Richard Reeves: How to solve the education crisis for boys and men

Recorded atApril 17, 2023
Duration (min:sec)15:31
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute177.85 medium
Readability (FK)58.46 easy
SpeakerRichard Reeves

Official TED page for this talk


While studying inequality and social mobility, Richard Reeves made a surprising discovery: in some countries, like the US and UK, boys are drastically lagging behind girls across many academic measures. He explains why these struggles in school are indicative of the larger crises facing boys and men -- and outlines how society could thoughtfully tackle these challenges to work towards a more inclusive, equitable future. (Followed by a Q&A with head of TED Chris Anderson)

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:04 In 1972, the US passed a landmark piece of legislation.
200:10 The new law was called Title IX, and it expanded economic and educational opportunities for women, especially in higher education.
300:19 Back then, there was a 16-percentage-point gap in the awarding of college degrees in favor of men.
400:26 Within a decade, women had caught up and then just blew right past the men.
500:33 Today, there's an 18-percentage-point gap in the awarding of college degrees.
600:38 So there's a bigger gender gap today, in US higher education, than there was 50 years ago when Title IX was passed.
700:48 It's just the other way around.
800:52 I study inequality for a living, and for most of my career, I focused on the divides of class and race.
900:59 But in recent years, I've just been noticing more and more gender gaps and not in the direction that I was expecting.
1001:08 Probably like most of you, I’m used to thinking about gender equality and the goal of gender equality as synonymous with the advancement of women and girls.
1101:17 But it's now clear that there are many boys and men who've fallen behind and that we have to be able to think about gender inequality in both directions.
1201:27 One thing that makes that hard is that the changes have been so quick, so rapid, that it's hard to update our beliefs to match the new facts.
1301:36 It's a bit like the needles on a compass swinging round.
1401:39 Suddenly north is south and south is north.
1501:42 It's really quite disorienting.
1601:46 But it's clear that on some measures at least now men are lagging quite a way behind, not least on college campuses.
1701:54 And that reflects the fact that boys are trailing girls throughout the education system.
1802:00 Two thirds of the top academic performers in high school, measured by GPA, are girls.
1902:07 And two thirds of those at the bottom are boys.
2002:12 It's not just in the US.
2102:14 If we look at the 20 most economically advanced countries in the world, there's on average a 13-percentage-point gap in the share of young men and young women with a college degree, with young women much more likely to have a college degree.
2202:27 And in some nations, the gap is much bigger.
2302:30 In Norway, for example, there's almost a 20-point gap.
2402:36 And just like in the US, these differences at the college level reflect what's happening earlier in the school system.
2502:44 It used to be that maybe boys were ahead in math and science, girls were ahead in reading and language in roughly equal measure.
2602:52 That's not true today.
2702:53 Internationally, at the age of 15, there's a five-point gap in favor of boys and math.
2802:59 There's essentially no gap in science, a slight gap in favor of girls actually in science.
2903:04 But boys are 30 points behind girls at the age of 15 in reading and language skills.
3003:11 But not all boys and men are struggling in the same way.
3103:15 The intersection of gender with class and race really matters here.
3203:20 So boys from poorer households and middle-class households, much less likely to attend college than girls from the same background.
3303:28 But there's a much smaller gap at the top of the economic ladder.
3403:32 I think one of the reasons that elites can sometimes struggle to grasp what's going on with boys and men is that the gender gaps are just much less stark in affluent communities.
3503:44 And the gender gaps are even more stark for Black Americans.
3603:49 For every Black man getting a college degree, there are two Black women.
3703:55 So anybody who really cares about boys and men has to care about racial injustice and economic inequality.
3804:06 And anybody who really cares about racial injustice and economic inequality has to care about boys and men.
3904:15 Now, the fact that the education system doesn't seem to be working very well for lots of boys and men is obviously not intentional.
4004:23 There wasn't a feminist conspiracy 100 years ago to say, "Well, it might take a century, but eventually we'll overtake them."
4104:33 (Laughter) Especially as it was men who mostly designed the school system.
4204:40 What’s happened is that as the artificial and sexist barriers that were placed in front of women and girls have been successively removed, so their natural advantages in the classroom have been revealed.
4304:54 Compared to girls, boys face two big structural disadvantages in education.
4404:59 First, their brains simply develop later.
4505:05 The skills of planning, organization and impulse control are associated with the prefrontal cortex, which develops in adolescence especially.
4605:15 But about a year later, on average, for boys than for girls.
4705:21 So there's a significant difference there in the timing of brain development.
4805:27 Social scientists refer to those skills, planning, organization, etcetera, as non-cognitive skills.
4905:33 I like to think of them as "chemistry homework" skills.
5005:37 You know, doing your chemistry homework requires a lot of steps.
5105:42 You have to be paying attention in class when the assignment is given.
5205:45 You have to make a note of it.
5305:47 You have to remember hours later that you're supposed to do it.
5405:51 You have to actually sit down and do it, instead of something more enticing instead.
5505:56 And remember, it's chemistry homework, so that's everything.
5605:59 (Laughter)
5706:00 Sorry, I know there are some chemists here, I'm sorry.
5806:03 And then turn it in.
5906:05 That's a lot of steps, right?
6006:07 That's a lot.
6106:10 Getting your homework done requires your impulse control to match what psychologists refer to as sensation seeking.
6206:17 Basically, that urge to go and do something more fun, more exciting.
6306:21 And even in the most difficult years of adolescence, which are also the crucial years for educational success, girls have a reasonable balance between impulse control and sensation seeking.
6406:36 But it's a very different story for adolescent boys.
6506:39 They have higher levels of sensation seeking.
6606:42 And with that less developed prefrontal cortex, they have significantly lower levels of impulse control.
6706:49 Again, on average.
6806:52 Now if you still don't believe me, go into any ninth or 10th grade classroom and ask all the students to open up their backpacks.
6907:02 (Laughter)
7007:04 Most, many, at least of the girls, will have pretty carefully organized, nicely labeled binders.
7107:11 And for many, if not most of the boys, it will resemble a small, controlled explosion.
7207:16 (Laughter)
7307:19 It's not that girls are smarter than boys.
7407:23 There's no gender gap in intelligence levels in either direction.
7507:28 It is just that girls develop more of these non-cognitive skills, these "chemistry homework" skills, somewhat earlier than boys do.
7607:38 That's just a fact.
7707:40 But it is a fact that we ignore in education policy.
7807:44 The second big structural problem that boys face in the classroom is the lack of male teachers.
7907:49 After falling for decades, the share of K-12 teachers who are male in the US is now just 23 percent.
8007:56 And falling.
8107:57 And the lack of male teachers matters for at least three reasons.
8208:01 First, for many children, [they] can be an important male role model, especially if they don't have one at home.
8308:07 And second, male teachers appear to be more sensitive to the specific challenges of boys in the classroom.
8408:14 I can vividly remember my own experience.
8508:17 I can actually still feel what it was like to sit for what felt like hours on end on an incredibly hard plastic chair, and that it was actually a male primary school teacher, Mr. Cole, who gave us more opportunities to move around, made the lessons a little bit more interactive.
8608:35 And the third reason male teachers may matter is there's some evidence that, especially in subjects like English, which is where the boys have fallen so far behind, having a male teacher seems to dispel the idea that reading and writing just aren't for me or for people like me.
8708:52 In a similar way to how having a female teacher has historically helped girls in STEM subjects.
8809:00 Right now, in too many of our schools, our boys feel like square pegs being forced into round holes.
8909:09 And too often our response is to try and fix the boys rather than fix the schools.
9009:14 The problems of boys are turned into problems with boys.
9109:20 If they struggle to sit still or pay attention or apply themselves to a task, they may be diagnosed with some kind of disability.
9209:27 Their problems are thus medicalized and often medicated.
9309:32 In the US today, 23 percent of school-age boys have been diagnosed with some form of developmental disability.
9409:39 Twice the rate for girls.
9509:41 ADHD, as you might expect, is the most common.
9609:45 But really, when one in four of our boys has a developmental disability, it seems clear to me that it is the system which is disabling rather than the boys who are disabled.
9709:59 (Applause)
9810:04 Now, there's a lot we can do to make the education system work better for boys.
9910:09 Let's start with those two big problems, of later brain development and lack of male teachers.
10010:14 So first, we should start boys in school a year later.
10110:18 And the idea there is to level the playing field, given those differences in the timing of brain development.
10210:24 And actually that's already quite common practice at private schools and in lots of affluent communities, but it's actually not the boys from rich families who will benefit the most from that extra year.
10310:35 It's the boys from lower-income, poorer neighborhoods and families who would most benefit from the gift of extra time for development.
10410:42 And that's why I think this should be a question of public policy.
10510:47 Second, we need to recruit hundreds of thousands more male teachers, especially in subjects like English, where the boys are struggling so much and which is the subject men are least likely to be teaching.
10611:00 And here I think we can draw some really good lessons from the successful movement to get more women and girls interested in STEM subjects.
10711:08 So that means setting clear targets, launching public campaigns and offering financial scholarships to men who want to enter teaching as a profession.
10811:19 Of course, those are changes that will take time.
10911:21 Those are long-term changes.
11011:23 And there are millions of boys and men who are struggling right now.
11111:28 And so if you're a parent or a teacher working with a boy or a young man who's in difficulty right now, my message to you is, first, be careful not to even inadvertently judge him against a female standard or blame him if he's struggling in a system that just might not be working very well for him.
11211:46 Recognize and respect the ways in which he's different.
11311:50 Don't say, "Why can't you be more like your sister?"
11411:56 Try not to even think that.
11511:59 It's very important that we don't treat our boys as if they were malfunctioning girls.
11612:06 And the second message to those people, cousins, parents, neighbors, friends, uncles, coaches, anybody working with a boy or a young man who is struggling right now, is simply, thank you.
11712:18 Thank you.
11812:20 They do need you.
11912:23 Of course, doing more for boys and men doesn't mean doing any less for women and girls.
12012:29 That’s like saying to the parent of a son and daughter: "You're only allowed to care about one of them."
12112:35 And it's the kind of zero-sum thinking that is doing so much damage to our politics and to our culture.
12212:41 We can think two thoughts at once.
12312:43 We can do two things at once.
12412:45 (Applause)
12512:47 Two thoughts at once, two things at once.
12612:49 That's why Norway, a country that's made huge investments, quite rightly for women and girls, but where boys and men have now fallen behind on many measures, has launched a commission for boys and men.
12713:01 I've talked about education today, but there are many other areas where many boys and men are struggling, including in mental health, including suicide risk.
12813:10 Loneliness and belonging, family life, employment.
12913:15 And I don't think we can afford to get this wrong.
13013:19 If there are real problems in a society, and responsible people don't acknowledge and address them, irresponsible people will exploit them.
13113:32 And that is already happening on this issue, both online and at the ballot box.
13213:37 We cannot leave a vacuum by neglecting this issue.
13313:42 The future cannot be female.
13413:46 Nor, of course, can the future be male.
13513:50 The future has to be for every single one of us, every boy and girl, we have to rise together.
13613:56 Thank you.
13713:57 (Applause)
13814:06 (Applause ends)
13914:08 Chris Anderson: Thank you, Richard.
14014:09 I've got a question for you.
14114:11 Come this way.
14214:13 So you gave great advice there for the system as a whole, for teachers, for parents.
14314:18 But suppose you're a 14-year-old boy listening to this talk.
14414:21 What would you say to him?
14514:23 Richard Reeves: Huh.
14614:25 Well, the first thing I’d say is that if you are struggling at school or in some aspects of your life, that's almost certainly not just your fault.
14714:32 It may be that the system is just not working for you.
14814:34 The second thing I would say is ...
14914:38 We see you.
15014:40 We've got you.
15114:41 We understand, we've got your back.
15214:43 And the third thing I would say is, don't follow the people who say that the reason you're struggling is because women are flourishing.
15314:52 Or because of feminism.
15414:53 Or because of changes in society.
15514:55 That we somehow have to, in order to lift boys up, we have to somehow push women and girls back down again.
15615:00 Don't fall for that.
15715:01 Understand that we get that you're struggling, but don't turn this into zero-sum.
15815:06 Don't turn to some of the darker corners of the internet where unfortunately, that is the message many of our boys are getting.
15915:12 But the first part that's really important, that whole conversation that we had about belonging, the wonderful difference in belonging, if our boys don't feel that they belong, that we've got them, that we see them, they're going to be much more vulnerable to those voices.
16015:27 So don't listen to those voices, but we need them to listen to us instead.
16115:31 CA: Thank you so much.
16215:32 (Applause)