More male-friendly education requires more male teachers and more vocational learning

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After decades of intensive effort and investment to create an equitable education system, not least for girls and women, the nation finds itself with a peculiar predicament: It is boys who are falling behind furthest and fastest. The high school graduation rate for boys, at 82%, is barely higher than for poor students eligible for free school meals (80%). Two-thirds of high schoolers with the highest GPAs (i.e., in the top tenth of the distribution) are girls, and the ratio is reversed at the bottom. For every three women on college campuses there are only two men, and the gender gap in bachelor’s degree attainment is wider today, at 15 percentage points in favor of women, than it was in the opposite direction, at 13 percentage points in favor of men, when Title IX was passed in 1972.

Simply put, boys and modern schools don’t seem to mix well. Around the world, boys are twice as likely as girls to say that school is “a waste of time,” according to a survey commissioned by the OECD in 2015. In the U.S., boys are three times as likely as girls to be expelled from school and twice as likely to be suspended. In every country in the OECD, there are now more young women than young men with a bachelor’s degree.

These trends represent the huge success of the women’s movement in taking the brakes off the opportunities and aspirations of girls and women. But they also, now, illuminate the many ways in which the education system is structured in ways that do not serve boys and men well. Many of the most disturbing trends are worsening, especially in higher education, and including during the pandemic. In 2020, male enrollment fell faster than female enrollment for the fifth year in a row, and that gap is widening. The 2.5% drop in total enrollment from 2019 to 2020 consisted of a 0.7% drop for women and a 5.1% drop—seven times larger—for men.

"In the U.S., boys are three times as likely as girls to be expelled from school and twice as likely to be suspended. In every country in the OECD, there are now more young women than young men with a bachelor’s degree."

Male students now make up a smaller share of all enrolled students in the United States than ever before—just 41% of students enrolled in a postsecondary institution in fall 2020. These gaps at post-secondary level reflect disparities that open much earlier. In the average school district, girls are now three-quarters of a grade level ahead of boys in English, and have caught up in math. In poorer school districts, girls are well ahead of boys in both English and math.

Some reforms to improve the school environment for boys could be quite straightforward, including a later school start time, better food, and more physical education. Sleep, nutrition, exercise: the education system needs to do a much better job of recognizing that students are flesh and blood, not just brains on sticks. I have also proposed that boys start school a year later than girls, to take account of sex differences in the timing of brain development. But to create educational environments in which boys can thrive, two more fundamental reforms are especially important: getting more men at the front of our classrooms, and creating wider opportunities for vocational learning, including more technical high schools. 

More Misters

In the U.S, the male share of K–12 teachers is now 24%, down from 33% at the beginning of the 1980s, and male teachers are especially scarce in elementary and middle schools.

“If the trend continues, we may see a day when 8 of 10 teachers [in the U.S.] will be female,” write Richard Ingersoll and his colleagues in a 2018 report from the University of Pennsylvania. They add that “an increasing percentage of elementary schools will have no male teachers. … Given the importance of teachers as role models, and even as surrogate parents for some students, certainly some will see this trend as a problem and a policy concern.”

"Female teachers are more likely than male teachers to see the boys in their class as disruptive, while male teachers tend to have a more positive view of boys and their capabilities. There may also be a role model effect."

Who are the people who do not see this trend as a problem?! There is solid evidence that male teachers boost academic outcomes for boys, especially in certain subject areas like English. Education researcher Thomas Dee estimates that if half the English teachers from sixth to eighth grade were male, “the achievement gap in reading [between girls and boys] would fall by approximately a third by the end of middle school.” (Notably, the performance of girls in English seemed not to be affected by teacher gender.) A separate study in Chicago found that in math classes with a male teacher, the gender gap measured in terms of GPA was almost halved, entirely as a result of better performance among boys. When the share of men teaching in Finnish primary schools was boosted by a 40% quota for training courses, both boys and girls did better in school.

While the evidence that male teachers matter is strong, the precise mechanisms are not well understood. Attitudes may be one factor. Female teachers are more likely than male teachers to see the boys in their class as disruptive, while male teachers tend to have a more positive view of boys and their capabilities. There may also be a role model effect.

“Having both male and female teachers is likely good for students for many of the same reasons that they benefit from a racially and ethnically diverse teacher workforce,” writes Lisette Partelow, an education scholar at the progressive Center for American Progress.

What is required here is a massive, urgent recruitment effort. Faced with a college faculty that was skewed heavily male, the higher education industry has made a concerted effort to increase the number of female professors and made huge progress: women now make up almost half of full-time faculty (47%) and are the majority of department heads. In K–12, meanwhile, we are moving further away from gender parity with every passing year, and no goals have been set. We should set the target of reaching 30% male representation in K–12 teaching; school districts could be asked to pledge to reach the goal.

Specific efforts are also needed to recruit more men into early-years education, and into teaching English. Early-years education is a nearly all-female environment. It ought to be a source of national shame that only 3% of pre-K and kindergarten teachers are men. Women account for twice that share of U.S. military pilots.

The barriers to male recruitment in this field are high, according to an in-depth study of 46 male educators working in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms in New York by Manhattan Community College’s Kirsten Cole and her colleagues. Stigma is one major challenge. Many of the men had been advised to make sure they were never alone with a child, and to be wary of any physical contact.

"In K–12, meanwhile, we are moving further away from gender parity with every passing year, and no goals have been set. We should set the target of reaching 30% male representation in K–12 teaching; school districts could be asked to pledge to reach the goal."

Cole and her coauthors urge concerted policy efforts to attract and retain more men in early education. They propose targeted recruitment of men into the field, modeled on programs like NYC Teaching Fellows, which supports professionals making career transitions into teaching in high-need subject areas in underserved New York schools. Philanthropic foundations serious about gender equity should be flooding the education market with generous college scholarships for men who want to pursue a career in early-years education, just as they have supported girls interested in STEM careers.

The second recruitment priority is to get more men teaching English. Most policy efforts in terms of teacher recruitment are currently focused on attracting more teachers, male or female, into STEM subjects. This is important, of course. But literacy and verbal skills are where boys lag furthest behind girls, and these skills matter a lot to later educational prospects: moving students up by a single letter grade in ninth grade English increases the probability of college enrollment by 10 percentage points, according to a study by Esteban M. Aucejo and Jonathan James. Currently, men account for 12% of the English teachers in middle school, a lower share than in any other subject, and 23% of those in high school.

One option is to borrow an idea from the STEM field and provide college students majoring in English the opportunity to gain their teacher accreditation at the same time, reducing the years of study.

Finally, programs focused on bringing Black men into teaching should expand to focus on men, period. For instance, the Call Me MISTER program, originating in South Carolina and now with participating schools of education in Georgia and Texas, offers financial and academic support to Black men. But it is not just Black male teachers we need. For instance, we also need more Hispanic men in our classrooms. Teaching is now the profession of choice among college-educated Latinas, according to sociologist Glenda Flores, but there has been no equivalent upturn among Latino men. Best would be a much broader campaign, building on the success of programs like Call Me MISTER, but for men of all races and ethnicities.

"We face a potentially damaging labor shortage in one of the largest and most important sectors of our economy. But we are trying to solve it with only half the workforce."

Recruiting more men into teaching would not only help boys, but also address the nation’s broader challenge of teacher recruitment. In 2014, public opinion on teaching passed an ominous milestone. For the first time ever, a majority of parents answered “No” to the following survey question, “Would you like to have your child take up teaching in the public schools?” (54% “No,” up from 28% just five years earlier). Enrollment rates in teacher training programs declined by more than a third between 2000 and 2018, and the fall was larger for men than for women.

When longer-term solutions are discussed, however, nothing is said about the possibility of attracting more men to the profession. We face a potentially damaging labor shortage in one of the largest and most important sectors of our economy. But we are trying to solve it with only half the workforce.

Less Talk, More Shop

The second major policy reform I propose is a massive investment in male-friendly vocational education and training, now commonly called “career and technical education” (CTE). Our educational system’s singular focus on the traditional college route sends a strong signal that some skills are more valuable than others, specifically the ones that make you “college ready.” There is much to criticize in the classism and “cult of smart,” in Fredrik DeBoer’s label, that underpins a lot of thinking and policy in this area. One upshot has been a persistent under-valuing of vocational learning, which has been harmful in general, but especially for boys and men. Consistent with evidence that, on average, males are a little more interested in things and females more interested in people, male students seem to do better with a more “hands on” and practical approach to learning and so benefit most from a more vocational approach.

A few high-quality studies stand out. The first examined the impact of career academies, which are small, vocationally oriented high schools. An evaluation of nine academies in New York by MDRC found little positive effect on traditional education metrics, such as grades, test scores, and college entry. But male students from these schools, mostly Hispanic and Black, saw a 17% earnings boost, equivalent to an extra $30,000, over the eight years of the follow-up study. This wage bump is similar to the one for students completing two years of community college. For young women graduating from the academies, there was no apparent benefit on any measured outcome.

A second study examined the impact of a statewide system of 16 CTE schools in Connecticut, which collectively educate around 11,000 students (7% of those in the school system). Male students at these schools had a graduation rate 10 percentage points higher than in traditional schools, and their wages were 33–35% higher by the age of 23. Again, there were no apparent gains for female students. These U.S. studies echo similar findings from a study in Norway, where a new vocational track in high school boosted earnings for male participants. As the authors Marianne Bertrand, Magne Mogstad, and Jack Mountjoy write, “Considerations related to differential benefits by gender should be an integral part of the policy conversation surrounding vocational education.”

High school curricula need more “hands-on” elements. This does not mean sending all the boys into shop class to learn a trade while the girls polish their college application essays. The goal here is more of what philosopher Joseph Fishkin calls “opportunity pluralism.” Rather than a single narrow path in what he calls a “unitary opportunity structure,” there should be many different routes to success.

But there has been a precipitous decline in career and technical education (CTE) in American schools, a result of the go-to-college obsession and a residual fear of “tracking” some students away from more academic classes. Between 1992 and 2013 (the last year for which data are available), the number of CTE credits earned by U.S. high school students dropped by 17%. Federal spending has declined in the last few decades.

Another problem is that almost all the investment in CTE goes to within-school courses, even though the best evidence on the benefits of CTE is from whole-school approaches. We need more CTE in every school, for sure. But more importantly, we need more CTE schools. By my estimates, there are currently around 1,600 technical high schools in the country, accounting for about 7% of all public high schools. These are clustered in larger urban or suburban school districts in the Northeast. Overall, only 12% of school districts have a CTE school. We should aim to add at least 1,000 new technical high schools across the nation by 2030, enrolling around one million students. If the federal government offered states a subsidy of $5,000 per student for these schools to address the higher cost associated with high-quality technical education, the cost would be around $5 billion per year. But the positive result would be to allow around 15% of all high school students to attend a technical high school.

"We should aim to add at least 1,000 new technical high schools across the nation by 2030, enrolling around one million students."

Beyond high school, we should expand apprenticeships. Despite some recent growth, the U.S. remains stuck right at the bottom of the international table for the number of adults taking apprenticeships, at about 600,000. It is true that apprenticeships skew male—more than nine in ten apprentices are men—but given the overall challenges facing boys and men, I think this should be seen as a feature rather than a bug. The National Apprenticeship Act, which passed in the House of Representatives in 2021, would invest $3.5 billion over five years to create nearly one million new apprenticeships, which could provide a real alternative to college for many of the three million or so students who graduate from high school each year.

Figures like these—$5 billion for CTE high schools, $3.5 billion for apprenticeships—stand in stark contrast to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually to subsidize higher education, or the half trillion promised by the Biden administration to forgive student debt. The necessary transformation of our education system in a male-friendly direction requires an intentional recruitment effort of male teachers and a wholesale shift of resources towards more vocational form of learning.

A good education is an important stepping stone towards a good life. Boys who struggle at school and college are more likely to become men who struggle in the workplace and in family life. Helping boys and men is not an alternative to helping girls and women: It is the other side of the same coin. Right now, we are failing too many of our boys. “There is now wide consensus that gender inequalities are unfair, and lead to wasted human potential,” says Francisco Ferreira of the London School of Economics, commenting on the growing education gaps. “That remains true when the disadvantaged are boys, as well as girls.”

Richard V. Reeves
Richard V. Reeves is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the new book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It (2022), from which this essay is adapted.
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