The challenge in educating religious teenage boys

Why do religious teenage girls consistently academically outperform religious teenage boys?

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

Why do religious girls academically outperform religious boys?

A prominent national religious newspaper recently headlined an article that proudly presented the high academic achievements and ranking of many of the national religious ulpanot (girls highschools). The headline then asked the rhetorical question, why do the ulpanot academically outperform the high school yeshivot ?Why do the girls academically outperform the boys?

When I turned to read the article (and not just the headline) I did not find an answer, or even a discussion, of this very important question, “Why do religious teenage girls consistently academically outperform religious teenage boys?”

This article will now present some tentative answers to the question.

1. The yeshivot give less priority to secular studies

First, there is the ‘comforting’ answer that the religious girls academically outperform the boys on bagruyot (matriculation exams)  in secular subjects because the more intellectually gifted boys are busy investing their time and intellectual energy in religious (limudei kodesh) studies. Their yeshiva environment correctly (in my opinion) places less emphasis on excelling in secular subjects. 

I believe that this answer has enough validity in order to statistically explain some of the difference between the boy’s and girl’s achievements.

However we will be fooling ourselves if we stop the discussion here, and do not more explore more basic psycho-social factors that can also explain the differences between the academic performance of religious girls and boys. By more fully answering this question we will gain insights into basic sociological forces that are affecting the religious life of our national religious community.

2.Boys have many more learning disabilities, particularly in the teen years

Second, most of us know that boys constitute 70% of all students diagnosed with learning disabilities, particularly in the areas of difficulties to conceptually focus, difficulties to abstractly conceptualize learning material, and shorter attention span. We all know that boys will be more hyperactive. Many educators hold that up to 20% of religious teenage boys are simply not capable of fruitfully participating in a serious academic environment for more than 3-4 hours a day. After the age of 22 they will be able to academically do what they cannot do when they are 16.

3.Innovative educational programs for teenage religious boys

In general, I believe educators in the national religious community have shown over the years a very high degree of ability to detect and acknowledge serious educational problems or challenges, and devise innovative programs to cope with them. Given the rapid pace of social change, and thus accompanying educational problems, religious educators have done a good job of not lagging too far behind these challenges.(Which does not mean that all our educational  ‘answers’ are adequate for meeting the challenge of rapid social change)

For example, a wide range of innovative educational programs have recently  sprung up in order to cope with the twenty percent of teenage religious boys who cannot sit productively sit in a classroom for more than 3-4 hours a day. The boys’ educational frustration has social implications. It usually brings them to simultaneously lessen halakhic behavior, and to outwardly adopt secular modes of recreation and dress. Their educational frustration, and outward changes in behavior, may often bring them into conflict with their parents.

Religious educators have responded to these challenges by setting up programs which combine some or all of the following elements.

One, the learning environment is small and intimate, and classes are usually less than less than 15 students. 

Two, the emphasis is placed on reducing pressure and competition, and allowing each student to learn at an individual pace. All accomplishments receive clear, immediate, positive feedback, and failures are bypassed.

Three, behavioral rules are kept to a minimum, but all red lines are very strictly enforced.

Four, Most programs try to mix classroom learning with at least an equal number of hours of experiential, outside classroom learning activities. Recently, these have included agricultural work in the morning, work internships, and sports, music and crafts. Almost any activity that will allow the boys to develop a sense of responsibility, personal initiative, or creative self expression is encouraged.

Five, educators struggle to find the very delicate line (golden mean) between creating a serious religious atmosphere, with respect for halakha, without basing a religious atmosphere  on too many rules and coercion. Most students enter the program already rebelling against religious behavior. Too many behavioral requirements will simply ‘backfire’ (cause a negative reaction).

On the other hand, religious observance adds a very necessary element of inspirational structure and purpose to the educational environment. Also, it is important that the boys maintain a living connection with halakha, so they can rebuild their connection when their teenage frustration, and confusion has waned. The ability to sustain a religious atmosphere in the midst of  teenage rebellion often depends on the ability of the staff to both provide a personal example of ‘simchat mitzvah’ , while at the same time responding empathetically , and non judgmentally, to their students’ rebellious attitude.

4. The learning difficulties of teenage boys reflects the general social trend that twenty first generation men are lagging behind twenty first century women

The learning difficulties of religious teenage boys probably reflect the growing sociological evidence that women across the board are more successful than men in adjusting to the vast sociological changes of the twenty first century. Coping in the post modern society favors those with a high degree of social communication skills, and a high level of self awareness. Women exceed in these social skills areas more than men. I will briefly offer a few examples of today’s women outperforming men when it comes to adjusting to rapid social change. 

One, men under fifty have a much higher suicide rate in America than do women. Men are increasingly at risk for death by drug overdose. Men will turn to drugs more than women because of a greater sense of social emptiness and frustration with their lives.

Second, the most rapidly growing area of employment is the area of service jobs in health and education fields. In America, men discharged from industrial jobs refuse to retrain as nurses, caretakers, and informal, out of the classroom educators.

Three, close to 60% of college graduates are now women, and only 40% men. Women finish their degrees quicker, and have a lower dropout rate. 

Four, acceptance to medical school now requires not only a high grade average in the natural sciences, but also high scores on psychological aptitude tests. The result is that women are now more than 55% of medical schools’ entry class.

Finally, we see that haredi women are much more successful than haredi men in training and entering the secular job market. Haredi women are becoming the primary breadwinners. This role reversal revolution creates a lot of tension in the haredi community. It does not bode well for the self image of the haredi male.

In summary, there is growing evidence that the educational difficulties of religious teenage boys reflect a larger trend of the difficulty of men to successfully adapt to the social changes of the twenty first century.

Our religious educators deserve our applause

Recent studies show that a higher percentage of national religious men and women find employment in the fields of education, health and public service than do secular men and women. The ‘best and the brightest’ of our young people are more likely to enter these fields than are the ‘best and the brightest’ of the secular community. 

I believe that this trend is exemplified by our educators’ efforts  to cope with rapid social change and provide appropriate educational environments to the 20% of teenage religious boys who require ‘specially crafted’ learning environments. Our educators are doing their best to remain ‘only’ one step behind rapid social change.  They deserve our respect and support. They are the true pioneers of the twenty first century.