The persistent underperformance of boys in our school system is the social justice issue that nobody is talking about. New NAPLAN student results continue to highlight alarming literacy gaps between boys and girls — with the number of Year 9 boys not reaching the minimum achievement standard at its worst level in more than a decade.
Failing to reach minimum literacy benchmarks risks putting students at a permanent disadvantage. Yet, it’s difficult to square the rhetorical commitment of national education policy — to strive for both excellence and equity — with outcomes that differ starkly across gender lines. Moreover, a relative complacency over boys’ underachievement appears to show that concerns about educational equity are not all created equal.
While it’s entirely appropriate that educational policy and practice has set about redressing persistent numeracy and STEM gender gaps, it’s the gender literacy gap that warrants greatest attention. Boys and girls record near identical results in early mathematics, but sizeable gaps emerge by latter stages of primary school. Extrapolated forward, this is often associated with lower participation rates of women in STEM-heavy careers. Ever so slowly, these gaps are narrowing, but remain a work in progress.
Countless initiatives of government and philanthropy are dedicated to lifting achievement, interest, and engagement of girls in STEM. This is certainly an admirable and worthy educational goal. But the same commitment is not replicated in responding to gender gaps in literacy.
While NAPLAN shows Australian boys are around four months ahead of girls in Year 9 numeracy, boys lag behind girls by more than 21 months in writing. Yet, there is little outcry for the plight of boys’ writing skills. A recent landmark analysis of students’ writing performance over the past decade did not identify and discuss this elephant in the room.
A similar pattern is also found in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment — which shows that, while, at the age of 15, boys outperform girls in mathematics by around 3 months’ worth of learning, girls also outperform boys in reading by around 11 months. Literacy gaps in secondary school translate to poorer school leaving results and post-school attainment.
Some may argue that literacy skills are less important for boys because they’re more likely to work in vocational jobs. For instance, being a competent writer is not just about producing clear written text anyway. It’s also about being able to express yourself clearly, being able to articulate a point of view, and being able to communicate in a way that’s easily understood. These are foundational and essential qualities for anybody to reach their full educational, economic, and social potential.
We must strive as a nation for the achievement and life prospects of all our students to be advanced. It’s not that boys learn differently to girls, but there are additional needs for many boys in school. While all students benefit from teaching that’s led by teachers and in well-run classes, boys are especially vulnerable to distractions and the adverse effects of excessive student-led teaching.
This is because boys are overrepresented across behavioural and attentional challenges, that can impair. To respond to these needs, boys especially require classroom settings — that means students sitting in rows, with a clean line of sight of the teacher up the front.
However, as a NSW parliamentary inquiry identified this week, many classrooms are not physically designed to allow for effective teacher-directed instruction. Instead, many are open and flexible spaces that results in excessive disruptions and distractions for students.
It’s also undeniable that boys’ literacy gaps in high school are linked to the appalling state of classroom management. As the OECD’s disciplinary climate index shows, Australia ranks at 70th out of 77 school systems, making our classrooms among the world’s most disorderly.
Student-led approaches in the classroom — which emphasise independent inquiry, project-based learning, and the like — are likely to be particularly harmful for boys with more limited attention span and self-regulation skills.
Australian education systems talk a big game on educational equity. From Gonski needs-based school funding to inter-governmental policy like the Alice Springs Declaration, equity concerns feature highly. But a seemingly selective approach toward educational equity concerns undermines these goals, and must change for such concerns to genuinely committed. That was the noble aspiration that NAPLAN set out toward in the first place. But many boys risk being educationally left behind.
Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by RODNAE Productions