Boys stink at school and it doesn’t even matter

The media is constantly reporting that it’s harder for girls to get into college than boys. Because girls do better in high school, and more girls apply to college. So, even though 60% of the bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women, it’s still harder for girls to get into college.

Now research shows us that the gender discrepancy starts early because little girls learn by being focused and engaging with the teacher and little boys learn by running around and fighting. No kidding. You could have looked at the sales figures for Toys R Us instead of funding research on this topic. (As an interesting aside, though, boys who have more girl-like behaviors do better in school, which means that probably if schools stopped discriminating against gay boys they would rival adopted Chinese girls in their ability to crush their grammar-school competition.)

The big deal about all this research, though, is that it doesn’t matter. Because boys suck at school, and then they go to college and play video games and pick-up basketball and beer pong for four years and they leave their GPA off their resume and they race up the corporate ladder.

Because the corporate world favors compartmentalized thinking (as in “my kids are not in front of me so they do not exist”) and men have it and women don’t so kids mess up women’s careers. Women out earn men until there are kids. Then, for the rest of their adult life, men out earn women.

So there is no long-term impact from boys not doing well at school. But there is long-term impact from boys being forced to learn like girls during the first half of their academic careers. What is the point?

Why put boys in school when we all know it’s set up for girls? Also, boys don’t do well and it doesn’t matter, so it’s not like homeschooling is going to ruin the boys’ future in the workforce. So how could homeschooling be more inappropriate for your son than traditional school is?

We can argue forever that society is making a place that is inhospitable to boys. But nothing is going to change during the time your boys and my boys are school aged. So I took my boys out of school – they turn cartwheels during school hours. And you should do the same for your sons, too.

32 replies
  1. Gareth
    Gareth says:

    I think my boy had a hard time in school mainly because of the other boys “being boys,” while the sort of behavior typified by that phrase doesn’t come as naturally to him.

    The hard thing for me to figure out is whether the sort of monolithic gender behavior assumptions you and so many others repeat do more to help those very boyish boys or more to hurt the other sort of boys.

    Encouraging boys to act more boyishly – that is, to fight all the time, jump around, act up more, and settle all their problems with shouting and fisticuffs – might be fun for those so inclined, but is hell on earth for those boys who are not considered in the kind of statements you make above.

    Well-meaning enthusiasts of pop psychology trends making school more appropriate for stereotypical boys would be another good reason to pull your child out of school.

    • Cynthia
      Cynthia says:

      Or. . . you could take them out of school, study greek on the ski lift, then rip moguls to the bottom of the mountain. Get back on the lift and have your son teach you about Greek mythology.
      Or read about the Olympians, then go out and set up a biathalon course and combine intense athletics with skill.
      Then dig tunnels in the snow and discuss how the Big Dig was done in Boston.
      My son is eight and he has time to play like a puppy, and then challenge his abilities and strengths.
      Use a little creativity.

      • Gareth
        Gareth says:

        Cynthia, it sounds like you have applied some creativity to the challenges of providing a classical education to a hyper and very physical boy.

        These are neither my goals not my challenges.

        I can see why, given these goals and challenges, you would not want your son to be in school, and your reasons are very different from mine. I believe that the diversity of personalities, philosophies, and goals among homeschoolers is probably greater than that among schoolers.

        My 8 year old son is very happy, for example, to spend six hours a day sitting down and studying. His great and unconventional preference is just to do so with materials that interest him and in the presence of people who love and don’t hurt him.

        Instead of being exhorted to read grade-level crap in a mini desk gaggle of semi-literate spitballers, he would prefer to curl up in his favorite chair and dive into a great book or a nat. geo. for hours. Instead of being coddled and chivvied through moronic constructivist math, he can engage at his leisure with more challenging texts at whatever level pleases him.

        It has surprised me that, after two years of experimentation, we have settled on such a rigorous schedule. His schedule would probably be utterly unacceptable to many other boys, and is surprisingly similar to the schedule schools pretend to follow. But this is who he is – serious, studious, and sensitive. A total bully magnet, well suited for study and completely unsuited for school.

  2. Laura
    Laura says:

    ” … if schools stopped discriminating against gay boys they would rival adopted Chinese girls in their ability to crush their grammar-school competition.”

    You just made me laugh out loud at work.

  3. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    This post really hit home for me. My oldest son just finished his first semester of college and did TERRIBLE! I was totally taken aback because we sent him to boys-only private schools for both elementary and high school, where he was a B-average student. Looking back, I now think that we did him a disservice in sending him to those schools, which were very regimented and rule-oriented. He tended to get into trouble at school as he had a hard time “following the rules”. When it came time for my son to think and act on his own when he went off to college, he must have decided it was time to have a lot of fun. He wants to return to college for the spring semester and try to pull up his grades, even though I think that it is a long shot for him to make it, given his somewhat severe ADHD. I hope you are right in the long run, Penelope, that it does not matter that my son sucks at school. In the short term, I am worried about what will happen to him if he fails. There are a lot of uncollege and alternative programs/internships for those that excel, but just don’t want to go to college, but there are few jobs out there for those that fail out of college and the military does not want enlistees diagnosed with ADHD.

    • Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu)
      Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) says:

      So let me get this straight. Your son spent his life isolated from girls at school and now you’re surprised that he wasn’t focused on studies? This should not cause you to be taken aback.

      As far as the ADHD concern, there are many educators and experts who believe ADHD is code for someone who doesn’t want to sit on their bum all day listening to someone blather on and have them do work that often does not have real-world and/or personal relevance (

      There are plenty of jobs out there for the condition that causes dis-ease when forced to sit in a chair all day. See what happened to these two multiple-problem ADHD kids (who sound like they may have a bit in common with your son) that schools drugged for said affliction. One opted out of school to become a successful programmer
      The other is a millionaire

      • Sandy
        Sandy says:

        Lisa, That was funny! While it may very well be true that my son is girl-crazy at college, I hope you made that statement to be clever and that you did not make the assumption that my son was indeed isolated from girls just because he went to a single sex school. That would be as biased as making the assumption that a homeschooled child is isolated from other kids or the opposite sex. I never said that or implied that regarding my son. My son dated girls during his high schools years and had an active social life while maintaining a 3.25 GPA. Not fabulous, but it did get him into his college of choice and he received a partial scholarship (which he now has lost). In addition to two sons, I also have four daughters, each with a large circle of friends who often hung out at our house (as girls tend to do). With that said, it is likely that both my sons sometimes wish they could be more isolated from girls.

        All of our girls did great in school and are doing very well in college (and beyond). Perhaps that proves Penelope’s point that traditional learning environments favor girls’ style of learning. This is my first son to go off to college, so that is why I made the comment regarding my son. He had similar grade-school training as his sisters, but he was unable to apply that training to a self-directed learning environment, which I feel college is more similar to than it is to a regimented high school. Maybe that is further proof that homeschooling could be better for boys. That is one of the many reasons why I read this blog. It presents a point of view that traditional educators will not tell you – one size does not fit all.

        I also want to thank you for the insight and links you provided, Lisa. That is more food for thought. With six kids and serving as Board Treasurer for a CMO, I am trying to educate myself more about education. So I just signed up to follow your blog on Google.

  4. John Galt
    John Galt says:

    1) Government Schools are a monopoly – only the rich and people in areas with school vouchers and/or charter schools can circumvent this monopoly.

    2) You have to have a teaching degree and be in a teachers union to “teach” at a government school.

    3) Education majors have the lowest board scores of all majors.

    4) 90% of all school teachers are Democrats

    5) I have asked school teachers one question over the years and always get the same answer.

    Q: “Could Albert Einstein teach physics at your school”?

    A: “No, he doesn’t have a teaching degree”.

    Hello, WTF!!

    6) So just tell your son to sit still for 6 hours a day and pay attention to your left wing dunce that is trying to “teach”. How anyone could send their child to these rat traps and expect them to learn anything is a joke.

    7) Ever wonder why Clinton, Gore, Obama, Howard Dean, John Kerry went to private schools and everyone of them send/sent their kids to private schools? Probably just a coincidence. Nothing to see here – move along.

    • Sandy
      Sandy says:

      Mr. Galt, Your post made sense until that point at 7. I am fairly positive that Romney, both Sr & Jr George Bush, McCain, Boehner, Cheney and many other prominent Republicans all went to private school and everyone of them sent/send their kids to private school. Is that probably a coincidence too?

      What does that have to do with anything that Penelope has posted about?

      • John Galt
        John Galt says:

        Point 7 – The Democrats totally and utterly support the bankrupt government school monopoly. Republicans want to get rid of it or reform it. I was pointing out the hypocrisy of well connected and rich Democrats who force their lousy school system on the populace but wouldn’t touch the school system for themselves or their children. Rich Republicans are not hypocriticakl in understanding the governmnet schools are lousy and avoiding them. The Democarts are.

        How does this tie in to what Penelope is saying:

        Penelope was pointing out that the school system is set up for girls not boys. I am totally agreeing with her.

        If boys had a choice other than the government school system that cost the parents nothing don’t you think it wouldn’t take very long to recitfy the situation. How about I get my $20,000 (cost of school for 2 in my state) back from the state government so I can home school my two boys and not have to work. Hard to do both.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          Wasn’t the “no child left behind” strategy, which relies very heavily on testing and has inserted a huge amount of additional testing into the school curriculum initiated by G.W. Bush, who is a republican?

          • Casey
            Casey says:

            Yes, it was. Our current school “reform” movement is a thoroughly bipartisan effort, and it is all geared toward more testing, more sitting still in a classroom rather than getting out and exploring/learning about the world, etc. (Really, it’s about creating opportunities for for-profit companies in education – more money for testing, boxed curricula, etc., and union-busting – but less room for individuality and basically everything that’s good for kids in education, which I can imagine will end up hurting boys more than girls, since girls in general are better at doing whatever they’re told.) That’s what Republicans AND Democrats consider reform right now, for the most part. The previous commenter has no idea what he’s talking about.

      • Kirk Parker
        Kirk Parker says:

        Actually, it went off the rails at #5. Just because Einstein was good at thinking about and innovating solutions to some of the Hard Problems in physics, it does not necessarily mean he would also be good at teaching the extremely simplified basics to high-school students.

        • John Galt
          John Galt says:

          The point of asking whether Albert Einstein could teach physics or whether Steve Jobs could teach computer science is not that they are dead or necessarily could teach these subjects in a government school. The point is they are not allowed. It is the same nonsense by the teachers unions being opposed to “Teach America”. In both cases people who are 100 times as smart as the government school teachers are prohibited from doing so not because they can or can’t teach, not because they are smarter but for the simple reason they didn’t go to some third rate state teachers college and get a teachers degree. That is totally absurd and the point I was trying to make.

          Incidentally, I had the same Latin teacher as John Kerry had, the same English teacher that Howard Dean had in the same years. Not one person at these different schools had a “teaching degree”. My English teacher who taught Shakespeare, played Falstaff at Stratford on Avon in the UK at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He didn’t have a teaching degree but he taught and knew Shakespeare far better than your typical government school teacher.

          There is a reason rich people send their kids to private schools. They are better schools, with better facilities and far better teachers. It’s not even close. I would like every child in America to have the same opportunity at school. That will never happen so long as the teachers unions are bed with the Democrats. Too many Republicans are too stupid and lazy about this, and the Democrats have been paid off.

          The governmnet school monopoly must and will end.

          It sucks and that is why someone like

    • Adam
      Adam says:

      Hi Mr. Galt,

      I’m sensing some deep-seated bias so I will play devil’s advocate as delicately as possible. Upfront I am a democrat and not at all involved with education or the public education discourse. To respond to your points:

      1. The government does have a monopoly on public education, but that makes sense because it is provided by the government. I would disagree that only the rich or those with vouchers/charter schools can circumvent this monopoly because Penelope has certainly done a great job at demonstrating that neither are required for successful homeschooling. Therefore while the government certainly has a monopoly on government provided education they do not have a monopoly on education as a whole, although I don’t think that’s what you were implying.

      2. Certification yes, union yes. Again government standards per state.

      3. Although I would point out that not every teacher is an education major, and not every education major becomes a teacher. Many teachers have multiple majors and some have additional education. Although I did read an interesting article about how education major’s grades are inflated:

      4. No. According to the National Education Association, in 2003 their study found that 51% of teachers identified as democrats, 25% republican, 24% independent.

      5. Actually Albert Einstein couldn’t teach physics at their school because he’s dead. Just kidding. Government standards paint with a broad stroke even if they are unfair to individuals clearly qualified to teach. Unfortunately this makes sense in a large scale because how would you make such exceptions objective? I agree with your sentiment but I’m not sure what the solution should be.

      6-7 Rhetoric.

      (7) I’m sure there are rich democrats who are hypocrites. But this portion of the population must be small because there are a lot fewer rich and most of them are republican (statistically speaking).

      As a democrat I absolutely believe our schools are failing us and our kids and needs to be reformed. I also have very big problems with the teacher’s union sheltering bad educators. I think schools are too test focused and too overcrowded. I don’t have an easy answer though. I honestly believe most schools and teachers are just trying to do the best they can with what limited resources their given.

      Policy reform begs a very interesting question, if our goal is to improve education, how do we measure progress? No Child Left Behind put enormous pressures on schools for test scores even though this is clearly unproductive.

      – Adam

  5. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    “The media is constantly reporting that it’s harder for girls to get into college than boys.” – I have never heard this in my life. And I spend way too many hours on the television and the internet and it has all missed my radar.

    After finishing reading this post I thought it seemed unnecessarily divisive in nature, so I’m not surprised at the political bent on the comments.

    Although the last few homeschool posts have not been very inspiring, more like victim hatred-spewing speak. P. has converted me! More posts like this are just inviting extremists to start using it for their own political agendas, so I’m trying to figure out what the point of them is….gain more converts? or is secretly their some animosity there that the schools are not good enough to send an extroverted boy to?

    Anyway, I don’t agree that school is geared toward girls (because I don’t believe school is geared toward any children) but I would agree there is a problem with boys, on a massive scale. Assuming boys will do poorly in school, drink away their college years, and then climb the corporate ladder would really not be so bad.

    What you see are boys that drop out of school, have no fathers or other role models, resort to crime, have children that are then permanently on welfare. And this is widely reported. Ever follow your local police blotter? I do, and I am continually stunned at the carnage wrought by 18-24 year old males in my community. Ever seen Oprah? She has already stated there are lost generations of urban black youth who have no idea what the inside of a high school looks like, yet alone have an opinion about the social implications of teacher unions. These boys are GONE, and to top it off, your tax dollars get to support them in some capacity for the rest of their lives. And this is a story “constantly reported by the media” and nobody pays attention at all.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Here’s the missing piece of your reasoning: rich white privileged boys do not do nearly as well in school as rich white privileged girls. That’s why it’s harder for the latter to get into college.

      So what you say about at-risk youth is also true – but there are other, exacerbating factors.

      In the controlled world of white rich kids, there is a stark performance gap in school, but boys do just fine (in fact, better than girls) at work. This is controlled enough to show us that school does not work for boys.


  6. John Galt
    John Galt says:

    “No child left behind” was another attempt by the Federal Government to fix the government school system. It basically said no federal money to states unless everyone takes the same standardized test. Bush was stupid promoting and signing something co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy and John Boehner.

    The federal government shouldn’t be involved in K-12 education at all. Romney was in favor of this also. RINO’s like the Bushes, Boehner and Romney can be just as stupid as Democrats. They are all Big Governmnet politicians and know nothing else.

    The 100 year progressive experiment with leviathan government will soon come to an end. Greece first, then comes Japan, France, the UK and last but not least the US in the race to entitlement bankruptcy.

    Will these countriesafter the party is over become more dirigiste or believe in subsidiarity and limited government. Time will tell. Prepare for the first and hope for the second.

  7. redrock
    redrock says:

    there are students who come to college and party and drink for all 4 years of it (or longer). Boys and girls, or men and woman at some point of their college lives. Some just need a year or two to adapt to life outside of home, some have no idea what to do with themselves, and some just don’t have any ambition. There might be a larger number of boys partying away their college years, but girls are by no means the little angels you make them out to be. It is much more a question of individual preference for an intellectual pursuit of knowledge than a gender question in my observation of a few hundred undergraduate students. And there are consequences – large (and most likely also smaller) companies will rarely hire someone who has not shown commitment to anything beyond the beer pong or pick-up game.

  8. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    On a lighter note, I read the title of this post and immediately had a different impression of what it meant. I drive carpool for my son and several boys and they sure do smell bad after PE at school and playing after school sports. But, apparently that is what boys need & it is good for them, so boys literally stinking at school does not really matter.

  9. Arachna
    Arachna says:

    For several centuries it was boys and men who were considered to be suited for intensive siting down and studying of texts and listening to teachers. English schools, Jewish Torah studies, etc. etc. etc. Women and girls were considered to be ill suited for it, lacking in concentration in addition to brains etc.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think about this a lot. In New York City we were entrenched in the Asperger community and I couldn’t help but notice what a high percentage of kids with Aspergers were Jewish. Also, the sterotype of the person with Aspergers is a Jewish man.

      So I think that maybe the Jews have been selecting for Aspergers for centuries and not even knowing it. Because the boys who were great at Torah study — memorization, routine, extreme focus on the written word — were probably also great candidates for an Asperger diagnosis.


      • Bryce
        Bryce says:

        That’s an interesting point! Another possibility is that until fairly recently, Jewish people almost never married Gentiles, which may have also been a factor, similar to how diseases like Tay-Sachs spread.

  10. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    Sigh…my 6-year-old extraverted daughter is doing well in her Dutch school, because she likes to sit still and read and write and do art projects. My 4-year-old (introverted) boy tried a couple days at school and it was a disaster (the first day, he hid under the table; the second day, he peed in the corner). The teacher is trying to convince me to bring him back and let him try again, but I don’t think a classroom is a good place for him. I’m happy to keep him playing at home now, but I not sure what I’ll do next year when he’s 5 and comes under the mandatory school attendance law. If he’s still not ready for school (what 5-year-old boy is?), I’ll have to suck it up and fight the government for permission to homeschool him.

    Question: I love all your ideas for unschooling your older boys, but what are good ways to unschool preschool and kindergarten age boys? He can’t read yet, so he can’t explore his interests in books. We do have a lot of educational and game apps on the kids’ iPad, and he loves doing that.

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:

      Becky – I posted this as a comment in another post but it answers your question.

      Unschooling involves thousands of moments of connection. Small touches, looking into your child’s eyes, (or if they don’t like that intense focused attention) look at the thing they have been gazing at with as much interest as they have. Asking questions or being quiet at the right moments. Stepping in when needed and stepping back when not. Listening to the words and the tone, reading between the lines. But not reading too much into things. Being there. ~Renee

      • Becky Castle Miller
        Becky Castle Miller says:

        That’s very helpful. Thank you! I was homeschooled all through school, but my mom (ISFJ) did a very academic, rigorous school-at-home style. I (INFJ) am way more conceptual and head-in-the-clouds than her, so unschooling is much more appealing to me. But not having seen it modeled, I’m not sure how to do it, especially with my kids being so little (6, 4, and 1).

  11. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    I don’t think school does much for either gender. It’s just that girls are more willing to follow the lead of the (usually female) teacher. It’s being part of a social group that’s important to them, not the schoolwork.

    Boys on the other hand want to know *why* we’re doing this, and what it accomplishes. They are goal oriented, not group oriented. And since school is mostly useless busywork, they are frustrated. After a few years of “sit still and do what you’re told”, they usually hate education.

    This doesn’t matter later in life because no one remembers 90% of what they learned in school. The details the girls patiently studied are mostly irrelevant to work. Then boys get a chance to succeed. The ones that haven’t been completely turned off anyway.

    The way to teach boys is with projects, so that they accomplish something with what they know. I think that would benefit girls too. Teaching to the test, with lots of memorization helps no one.

  12. redrock
    redrock says:

    I have to admit that I am surprised how many commenters subscribe to the “girls are like this and boys are like this”. Sure there are trends, but they are not as strong as many here think – girls are expected to be group oriented however, many of them are not. If they are not, that is considered weird and “not a real girl”, some boys are happy to be physical all day, they are loud and capture all the attention – but they are not the super-majority. One should allow for a many more shades of grey in this discussion.

  13. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    Just curious what one does with a 13 year old girl who hates to sit still, thus hates to read. I’m sad and worried she doesn’t enjoy reading by this age.

    • Gareth
      Gareth says:


      I remember one time my friend Arthur was laying out some complicated line of bull about how History was the best thing to study in college because it was more important than anything and Doris Kearns Goodwin bla bla bla.

      I told him he should have studied dance instead.

      Why, he asked me.

      Because, I said, you’d still be able to lay out the same line of bull but at least you’d be able to dance.

      So if your girl doesn’t want to sit still and read, maybe she ought to get up and dance. Or sing. Or act. Do you have community theatre in your area?

      She can catch up on her reading anytime. But learning how to dance might never be as much fun as when she’s a teenager.

  14. Sophia
    Sophia says:

    LOL I must say that this was a nice breath of fresh air, as I am surfing the net, researching the topic of the demise of the male superiority fallacy at school for an essay. Specifically, what was this mysterious event that suddenly led to boys suddenly losing the credibility of their male chauvinistic academic supremacy myth? Although I didn’t really find the answer in your article, I thoroughly enjoyed it :)

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