Opinion: As boys flail in school, will a later start throw a lifeline?

Boys are sinking in school. The author of a new book says we can throw them a lifeline by starting boys a year later in school than girls because, on average, the male brain matures more slowly.

Boys are sinking in school. The author of a new book says we can throw them a lifeline by starting boys a year later in school than girls because, on average, the male brain matures more slowly.

As the father of three sons, economist Richard Reeves understands the parental frustrations that begin in kindergarten with teacher comments about wiggly boys who won’t sit still and continue through high school with report cards showing incomplete work

He proposes a solution in his new book, “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.” A senior fellow and director of the Boys and Men Project at the Brookings Institution, Reeves recommends boys begin school a year later than girls because, on average, they and their brains mature more slowly.

The practice — known as academic redshirting — is limited in public schools that maintain rigid starting ages but is more common in private schools amenable to parent assertions their sons are “young for their age,” or “not emotionally ready.” In one elite prep school, 30% of boys in the graduating class were older than their classmates, compared to 7% of girls, said Reeves in a telephone interview about “Of Boys and Men.” Born in Great Britain, where he served as director of strategy to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg from 2010 to 2012, Reeves now lives in Maryland.

Richard V. Reeves is author of a new book about the challenges facing men and boys in America. (Courtesy of Brookings Institution)

Credit: Brookings Institution

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Credit: Brookings Institution

He understands working parents rely on school as child care and delaying kindergarten would impose a financial burden. Any change to the start of schools must be combined with an investment in quality child care and pre-K classes, he said.

On the sidelines of soccer games, at neighborhood potlucks and in moms’ forums, parents of sons have long commiserated over forgotten homework, lost sweatshirts and broken pottery, bones or teeth. Many parents in Georgia already distress over when to start school when their children have summer birthdays, which are close to the kindergarten eligibility cutoff date of Sept. 1.

Reeves offers compelling evidence that boys are falling behind. Girls are now almost a grade level ahead in English, and they’ve caught up with boys in math performance. Girls account for two-thirds of the top 10% of grade-point averages, while boys account for two-thirds of the bottom decile.

In 1972, men were 13 percentage points more likely than women to get a bachelor’s degree. Today, women are 15 percentage points more likely than men to earn a bachelor’s degree. “Gender inequality in higher education is wider today than it was 50 years ago when Title IX was passed,” he said, “but the other way around.”

Reeves doesn’t minimize that women still suffer in salary comparisons. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau found that full-time, year-round working women earned 82% of what their male counterparts earned, which researchers say owes to the overrepresentation of females in lower-paying occupations.

The goal ought to be redesigning the labor market to be fairer to women and schools to be fairer to boys, said Reeves, whose research also focuses on inequality and social mobility. “There is no evidence that the rise of women is responsible for the fall of men. We can think there’s more to do for girls and women and still pay attention to some of these problems of boys and men,” he said.

Reeves delves into neuroscience, noting that the brain function most relevant to school success develops earlier in girls and the biggest gulf occurs in adolescence — which he saw with his own sons.

He says too few men are teachers — 24% in the K-12 space — and that won’t be eradicated until teacher salaries are raised. Reeves suggests the money the White House wants to spend on college debt relief might be better spent by giving a $10,000 pay raise to every teacher in the country.

In his book, Reeves cites the redshirting research of Northwestern University economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. I asked her about his proposal to delay school for boys.

“If I told you starting boys in kindergarten at 10 years old meant they would do better, I think you would believe that. But do you think that we should start boys at age 10? Probably not. Because we could lose a lot of other stuff from doing that,” said Schanzenbach. “There is a real cost to this because there’s one less year in the labor force for the boys starting at 6.”

While there may be differences in ability and maturity of children in kindergarten, Schanzenbach’s research shows kids catch up over time. “A child who starts school at 6 rather than 5 brings 20% more living to that classroom experience — more trips to the museum, more picture books, more ‘Blue’s Clues.’ But that advantage declines as you get older because that year becomes a smaller share of your life,” said Schanzenbach.

Schanzenbach understands Reeves’ goal is to start boys later so they’re older when they face the tumult of middle and high school, but says his solution forces the cost onto the boys. A less expensive solution may be to train teachers. “I see with my own kids that it matters having caring teachers who can help scaffold them and navigate through their rough periods.”