Jan 11, 2011 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.

Are boys really failing?

So, why doboys fail? A great many teachers, school board members, district administrators and researchers have considered the implications of this question. As a scientist, a researcher, a business leader, and yes, as a man, the question both fascinates and disturbs me for any number of reasons, so I’d like to take a minute to talk about the question and its implications. Why do boys fail? Why indeed.

This question tells us point blank that boys are failing. But behind every question that starts with “why” there lies an assumed truth. When a child asks, “Why is the sky blue?” that question is based on the observation that, most certainly, the sky is blue. When someone--no matter how well informed--asks why our nation’s boys are failing, the underlying assumed truth is that yes, our boys are failing.

But are they?

According to Sara Mead and her 2006 survey of the applicable research, the issue is not necessarily that boys are failing. In fact, performance among males has been on the rise in recent years. Still, the achievement gap between males and females is also becoming more pronounced because performance among females is going up faster than their male counterparts.

So, what are the facts in regards to the performance of the boys? As an example, let’s look at the trend of boys’ performance in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that Mead references in her article:

  • On the most recent NAEP administered in 2008, fourth grade boys did better in reading than on the previous two comparable assessments.  
  • Long term data suggests that 9-year-old boys fared better on the 2004 and 2008 reading assessments than ever before, dating back to the first administering of the test in 1971.  
  • Since 1971, reading performance among 13-year-olds remained stable, while among 17-year-olds performance had been declining through the 1990s. But, the most recent 2008 results show scores for both age groups are back on the rise.

It should be noted that performance for minority boys is “shockingly low” (Mead’s words) as compared to Caucasians, but, from 1995 to 2005, African American boys improved more than Caucasian and Hispanic boys or girls of any ethnicity.

But what does achievement look like when we compare the boys and the girls?

  • Girls tend to outperform boys in reading.
  • Boys tend to outperform girls in science and math.
  • There has been no significant overall decline in the academic performance of boys relative to girls.

Overall, the picture of performance as snapshots as well as in trends over time paint an extremely complex picture, and the data can be creatively compiled to support any number of agendas.

The question itself, “Why do boys fail?” can be used to criticize educators and practices. It can be used to make a statement about the educational system. It can be used to cause shock, create fear for our nations’ future, or inspire us to action.

No matter how you interpret the question, I suggest that we all simply become as knowledgeable as possible of the facts, and use that understanding and inspiration--whether that drive is based in shock, fear or hope--to continue to improve teaching and our educational systems. Because in the end, our goal is that none should fail.

Here are a few resources to spur your understanding:



1 Marianne Perie, Wendy S. Grigg, and Patricia L. Donahue, The Nation's Report Card: Reading 2005 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. 2005).

2 Rampey, B.D., Dion, G.S., and Donahue, P.L. (2009). NAEP 2008 Trends in Academic Progress (NCES 2009–479). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

3 M. Perie, R. Moran, and A.D. Lutkus, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Achievement in Reading and Mathematics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005).