What about the boys? Addressing educational underachievement of boys and men during and beyond the COVID pandemic

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New World Bank report addresses educational underachievement among boys and men.
New World Bank report addresses educational underachievement among boys and men.

High-income countries know this all too well: no matter the grade or subject, boys have been underperforming in school compared to girls, and men have become less represented in higher education.  It’s a phenomenon that has been acknowledged in the literature of many high-income countries for decades, and now increasingly observed among middle-income countries. With the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education and the deepening of existing inequalities, it is important and timely to better understanding the underachievement of boys and men, in addition to girls and women.  Recent evidence highlights the significant effect of school closures on girls including the estimated 10 million additional girls at risk of child marriage over the next decade. Less is known about the effect on boys due to lacking global research on factors related to their underachievement prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new report from the World Bank takes stock of educational underachievement among boys and men and the contributing factors. The report examines three forms of educational underachievement among boys and men:

  1. Low levels of participation in education
  2. Low rates of education completion or graduation
  3. Low student learning outcomes

How extensive is educational underachievement among boys and men?

In every region of the world, and in almost every country, boys are more likely than girls to experience learning poverty, being unable to read and comprehend a simple text by the age of 10. The differences are substantial in some countries, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and among middle-income countries. For example, in lower-middle-income countries, the learning poverty rate for boys is 56 percent, compared to 47 percent for girls.

While girls’ underrepresentation in secondary and tertiary education remains a significant issue in some, particularly low-income, countries, there are more than 100 countries in which fewer boys/men than girls/women are enrolled in and complete secondary and higher education. Of the 152 countries with data, 116 (76%) have lower tertiary education enrollment ratios among men compared to women.  Not only are men less likely to participate in tertiary education, but they are also less likely to finish their programs of study. The overall disruption to enrollment and learning from the COVID-19 pandemic is well documented in many countries, and it can be expected that educational challenges will be especially experienced by certain subgroups of students, including boys and men who are underachieving.

Why does it matter?

Educational underachievement of any group has critical implications for individuals and for countries in their efforts to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all (Sustainable Development Goal 4) and to build human capital. If there were no underachievement of boys across the world — that is, if boys had the same learning-adjusted years of schooling as girls — a child's long-term annual productivity would be, on average, 1.3 percent higher. Maintained over the course of a decade, this represents an increase in total production of 13.9 percent. In MENA, this would be as high as 33.9 percent. These differences are particularly important considering that there is a strong relationship among boys and men between educational underachievement and economic and social disadvantage.

As the COVID pandemic subsides, addressing increased inequality will be a priority if education development strategies are to be put back on track.  The specific inequality challenge may bear out to be primarily gender related (regarding either boys or girls) in some countries, and thus will require a specific focus.

What explains educational underachievement among boys and men?

The explanations are wide and varied. The report uses three lenses to examine the key factors:

  1. Labor market influence. Incentives to continue education can be different for men and women. Men may have (or have had) the possibility of finding work without education. While returns to education should generally lead boys and men to continue their studies, this is often not the case. Falling behind and early failures in their education may narrow the potential of boys and men to access higher levels of education, pointing to the importance of promptly addressing potential barriers.
  2. Social norms. Prevalent social norms that dismiss the importance of education for boys and men provide some of the answers. Much research on the effect of social norms has focused on the concept of “hegemonic masculinity”, which encompasses a set of social norms (for example, emphasizing sexuality, physical strength, and social dominance) that can be at odds with those that are conducive to academic success. Among the theories on how family affects social norms, much has been written about “fatherless” households, where boys tend to experience more educational underachievement, and girls’ educational performance is affected significantly less.
  3. Characteristics of the education process. Education systems that emphasize the specific needs of each student and that create an inclusive environment free of gender stereotyping benefit both boys and girls. Attention needs to be paid to those specific issues and contexts in educational settings that affect and can mitigate the underachievement of boys and men.

The report finds that poverty accentuates educational underachievement for all, but particularly for boys and men. Socially disadvantaged boys and men are disproportionately affected by educational underachievement.  Boys have also been found to be more sensitive to certain factors of school climate or classroom environment, such as disciplinary problems and lacking student assessment and teacher accountability and appraisal.

What has been done about it?

While the issue has gained attention in high-income countries, very few of those have put in place systemwide policies or programs to address it.

Examples of interventions include quotas for entry to university, raising awareness of work opportunities after graduation, and technical education leading directly to the labor market. However, these interventions have had mixed results. Efforts to modify the influence of social norms have included attempts to create a counter-offensive through peer groups, clubs, parenting programs, and teacher training on social norm. Interventions that target the quality of education, particularly the ability of teachers to motivate and find connections to students’ lives, hold high expectations, and focus on individual talents and needs, appear to be crucial for underachieving boys, while also benefiting underachieving girls. These go beyond any idea of a “boy-friendly” pedagogy, instead recognizing that both boys and girls benefit when learning is high-quality, evidence-based, and scientifically grounded.

Where to now?

Educational underachievement among boys and men requires the attention of policymakers, development agencies, academics and analysts, and the public. This includes concerted efforts to improve the educational experience of all learners, with methods that engage and motivate those at the lower end of achievement — predominantly boys — while also being effective for all students.

More research is needed of the issues of male educational underachievement at the global and national levels, including in-depth country studies, thematic studies (such as on disadvantage, higher education, and the effect of labor markets on educational choices), and applied research to determine the effectiveness of interventions to address educational underachievement.

Research on gender has often viewed girls’/women’s and boys’/men’s achievement in isolation from one another, while a deeper understanding could be gained by studying them together. A more holistic view of gender could yield a complete and useful understanding of education underachievement, thereby avoiding an either/or approach to policies and programming. For example, removing gender stereotypes from curricula materials requires a consideration of prevalent stereotypes of both males and females. Likewise, developing strong readers requires investments in levelled reading material that is ample, varied, and pique the interests of both boys and girls. Taking a more holistic approach to gender and educational underachievement will be particularly important as education systems worldwide develop policies and strategies to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Accelerate Equality.

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Jaime Saavedra

Human Development Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank

Hana Brixi

Global Director, Gender

Michel Welmond

Lead Education Specialist

Laura Gregory

Senior Education Specialist

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