How to Make School Better for Boys

Sumitra Rajagopalan, an adjunct professor of biomechanics at Canada’s McGill University, developed a program for disengaged teenage boys in Montreal, where one in three male students drops out of high school. The male students she met were bored by their classroom instruction and starved for hands-on activities. She was shocked to find that many had never held a hammer or screwdriver.  Under her supervision, the boys built a solar driven Stirling engine from Coca-Cola cans and straws.” Boys are born tinkerers,” she said. “They have a deep-seated need to rip things apart, decode their inner workings, create stuff.”

Rajogopalan’s insight is supported by a large body of research showing that taken as a group, men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people. Of course, there are female tinkerers who like to work with things and gladly enter occupations such as pipefitting and metallurgy. But the number of men eager to enter these fields is substantially greater. Women still predominate—some­times overwhelmingly—in empathy-centered fields such as early-childhood education, social work, veterinary medicine, and psychology, while men prevail in the mechanical vocations such as car repair, oil drilling, and electrical engineering.

Young men may be a vanishing breed on the college campus, but there are some colleges that have no trouble attracting them—schools whose names include the letters T-E-C-H. Georgia Tech is 68 percent male; Rochester Institute of Technology, 68 percent; South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, 74 percent. This affinity pattern points to one highly promising strategy for reconnecting boys with school: vocational education, now called Career and Technical Education (CTE).

Enrollment in vocational programs has dramatic effects on students’ likelihood of graduating from high school—especially boys

In a rare example of the academic establishment taking note of boys’ trouble in school, the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently published a major study, Pathways to Prosperity, that highlights the “yawning gender gap” in education favoring women: “Our system… clearly does not work well for many, especially young men.” The authors call for a national revival of vocational education in secondary schools. They cite several existing programs that could serve as a model for national reform, including the Massachusetts system, sometimes called the “Cadillac of Career Training Education.”

Massachusetts has a network of 26 academically rigorous vocational-technical high schools serving 27,000 male and female students. Students in magnet schools such as Worcester Technical, Madison Park Technical Vocational, and Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical take traditional academic courses but spend half their time apprenticing in a field of their choice. These include computer repair, telecommunications networking, carpentry, early childhood education, plumbing, heating, refrigeration, and cosmetology. As Pathways reports, these schools have some of the state’s highest graduation and college matriculation rates, and close to 96 percent pass the states’ rigorous high-stakes graduation test.

Blackstone Valley Tech in Upton, Massachusetts, should be studied by anyone looking for solutions to the boy problem.  It is working wonders with girls (who comprise 44 percent of the student body), but its success with boys is astonishing. According to a white paper on vocational education by the Commonwealth’s Pioneer Institute, “One in four Valley Technical students enter their freshman year with a fourth-grade reading level.” The school immerses these students in an intense, individualized remediation program until they read proficiently at grade level. These potentially disaffected students put up with remediation as well as a full load of college preparatory courses (including honors and Advanced Placement classes), because otherwise they could not spend half the semester apprenticing in diesel mechanics, computer repair, or automotive engineering.

In former times, vocational high schools were often dumping grounds for low achievers. Today, in Massachusetts, they are launching pads into the middle class.

Recent research shows that enrollment in high school vocational programs has dramatic effects on students’ likelihood of graduating from high school—especially boys. But efforts to engage more boys in career and technical programs face a formidable challenge. In a series of scathing reports, the National Council on Women and Girls Education (NCWGE—a 38-year-old consortium that today includes heavy hitters such the AAUW, the National Women’s Law Center, the ACLU, NOW, the Ms. Foundation, and the National Education Association) has condemned high school vocational training schools as hotbeds of "sex segregation."

Because of decades of successful lobbying by NCWGE groups, high school and college career and technical training programs face government sanctions and loss of funds if they fail to recruit and graduate sufficient numbers of female students into “non-traditional” fields. Over the years, untold millions of state and federal dollars have been devoted to recruiting and retaining young women into fields like pipefitting, automotive repair, construction, drywall installing, manufacturing, and refrigeration mechanics.  But according to Statchat, a University of Virginia workforce blog, these efforts at vocational equity “haven’t had much of an impact.”  Despite an unfathomable number of girl-focused programs and interventions, “technical and manual occupations tend to be dominated by men, patterns that have held steady for many years.”  

 In March 2013 NCWGE released a report urging the need to fight even harder against “barriers girls and women face in entering nontraditional fields.” Among its nine key recommendations to Congress: more federal funding and challenge grants to help states close the gender gaps in career and technical education (CTE); mandate every state to install a CTE gender equity coordinator; and impose harsher punishments on states that fail to meet “performance measures” –i.e. gender quotas.

Presented by

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is author of The War Against Boys and Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History–and Why it Matters.

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