ResearchEducation & Skills, Employment

Research Summary: Three ideas to help boys at school

Apr 30, 2024
Richard Reeves
A water color painting of kids interacting in front of a school

This piece is a summary of the recent Journal of Policy Analysis and Management Point/Counterpoint article by AIBM President Richard Reeves in conversation with Dr. Diane Schanzenbach.

Read The Full Article

This summary focuses on the first piece, read the full open access exchange:

In what follows, I:


  • Describe some of the gender gaps in educational outcomes in the U.S.
  • Distinguish between three different policy approaches to tackling them: gender-neutral, gender-sensitive or gender-based policies.
  • Describe examples of policies in each of the three categories.
  • Propose and defend both gender-sensitive and gender-based policies to help boys and men.

When feminist scholars cite a “gendered injustice,” it was once a safe bet that they would be referring to inequities disfavoring girls or women. No longer. The feminist philosopher Cordelia Fine, for example, now uses the term to describe the wide gaps in U.S. education where, as a group, boys and men are lagging behind their female peers (Fine, 2023).

To say that the male–female education differences amount to an injustice is a strong claim, and one that can safely be left to scholars of justice like Fine. But it is clear that these gaps are at the very least a serious problem which demands a stronger response from policymakers. In a new article for the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (JPAM) I argue for a range of interventions with the goal of creating a male-friendlier K-12 education system. (Do check out the whole article and subsequent rich exchange with Diane Schanzenbach).

I’ve written and spoken elsewhere about the extent of gender gaps in education: see Of Boys and Men, or either my TED or ExcelinED talks on the subject. For the latest on the higher education gaps, which largely reflect those that open up in the K-12 years, see AIBM’s new research brief, “Degrees of Difference: Male College Enrollment and Completion.”

In my JPAM article I distinguish between three different policy approaches to tackling the gender gap in education, which I label as gender-neutral, gender-sensitive or gender-based. I then argue for some policies that range from gender-sensitive (such as more vocational educational opportunities) to gender-based (such as starting boys in school later) to those that are arguably a mix (such as incentives for men to enter the teaching profession).

These categories are similar to those used by Susan Klein in a 1987 article. She distinguished between “intentional” educational policies with regard to gender gaps and “general” ones, which have “no specific intentions related to gender, but with unintended effects on females.” The key difference is that I add a middle category: in my framework, gender-sensitive policies are “general” in the sense that they are not restricted to only one gender, but are “intentional” in the sense that they will have a bigger effect on one or the other.

Gender-neutral policies aim at improving overall educational outcomes, with no explicit consideration of gender in their design or implementation. The vast majority of programs and initiatives will fall into this bucket. As a general proposition, this is just as it should be. The case for focusing resources to help one gender more than the other, or even to the exclusion of the other, requires strong evidence that a) there is a significant gender gap to be addressed; and b) that there are programs that will help to address that gap, by helping whichever group is at a disadvantage.

But even here policymakers have to be, or should be, alert to unintended gender differences in the impact of gender-neutral policies. There are a surprising number of policy reforms that generate positive results for girls or women, but not boys and men. Being gender-neutral in the pursuit of a policy goal does not mean being gender-blind in evaluation of policy impact.

More technical high schools: a gender-sensitive policy approach

Vocationally-oriented learning seems to benefit boys and men more than girls and women—on average, of course. For example:

  • A 2023 MDRC evaluation of the seven founding P-TECH programs in New York City, for example, which are vocationally-oriented 9–14 initiatives based on a three-way partnership between high schools, employers, and community colleges. Male students were 9.9 percentage points more likely to obtain a postsecondary degree within 7 years of entering high school. There were no statistically significant gains for female students (Rosen et al., 2023).
  • An earlier evaluation, also by MDRC, of Career Academies, small, vocationally oriented high schools, which generated a 17% earnings boost, equivalent to an extra $30,000, over the 8 years of the follow-up study, for male students. There were no statistically significant gains for female students (Kemple & Willner, 2008).
  • A study of Connecticut’s statewide system of 17 technical (CTE) high schools in Connecticut, which collectively educate around 11,000 students, or 7% of those in the school system, showed a 10 percentage-point higher graduation rate for male students than for those in traditional schools. Their wages were 33% to 35% higher by the age of 23 and there were no apparent gains for female students (Brunner et al., 2021).

But there are not many such schools. Of the 98% of school districts that offer CTE programs, only 12% have a full-time, CTE-focused high school. Adding more technical high schools would almost certainly improve educational outcomes for boys. I estimate that adding 1,000 new CTE secondary schools could be achieved for around $4 billion a year.

Given the results of the evaluation studies, only showing benefits for boys overall, should these be single-sex schools? No. Even if, in general, girls derive less benefit from attending these schools, some girls will, and they should not be denied access to this opportunity, just as young men in Kalamazoo should not be denied the Promise Program.

As Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, requiring the Virginia Military Institute to become coed, differences on average between male and female learners do not as a rule justify separation. VMI might be a better learning environment for the average boy compared to the average girl, Justice Ginsberg conceded, but this did not provide a justification for excluding girls “whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description” (United States v. Virginia, 1996). (Today, around 13% of students at VMI are women.)

But the expansion of technical high school I propose does have the explicit intention of helping boys and young men. Success would be judged primarily against that metric. If the schools skew heavily male, that should be considered good news, not bad news. At the margin, it would make sense to market these schools primarily to male students. It would, in other words, be a gender-sensitive policy.

More male teachers: a (mostly) gender-sensitive approach

The male share of K–12 teachers is now 23%, down from 33% at the beginning of the 1980s (Ingersoll et al., 2018). Black, Hispanic and Asian male teachers are especially underrepresented, as we show in an AIBM research brief, “Missing Misters: Gender Diversity among Teachers”. A striking chart from that brief shows the ratio of teachers to students in K-12 schools by race and gender

There is some limited evidence that male teachers can help boys learn more effectively. Thomas Dee (2006) 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.” On the other hand, work by Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero (2018) found no strong evidence that male teachers are associated with better outcomes for either girls or boys, though points to “suggestive evidence” that male teachers of color might be: which is exactly where the gap is greatest.

I think it’s fair to say that we don’t know for sure what the benefits of more male teachers would be, certainly in terms of narrow educational outcomes. But there are of course broader cultural and social factors here too which are necessarily harder to measure. More work on this question is surely needed. But assuming that one way to help boys is to recruit more male teachers, or at least to stem the downward trend in male share, how?

I propose the provision of scholarships and stipends for men training as K–12 teachers, in particular, but not exclusively, men of color and men intended to teach English, where men are even more underrepresented than in most other subjects. The good news is that some states are now acting to encourage and help more men of color into teaching, for example in Illinois, Minnesota and New Jersey. These are akin to the ones available to women pursuing STEM subjects and careers. Since the main goal of these programs is (at least from my perspective) to help boys, it should be seen as a gender-sensitive policy. But in implementation it would be a gender-based policy, since the programs are only available to men.

Redshirting boys: A gender-based policy

Boys develop, on average, a little later than girls. The gap is mostly in the development of non-cognitive skills, which are important for school success especially in adolescence. This fact should influence education policy.

Specifically, by default, boys should start school later than girls, spending extra time in pre-K. This is already fairly common practice in more educated and affluent families. Among summer-born boys with BA-educated parents, the redshirting rate was 20%, according to an analysis of 2010/2011 data by Diane Schanzenbach. (Schanzenbach & Larson, 2017). In one DC private K–12 school (who shared their data with me on condition of anonymity), 30% of senior boys were older than the cut off dates for school entry for their cohort, compared to 7% of girls.

There’s some evidence that being a year older helps boys, especially those from lower-income backgrounds:

  • In a predominantly low-income and racially diverse sample, Cascio and Schanzenbach (2016) found that being a year older had a positive impact on test scores in eighth grade, reduced the risks of repeating a grade before high school, and improved the chances of taking the SAT or ACT at the end of high school. But the benefits for boys were at least twice as big as for girls on all the outcome measures through 8th grade, and by high school only boys were seeing any gains.
  • A study by Cook and Kang (2018), using data from North Carolina, found that redshirted children are doing significantly better in both reading and math by the end of third grade, especially boys. Looking at gender gaps within racial groups, they found that the 10% redshirting rate among White boys reduced the overall gender gap among White students in third grade reading by 11%.
  • A Norwegian study (Flatø et al., 2023) exploits a sharp change in policy away from redshirting, introduced at different times in different regions, and finds that the option of a later start increased adult earnings by 4% for redshirted boys from the younger end of the cohort. The positive effects of a later school start were greatest for boys from lower-income families, who were also most likely to be redshirted under the previous policy regime.

The idea here is not to force children of either sex to start at a certain age, but to change the “default setting” so that boys start school somewhat later. I have previously argued that the default should be set a year older for boys, but the evidence suggests much bigger benefits for the younger boys. So I would now argue for setting the default entry birth date for boys at 6 months later than for girls. Parents would be at liberty to override the default, to either hold back their daughter or accelerate their son, just as they are in the current system (except in Chicago and New York where redshirting is prohibited).

An obvious objection to such a blunt policy intervention is that all such systems are blunt tools. There is a good deal of overlap in the development of boys and girls, at any chosen age, with the degree of overlap depending on what yardsticks are selected. But the same is true of children in one grade and those in the grade above or below, separated only by the blunt tool of an age cut-off for school entry.

A vital component of this proposal is that the students who do start school later get a longer dose of pre-K. And most of these will be boys: that’s the point of the policy. Whether these extra resources are justified will depend on how the long-run educational and economic outcomes of boys change as a result, which is an empirical question, and possibly a legal one too. So careful evaluation of pilot studies is essential.


There is much to learn about the extent and causes of the gender gaps in education, and even more to learn about which solutions are most effective. Diane Schanzenbach disagrees with my redshirting proposal. But as she writes, “we certainly need to pay attention to improving boy’s achievement levels”.

Given the current research base, there is a lack of good evidence on precisely the best policies to help boys and men in education. (This is one reason for the creation of AIBM). But there is no serious debate about the need for action.