While our attention is focused on the girls, are the boys falling through the cracks of our educational system? Recent data strongly suggest this. Indeed, if boys did as well as girls in school, there would have been no need for the Quebec Ministry of Education’s highly touted plan of action to deal with dropouts: “Succeeding in School” …

Boys are dropping out before finishing high school in droves, and far more than the girls. The Ministry’s figures reveal that of the potential graduating class of 1991–92, barely 60.6 per cent of boys obtained their high-school diploma, compared to 74.5 per cent of their female counterparts. Furthermore, the situation gets worse after that … Of the total population of 19-year-olds in 1989–90, 83.5 per cent of the girls possessed a high-school diploma, compared to 65.8 per cent of boys

The higher proportion of girls does not end at high-school graduation. Female students outnumber their male counterparts in college (CEGEP) … Well over half of 17-year-old girls (54.2 per cent) go on to college, compared to only 38.9 per cent of the boys. In sum, less than two thirds of the boys finish high school; less than 40 per cent go on to college …

And the differences don’t stop there. Girls’ grades, on average, are better, than those of boys at the college level, and grades determine access to university programs. One indicator of the girls’ success is their scores on the French proficiency test required for admission to French-language universities. Sixty-one per cent of girls pass the tests, compared to only 47 per cent of boys. According to Ronald Terril, coordinator of research at SRAM, the regional body that coordinates admissions to colleges, “Girls apply to college in higher numbers than boys, they are better prepared and they are more likely to be accepted. Once in college, they do better than their male counterparts and more of them obtain diplomas.”

The university numbers bear this out. In 1960, only 20 per cent of Quebec university students were women. However, by 1992, women made up 57 per cent of the student population. Only at the doctoral level were men still in the majority …

Is Quebec the exception? Not really. According to Statistics Canada, in 1992–93, 266,000 women attended university in Canada, compared to 231,000 men – the sixth year in a row that there were more women than men, with the gap widening each year. Women’s gains in education is a phenomenon observed in all Western countries …

Toward an explanation

Denise Alarie, a high-school teacher in Boucherville, a suburb on Montreal’s South Shore, says, “I’ve noticed that the vast majority of girls want to pursue their studies because their goal is to become, one day, financially independent. They don’t want to be dependent on men, and they’ve understood that education is important if they hope to obtain a good job.” Boys seem more interested in immediate rewards and less preoccupied with their future. This may explain why more boys than girls have part-time jobs. For Jean Larochelle, also a teacher in Boucherville, “Boys are still influenced by the myth of owning a car. A guy must have his second-hand car and some pocket money. Consequently, he’s ready to work even if it puts his studies in jeopardy.”

Many teachers agree with the fact that boys are still hung up on sexual stereotypes whereas girls are breaking them. Girls are succeeding in the educational system because they are capable of overcoming stereotypic attitudes, for example, reluctance to compete in traditionally male fields of activity or the belief that as women they could only achieve proper status through the men in their lives. In the same way, these teachers say, if boys are to succeed in school, they will have to break their male sexual stereotypes. For many boys, going to class and getting good marks have become feminine values which they reject for fear of becoming effeminate. To be popular with their peers, boys are expected to confront their teachers, disobey the rules, get kicked out of class, skip classes … If not, they risk being perceived as “nerds” and the like.

Pressure to conform to this stereotype brings on certain behaviour which sets the boys at odds with expectations from the schools and, in turn, exacerbates existing pedagogical weaknesses. Hence the large number of male dropouts; and among those who stay, the boys tend to do more poorly than the girls. Simon Lucier, who works with potential dropouts at Mortagne School near Montreal, finds that “female students set high standards for success while boys aim at barely passing”…

The problem isn’t confined to the classroom. In the words of another teacher, Jean Larochelle, “Young people imitate what they see. Today, women know where they’re going in society. Forty-year-old men are having trouble. Young boys nowadays have few responsible masculine role models. So they end up hanging on to out-of-date male stereotypes.”

Moreover, there is a link between fathers dropping out of their family and boys dropping out of school. In a society with more and more single-parent families headed by women, this problem is accentuated. American studies have demonstrated that divorce and separation affect boys more than girls, and that boys from these families tend to drop out of school at a higher rate than girls. As one elementary school teacher remarked, “Boys who achieve well in my class are children who take on their responsibilities and who come from families where the father is present.” Another teacher added that “boys who have problems don’t live in traditional families. They only see their father occasionally.”

Schools: The problem or the solution?

A recent study by the Superior Council of Education suggested that the fact that women outnumbered men in university could be retraced right back to the elementary level where boys already lag behind girls. Furthermore, the report stated, the advantage girls have over boys at the elementary level is decisive for the rest of their schooling. This led the authors of the study to ask the crucial question: Why do boys have such difficulties in elementary school? One answer many teachers gave was straightforward: the absence of male role models. Female teachers make up 85 per cent of all elementary-school teachers. From the very start, elementary school seems to be assimilated to a feminine universe. Early on, boys start to identify ideal school behaviour and teachers’ expectations as feminine models.

Not all teachers accept this explanation. As one teacher commented, “… I’ve been teaching for 26 years and schools have changed quite a lot over that period, but one thing hasn’t changed: in elementary school, girls do better than boys. It is simply that girls at that age are different from boys: girls tend to work harder and show more interest. They are not more intelligent, but more mature. The boys are more restless, more aggressive, often in conflict with their peers and authority figures.” Another teacher put it bluntly: “girls respond more positively to what school expects of them, such as obedience, attention and cleanliness”

The next generation

Whereas few men are training for the traditionally feminine fields of kindergarten and elementary-school teaching, the opposite trend is occurring among women training for the traditionally male university-based fields … Of the traditionally masculine fields of study at the Université de Montréal, the majority of students in only one, engineering, remains masculine. In every other field – law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, business administration, etc. – the majority of students are women. Consider the example of the university’s school of veterinary medicine. In 1975, 28 per cent of students were women; in 1992, the rate was 73.5 per cent. The first-year class today consists of 60 women (81 per cent) and 14 men.

If the absence of men in their thirties and forties in the home as responsible role models for the adolescent boys of today helps account for those boys’ problems at school, what will happen to their male offspring? What kind of role models will they be able to provide for their adolescent sons 20 years from now? It’s time we addressed this question.

by Luc Allaire and Jocelyn Ann Campbell

Jocelyn Ann Campbell, is a Montreal city councillor,