having a “developmental disability” and the same percentage of black boys need to repeat a grade.
Nearly one-fourth of all boys are categorized as having a “developmental disability” and the same percentage of black boys need to repeat a grade.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The workplace has shifted away from brawn jobs to brain jobs and caring jobs. Men have not been able to adjust quickly enough.

To reverse this trend, we need schools to be more male-friendly. Boys should be allowed and encouraged to start school a year later than girls, since male brains develop a little later than female ones on average, especially in adolescence. Right now, New York public schools actually prohibit a later start in school.

Jobs in "heavy industries" such as car manufacturing are increasingly disappearing across the country, offering even fewer wage-earning opportunities for men with little formal education.
“Heavy work” jobs are increasingly disappearing across the country, offering even fewer wage-earning opportunities for men with little formal education.
AFP via Getty Images
Even before COVID took its toll on the job market, one in three men with only a high school degree were out of work, some 5 million men in total.
Even before COVID took its toll on the job market, one in three men with only a high school degree were out of work, some 10 million men in total.
AP

We also need a national recruitment drive for male teachers. Boys do better in schools with more men at the front of the classroom, especially in subjects like English. But men account for a shrinking share of the teaching profession: just 24%, down from 33% in the 1980s. In elementary schools, only 11% are men. And in the earliest years, men are virtually invisible. Just 3% of kindergarten teachers are men, which is about half the share of women flying military airplanes. Men, our schools need you.

In recent years, much attention has been focused on getting women into STEM careers (in science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It’s working, too: 27% of STEM workers are women, up from 17% in 1980. But STEM occupations are a small slice of the economy, accounting for only 7% of jobs. Meanwhile the health, education, administration and literacy sectors — what I call “HEAL” occupations — account for 26% of jobs. Between now and 2030, for every new STEM job created, there will be three new HEAL positions. 

Men comprise just 12% of nurses nationwide, and the percentage of men working in the booming health, education, administration and literacy sectors is on the decline.
Men comprise just 12% of nurses nationwide, and the percentage of men working in the booming health, education, administration and literacy sectors is on the decline.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Women are getting into STEM, but men are not getting into HEAL. The share of men in these occupations is 26%, down from 35% in 1980. There has been a slight rise in the share of men in nursing, up to 12%, but a fall in almost every other occupation, including teaching, psychology, counseling and social work. Among psychologists under the age of 30, just 5% are men.

This is bad news for those professions, which urgently need more recruits. It’s bad news for boys and men using those services, many of whom would prefer a male provider but can’t find one. And it’s bad for working men who are missing out on opportunities in some of the fastest-growing areas of the economy. 

Just 3% of kindergarten teachers are men, which is about half the share of women flying military airplanes.
Just 3% of kindergarten teachers are men, which is about half the share of women flying military airplanes.
Getty Images
Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters and What to do About it by Richard V. Reeves
It’s hardly a secret that many boys and men are struggling.

As things stand, men account for just 16% of the college degrees awarded in health-care fields. But many HEAL jobs don’t even require a college degree. Career and technical paths also offer good routes in. Almost a million young people take vocational health-science qualifications, for example. But four out five of them are girls or women. 

The story is similar for apprenticeships, where women dominate in training programs leading to jobs as a pharmacy technician (81%), nursing assistant (91%) or child care worker (97%). These are sometimes called “pink collar” occupations, because they are so female-dominated. But we need them to become purple-collar jobs, just as open to men as to women.

It’s hardly a secret that many boys and men are struggling. Now, it’s time to do something about it. And it needs to start with our schools.

Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It” (Brookings Institution Press).



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