How Elementary Schools Keep Men Out Of College

Standard approaches to early literacy instruction make many boys feel like failures.

Women increasingly outnumber men on college campuses, with devastating implications for the life chances of American males. The root of the problem may lie in our misguided approach to early reading instruction.

Articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and other publications have recently reported that the gender gap has reached record levels, with a roughly 60-40 split in enrollment and an even wider one at graduation. Perhaps not coincidentally, there’s been a dramatic surge in the number of men of prime working age who are neither employed nor seeking work. “Is the American male disappearing from universities and the workplace?” one commentator has wondered.

There’s no shortage of men at the top tiers of elite professions, of course; the males most likely to skip college hail from low-income families. That can produce what Thomas Edsall has described as a vicious generational cycle: men with little education are less likely to marry but may well father children, leading to more boys growing up without a male parent in the home—which in turn leads to poor educational outcomes.

The superior academic performance of females is nothing new. In the 1990s, it was widely believed that girls were discriminated against in school, but in 1997 55% of full-time college students were female and 45% were male. Still, things have gotten worse.

Edsall worries about “legions of left-behind men”—presumably white—who express their anger by joining an “assault on democracy.” Others focus on the low academic performance of Black and Hispanic males. Efforts have been launched to recruit more Black and Hispanic male teachers, on the theory that the problem is a lack of role models, and to establish all-boys public schools catering to students of color.

One such institution is Statesman Academy for Boys, a Washington, D.C. charter school, which provides a learning environment that “honors the way that boys experience the world,” according to the school’s website. That includes such things as “making space and movement a part of learning” and engaging students through “competition, collaboration and games.” The school claims it “completely reimagines … the student experience for Black and Brown males, using the latest research and best practices.” (Emphasis in original.)

Evidence on the benefits of single-sex education is inconclusive—and the constitutionality of single-sex public schools is questionable, especially if they claim they’re designed for students of specific races. But the number of such schools is growing, and few legal challenges have been mounted. The prevailing attitude seems to be: maybe it violates the Equal Protection Clause, but if it might work, who cares?

Some commentators don’t go so far as to advocate for all-male schools, but they have pointed to standard teaching practices in the elementary grades as a root cause of the college gender imbalance. Education writer Richard Whitmire argues that education reforms have ratcheted up early reading and writing expectations, and that girls, with their faster-maturing brains, are better able to adapt. Michael Petrilli, who heads the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, maintains that a basic problem is low teacher expectations, citing a study showing that teachers generally underestimate boys’ reading abilities.

I agree that a large part of the problem is early literacy instruction—and that, as both Whitmire and Petrilli point out, many children never get the systematic phonics instruction that would enable them to decipher words fluently, largely because of deficiencies in teacher training. Boys are more likely to become disruptive when they struggle with reading, beginning a cycle that often leads to disengagement from school. But the problem goes beyond poor phonics instruction and mismatched expectations—whether low ones, as Petrilli would have it, or unrealistically high ones, as Whitmire argues.

The typical elementary school day looks as though it was designed to entice boys into committing disciplinary infractions. During the bulk of instructional time, the teacher works directly with a series of small groups while the rest of the class is supposedly engaged in independent work. That means very young children are expected to regulate their own behavior and direct their own learning. And a lot of what they’re expected to do is pretty boring, especially during the “reading block,” which can take up two or three hours of the day.

That’s not necessarily because they’re being drilled on phonics, as some might assume; kids can become very engaged in phonics-related songs and games. Much of the reading block is devoted to comprehension practice that foregrounds “skills” like “finding the main idea,” with students independently reading simple books on random topics. Or kids may be given worksheets or computer programs that ask them to do things like compare fruits and vegetables, on the baseless theory that mastering the “skill” of comparing and contrasting will equip them to read complex text.

Girls may find these activities tedious, but—perhaps because of their faster-maturing brains—they seem better able than boys to control their behavior and boredom. At one high-poverty school, I followed a first-grade class for several months. Unfortunately for the teacher, it had 14 boys and six girls, and most of the time it was a scene of barely controlled chaos. One day a tiny girl, encouraged by the teacher, pleaded for quiet, explaining that she couldn’t think with all the noise. The teacher did nothing more, and the noise continued. But when the teacher did discipline a student, it was almost always a boy.

A few months later, I began following another first-grade class in a different high-poverty school—an all-girls charter. The atmosphere was much calmer. But because instruction centered on the same illusory comprehension skills, the girls still weren’t learning much.

At the same time, I was following a second-grade class in yet another high-poverty school—this one using an atypical literacy curriculum that focused on rich content, including topics in history and science, rather than decontextualized comprehension skills. Students spent some time reading on their own, but much of the reading block was devoted to information-packed stories the teacher read aloud to all students, which the class discussed. The discussions were often at a level far beyond what most people would expect from second-graders, and—even though there were plenty of boys in the class—I observed few disciplinary incidents.

One prime candidate for discipline was a boy I’ll call Amir, who was Black (all the students were either Black or Hispanic). Amir was bright and charming, but he craved attention: he would wander around the classroom, make noises, talk out of turn. His teacher had developed ways of dealing with his outbursts, but what really worked was getting him interested in the content that was being taught.

One day, for example, the read-aloud was about the human excretory system—not a promising topic for Amir, who once started exuberantly calling out the word “poop” just because a story mentioned plumbing. But after the story explained that urine was actually cleaner than saliva, it was Amir—to the teacher’s surprise—who asked thoughtfully if that meant people could drink their own urine.

Admittedly, this evidence is anecdotal. But a recent study found that a kindergarten curriculum centered on science content significantly boosted reading motivation for both boys and girls—and its positive impact on reading comprehension was greater for boys. We need more research on the effects of content-rich elementary curricula, especially as they relate to boys and literacy.

No doubt there are multiple reasons for the gender imbalance on college campuses, and switching to a content-rich elementary curriculum won’t address them all. But it could prevent untold numbers of boys from concluding that school just isn’t for them at a time when their academic careers have barely started.