The Other Gender Gap Starts in Kindergarten
As boys fall farther behind in school, it’s time to seriously consider the benefits of “redshirting.”
To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is vital we understand and accept that seemingly contrary ideas can all be true: That widespread discrimination persists against girls and women in Hawai‘i and America. That men still rule the world of business, politics and power. And yet that on average, our boys and men are doing much worse than girls and women in education and health.
The indicators of this education reality are widespread. In Hawai‘i, 37% of women ages 25 to 34 have a bachelor’s degree, at least, while only 27% of men do, according to a 2022 report by the Brookings Institution.
That means one big gender gap between women and men has been reversed in the past half century: Women are now as far ahead in higher education as men were when Title IX became law 51 years ago.
The female-male education gap begins early. The state DOE does not make it easy to compare boys and girls test scores in our public schools. But Stanford University research shows that in Hawai‘i public schools, on average, girls are testing at their expected grade level while boys are testing at 0.72 of a grade below their expected grade level. That’s almost a full grade below where they are supposed to be.
That gap in test scores is similar nationwide. And the K-12 education gaps can be measured in GPA, graduation rates, school readiness and other ways.
One Possible Solution
Let’s stop to consider one idea for dealing with this challenge: Hold boys back a year before they enter school. That’s because boys are less developmentally ready than girls around ages 5 and 6 for the learning environment of schools. And less socially and emotionally prepared.
That practice of “redshirting” boys – borrowing a college athletics term to describe waiting a year to enroll them in school – is trending among some affluent parents who send their kids to private schools. They have studied the data, biology and other evidence and know redshirting could benefit their boys.
I imagine that if this practice were widespread among public schools, it would benefit both the boys who delay and everyone else in the classroom, including the girls, other boys and teachers, who would face fewer disruptions from boys.
That shows one way some solutions are not zero-sums: Helping boys and men should make lives better for everyone, including girls and women. We can still work to eliminate discrimination against females while trying to fix the challenges of males.
A Societal and Personal Challenge
Richard Reeves, the co-author of the Brookings report, cites a study in Tennessee schools that shows the positive outcomes of redshirting are greatest for lower-income boys. That makes sense because the education gaps between boys and girls tend to be largest at the lowest income levels, and because rising out of childhood poverty into a more affluent adulthood is more common among females than males.
There are downsides to redshirting. One is cost: Parents would need to provide an extra year of child care before enrolling their children in free public education. The second downside: Boys would reach the age at which they could drop out of school at an earlier grade level. Of course, we could raise the dropout age by a year to counter that problem.
There are other solutions to the K-12 education gap. Some charter schools in Hawai‘i have curricula and teaching methods that may be better suited to boys and girls who don’t thrive in traditional schools. And vocation and technical training better suits some students – boys and girls.
We face challenges on this education gender gap, both as a society and as parents. We have to recognize and deal with them while not ignoring that men still earn more money than women, still control the levers of power and still commit far more violence against women than the reverse.