Douglas Todd: Should boys be held back in school, by default?

Opinion: The gender gap between learning scores for boys and girls in Grades 1 to 12 is undeniable. Here’s a radical idea.

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The gender gap between boys and girls in kindergarten to Grade 12 is undeniable.

Study after study has shown girls are outperforming boys, except perhaps in math, where males have a shrinking, razor-thin advantage. Other than that, pick your startling statistic.

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Boys are now twice as likely as girls to say “school is a waste of time,” according to a survey by the OECD, a club of 38 countries. Another from the U.S. shows boys are three times more likely than girls to be expelled from school. The disturbing list extends into higher education.

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Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, said it is “the strangest and most profound change of the century.”

But it’s hard to get a lot of contemporary educators to acknowledge it, let alone do anything about the threats to half the student body. B.C’s Ministry of Education and the B.C. Teachers Federation are among those showing scant interest.

Educators who seem to care about the gender gap have proposed reasonable changes: to increase the number of male teachers, especially in elementary schools, and to draw more males into the professions of health, education, administration and literacy (known as HEAL).

But there is also an idea more radical, at least on the surface.

It’s called “redshirting.”

The term comes from school athletics, when a player is held out of regular competition for a season.

In education, it is the idea of starting school a year later. Roughly one in eight North American parents already do it. Most do it for their sons.

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell first drew a bead on redshirting in his bestselling 2008 book, Outliers, when he dug up evidence showing children older than their classmates do better on academic tests and in life in general.

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Many studies show those who are redshirted, including girls, experience sharp reductions in hyperactivity and inattention through the elementary years, higher test scores in high school and elevated levels of life satisfaction.

Northwestern University economist Diane Schanzenbach and Dartmouth College’s Elizabeth Cascio recently studied a racially diverse sample of lower-income children who were held back a year, half of whom were Black, and found a positive impact on test scores in Grade 8 and improved chances of moving on to higher education. The benefits were at least twice as big for boys.

The most high-profile advocate today for redshirting boys is Richard Reeves, author of the best-selling book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to do About It.

Looking at parents who already redshirt their children, Reeves found a big surprise: Children with affluent parents are twice as likely to have a delayed school start as those from low-income homes.

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“There is a similar gap between white and Black children. Boys are more likely be redshirted than girls, especially by parents who are teachers. Children who are young for their school year are also more likely to be redshirted,” writes Reeves.

“And far from being those at most educational disadvantage, children who are redshirted have slightly above average literacy and math scores when the decision is made. In other words, the boys who will benefit least are the ones most likely to be redshirted.”

Thus, Reeves make a recommendation: “I propose that all boys be redshirted by default.”

“Introducing a one-year chronological age gap would reduce the developmental age gap between boys and girls. In other words it would be more equitable,” he writes.

“The main reason for starting boys later is not so that they will be a year older in kindergarten. It is so they will be a year older when they get to middle and high school.”

The BCTF could not be reached for comment. And when I asked B.C. Education Minister Rachna Singh and her staff four questions about the challenges facing boys and the possibility of redshirting more, or all, of them, their answers avoided any reference to boys.

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“Parents who are concerned about their child not being able to move to the next grade level should have those conversations with their teacher and principal,” said the Education Ministry. On a technical point, it said, “Students are expected to enrol in school when they are five (or turning 5 by December 31), but parents can defer school entry by one year.”

Asked directly whether the B.C. government’s move to get rid of letter grades from kindergarten to Grade 9 had anything to do with reducing the educational gap between girls and boys, the ministry ignored the question.

Richard Reeves
“The main reason for starting boys later is not so that they will be a year older in kindergarten. It is so they will be a year older when they get to middle and high school,” says author Richard Reeves.

Even among educators who openly show their concern for boys as a cohort, their response to the idea of delaying boys’ entry by a year was cautious.

Phil Gardner, a retired B.C. school counsellor, said redshirting “would certainly help some boys be better ready to meet the demands, educationally and socially, of the classroom.” But Gardner knows some boys who are ready for kindergarten when they’re three. “So it’s not a one-size fits all thing.”

Selina Daur, a veteran education assistant who has specialized in autism, doesn’t support redshirting children of “younger maturation.” She thinks most come from disadvantaged households, and would benefit more from early preschool.

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B.C. high school counsellor Calvin White, who writes about education, fears holding back boys en masse could further stereotype boys. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘You guys are not good enough. You don’t belong.’”

For his part, Reeves’s book addresses five arguments against redshirting boys. They include that parents would have to provide child care for another year and that it might not be legal to adopt a plan based on gender.

After addressing such “reasonable” concerns, Reeves maintains the only way to find out if widespread redshirting would be good for boys is through a pilot program in a selection of school districts.

“Let’s find out,” he says.

And if his bold idea is too much for many, educators could at least default to the recommendations to help boys that are less controversial. All three B.C. educators quoted in this piece generally endorse programs to draw more males to classroom teaching and into the HEAL professions.

Let’s stop avoiding. Let’s get started.

[email protected]

Twitter: @douglastodd


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