Redshirt the Boys

“It was a light-bulb moment for me,” Christopher Schroeder, an entrepreneur, an investor, and a father of two boys, told me. His son Jack had been accepted to Beauvoir, the National Cathedral Elementary School, in Washington, D.C. But “it was clear to the school that Jack should wait a year,” he said—not because of his academic ability, but to give him more time to become socially and emotionally prepared. “My view was that smart kids should be pushed forward as fast as possible,” Schroeder recalled. “But as I laid out my case to the head of the school, she listened patiently, waited a moment, smiled at me, and said, ‘What’s your rush?’ ”

Jack started at the school a year later and ended up flourishing, largely, his father thinks, because of the decision not to rush him. When it was time for Jack’s younger brother, Ben, to attend the school, he also started a year later—at his parents’ insistence. “By then we were thinking, Why not? ” Schroeder said.

The idea of a delayed school start—often referred to as “redshirting,” a term borrowed from athletics—got a burst of popular attention in 2008, when Malcolm Gladwell presented evidence in his book Outliers that children older than their classmates do better on academic tests and in life generally.

The value of a later start, which many teachers and administrators call “the gift of time,” is an open secret in elite circles. And it’s a gift overwhelmingly given to boys. In the past few months, I’ve interviewed dozens of private-school teachers, parents, educational consultants, and admissions officers, largely in the D.C. metro area. I learned that a delayed school entry is now close to the norm for boys who would otherwise be on the young side. One former head of an elite private school who now consults with parents on school choice and admissions told me, “There are effectively two different cutoff dates for school entry: one for boys and one for girls.”

Nationally, delayed entry is uncommon. Before the pandemic (which seems to have caused a surge in the practice), about 6 percent of children waited an extra year before beginning kindergarten. But here, too, some children were much more likely to be held back than others: specifically, those with affluent or well-educated parents, and who were white, young for their year, and male. Among summer-born boys whose parents have bachelor’s degrees, the rate was 20 percent in 2010.

The reason little boys wear almost all of the red shirts is not mysterious; the fact that boys mature later than girls is one known to every parent, and certainly to every teacher. According to a Rand survey, teachers are three times more likely to delay entry for their own sons than their own daughters. The maturity gap is now demonstrated conclusively by neuroscience: Brain development follows a different trajectory for boys than it does for girls. But this fact is entirely ignored in broader education policy, even as boys fall further behind girls in the classroom.

[Read: Beyond the pros and cons of redshirting]

On almost every measure of educational success from pre-K to postgrad, boys and young men now lag well behind their female classmates. The trend is so pronounced that it can result only from structural problems. Affluent parents and elite schools are tackling the issue by giving boys more time. But in fact it is boys from poorer backgrounds who struggle the most in the classroom, and these boys, who could benefit most from the gift of time, are the ones least likely to receive it. Public schools usually follow an industrial model, enrolling children automatically based on their birth date. Administrators in the public system rarely have the luxury of conversations with parents about school readiness.

But public-school kids should have the same opportunities as private-school kids, and public-school officials should be able to have those conversations. As a matter of policy, the public schools that aren’t already flexible about school start should be made so—and I believe that, as the default, all states and school districts should enroll boys a year later than girls.

A proposal to give a boost to boys may sound odd to some, given the inequities that many girls and women still face. But I am betting on our ability to think two thoughts at once. There is much still to be done to promote female representation in politics and corporate leadership, for example. But as to education, boys and men are the ones who need the most help. And it’s not an issue only for them. When schools fail boys, those boys grow into men lacking the skills to flourish in the workplace, to be strong partners, or to be good providers for their children. Giving boys the gift of time will help create a better society not just for men, but for women and children too.

In the span of just a few decades, girls and women have not only caught up with boys and men in the classroom—they have blown right past them. Half a century ago, the landmark Title IX law was passed to promote gender equality in higher education. At the time, there was a gap of 13 percentage points in the proportion of bachelor’s degrees going to men compared with women. Today, the gender gap is a little wider—15 percentage points as of 2019—but the other way around. For every three female college students, there are only about two men. The trend worsened during the pandemic. College enrollment as a whole declined in 2020—but that decline was seven times greater for male than for female students.

These differences on college campuses reflect gender gaps that open up many years earlier. According to a 2012 Brookings Institution study by Julia Isaacs, for instance, American girls are 14 percentage points more likely than boys to be “school ready” at age 5, controlling for parental characteristics. That’s a bigger gap than the one between rich and poor children, or Black and white children, or those who attend preschool and those who do not. The gap is mostly driven by social and emotional factors, or what social scientists label “noncognitive skills,” rather than academic ones.

Once boys begin school, they almost immediately start falling behind girls. A 6-percentage-point gender gap in reading proficiency in fourth grade widens to an 11-percentage-point gap by the end of eighth grade. In a study drawing on scores across the country, Sean Reardon, a sociologist and education professor at Stanford, found no overall gender difference in math in grades three through eight, but a big one in English. “In virtually every school district in the U.S., female students outperformed male students on ELA [English Language Arts] tests,” he writes. “In the average district, the gap is … roughly two-thirds of a grade level.”

By high school, the female advantage has become entrenched. The most common high-school grade for girls is now an A; for boys, it is a B. Twice as many girls as boys are in the top 10 percent of students ranked by GPA, and twice as many boys as girls are among those with the lowest grades. It’s an international pattern: Across economically advanced nations, boys are 50 percent more likely than girls to fail at all three key school subjects: math, reading, and science. In the U.S., almost one in five boys does not graduate high school on time, compared with one in 10 girls—the rate for boys is about the same as that for students from low-income families.

The basic trend is clear—at every age, on almost every educational metric, across the world, girls are leaving boys in the dust. Among many of the parents I know, a shorthand explanation has developed to explain the struggles of an adolescent child to stay on track, especially academically: “He’s a boy.”

What is going on here? There are many potential explanations. The feminization of the teaching profession—three out of four K–12 teachers are now women—is not ideal for boys. Neither is the rigid rhythm of the school day, with gym class and recess squeezed out. And the focus on narrow academics rather than vocational learning puts many boys at a disadvantage as well. All true, and all worth addressing.

But I believe the biggest reason for boys’ classroom struggles is simply that male brains develop more slowly than female brains—or at least those parts of the brain that enable success in the classroom. The gaps in brain development are clearly visible around the age of 5, and they persist through elementary and middle school. (As Margaret Mead wrote of a classroom of middle schoolers: “You’d think you were in a group of very young women and little boys.”)

The brain-development trajectories of boys and girls diverge further, and most dramatically, as adolescence progresses—with the widest gaps around the age of 16 or 17. I hardly need to say that these are crucial years for educational achievement.

Adolescents are wired in a way that makes it hard to make good choices. As the joke goes, when we are young, we sneak out of bed to go to parties; when we get old, we sneak out of parties to go to bed. Laurence Steinberg, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Temple University, has shown how adolescence is essentially a battle between the sensation-seeking part of our brain (Go to the party! ) and the impulse-controlling part (I need to study tonight). During the teenage years, the sensation-seeking part is quite powerful. Our impulse control develops later.

The problem of self-regulation is much more severe for boys than for girls. Flooded with testosterone, which drives up dopamine activity, teenage boys are more inclined to take risks and seek short-term rewards than girls are. Meanwhile, the parts of the brain associated with impulse control, planning, and future orientation are mostly in the prefrontal cortex—the so-called CEO of the brain—which matures about two years later in boys than in girls.

Other relevant centers of the brain follow suit. The cerebellum, for example, plays a role in “emotional, cognitive, and regulatory capacities,” according to Gokcen Akyurek, an expert on executive functioning at Hacettepe University, in Turkey. It reaches full size at the age of 11 for girls, but not until age 15 for boys. Similarly, there are sex differences linked to the timing of puberty in the development of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that contributes to memory and learning.

These baseline biological facts are consistent with survey evidence on attention and self-regulation, where the biggest sex differences occur during middle adolescence. “In adolescence, on average girls are more developed by about two to three years,” Frances Jensen, the chair of the neurology department at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told School Administrator magazine in a 2017 interview.

It is important to note that we are talking averages here. But Jensen’s point won’t shock many parents. I have three sons, now grown. When they brought home female friends during their middle- and high-school years, the difference in maturity was startling. (We delayed the school start for one of our boys by a few months, but given his struggles, we wish we’d done so for a full year.) The typical 15-year-old girl and boy don’t seem like different sexes; they seem like different species.

There’s a heated argument today over the extent of biologically based differences in adult male and female psychology. For what it’s worth, I think both sides—one asserting large, consequential differences and the other denying any real differences at all—overstate their case. But almost entirely overlooked in this debate is the uncontroversial evidence for differences in brain maturation. By far the biggest sex difference is not in how female and male brains develop, but when. The relationship between chronological age and developmental age is different for girls and boys. From a strictly neuroscientific perspective, the education system is tilted in favor of girls.

This was never the intention, of course. After all, the education system was mostly created by men. The gender bias was just hard to see when girls were discouraged from pursuing higher education and careers. But now that these barriers have been lowered, girls’ advantages in school have become more apparent with every passing year. An unexpected result of feminism has been to reveal the ways in which education is failing boys.

Would a delayed start for boys meaningfully narrow, or even eliminate, the gender gap? I don’t know for sure. This kind of proposal demands a series of pilot programs before widespread adoption by school districts or states. But the evidence already available on the benefits of an extra year of maturity for boys makes me hopeful. Studies of redshirted boys have shown dramatic reductions in hyperactivity and inattention during elementary school, lower chances of being held back later, higher test scores, and higher levels of life satisfaction.

One striking study, by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern and Elizabeth Cascio of Dartmouth College, drew on data from Tennessee to study the impact of a delayed school start. The children in their sample were allocated randomly into different classrooms. They were disproportionately from poor homes and were racially diverse: Half were getting free or reduced-price lunch in kindergarten, and a third were Black.

Overall, Schanzenbach and Cascio found that being a year older had a positive impact on eighth-grade test scores, reduced the risks of repeating a grade before high school, and improved the chances of taking the SAT or ACT. The benefits for boys were at least twice as big as for girls on all measures through eighth grade. By high school, only boys were seeing any gains.

Cascio and Schanzenbach also found that lower-income students benefited most from redshirting. The risk of being held back a grade is massively unequal by race, gender, and economic background: One in four Black boys has repeated at least one grade before leaving high school. Redshirting boys from the outset greatly reduced that risk.

Lastly, they found that the younger classmates of redshirted children suffered no negative consequences. If anything, they wrote, there were modestly positive spillover effects. That’s one reason to believe that girls would only be helped by this shift—having more mature boys in classrooms would likely improve the learning environment. In schools with high rates of delayed school entry for boys, such as the private schools in the D.C. area that I examined, the girls appear to be doing very well.

Cascio and Schanzenbach’s research is the most robust to date, but their findings have been confirmed by a number of other studies. And related research has shown that redshirted boys are happier, too. Suzanne Stateler Jones of Collin College interviewed summer-born boys and found a much higher level of life satisfaction among those who had been redshirted compared with their peers. Among those who started school at the prescribed age, she has said, a common refrain was “I’m always trying to keep up.” But she said the overall message from the older boys was “They loved it, liked being older, no problem with it, can’t think of any way it’s hurt, it’s only helped.” Jones also interviewed parents and asked them what they would do if they had another summer-born son. Overwhelmingly, they told her, “We would redshirt.”

Redshirting has the virtue of simplicity. Changing the default school-starting age would be much easier, for example, than moving toward single-sex schools, which don’t appear to help boys (or girls) very much in any case, and may introduce social distortions by segregating boys from girls throughout childhood. Boys and girls don’t need to go to different schools, but rather to the same school at different times in their life.

The policy could be phased in gradually, starting with the youngest boys and then expanding each year until all boys are covered. Parents should be at liberty to override the default, for both sons and daughters, just as they can at many schools in the current system.

There is one major drawback: Delaying school entry would put pressure on parents to provide child care for another year. This is no doubt one reason low-income parents are less likely to redshirt their children now. In my view, any large-scale redshirting program would need to be paired with public investments in child care and pre-K. But these investments are much needed in any case—and if I’m right about the benefits of redshirting, they will almost certainly outweigh the costs.

Those benefits are of course lifelong, and they extend well beyond the fortunes of any particular boy. Boys who fail at school grow into men who are likely to struggle in life. Poorly educated men face a brutal labor market, as job opportunities in traditionally male, blue-collar occupations evaporate. Among men with only a high-school education, one in three is out of the labor force. For those who have a job, typical earnings are $881 a week, down from $1,017 in 1979.

[Read: Where have all the men without college degrees gone?]

The social consequences of these economic woes are profound. The marriage rate of men ages 40 to 44 with a high-school education or less has dropped by more than 20 percentage points over the past 40 years (versus 6 percentage points for those with a four-year college degree). One in five fathers lives apart from his children, and these fathers are disproportionately less educated. Rates of “deaths of despair,” from suicide, alcohol, or an overdose, are almost three times higher among men than women.

Boys from affluent families are generally doing okay, in part because their parents have the time and resources to help them out—including by having them start school a year later. And men at the top of the earnings distribution have seen a steep rise in wages in recent decades. It is working-class boys and men—and disproportionately Black boys and men—who are at the sharp end of the stick.

It’s hard for some people to get their head around the idea that in many areas of life, and above all in education, boys and men are now the ones who need the most help. We have a National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, but no equivalent for men. Thousands of academic scholarships are aimed at young women, almost none at young men. This lag is understandable, given the dizzying speed with which the gender gap has reversed. But we can start to address this new gap—right now, at the very beginning of the educational journey—simply by giving boys an extra year to mature.

“We were incredibly lucky to have been given this opportunity to give our boys this chance to go at their own pace,” Christopher Schroeder told me of his sons’ delayed start, a gift of time made at the urging of their school. “Why can’t everyone have that?”

This essay is adapted from Richard V. Reeves’s forthcoming book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. It appears in the October 2022 print edition with the headline “Redshirt the Boys.”