01/29/2013 05:46 EST | Updated 03/31/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Are Boys Doing Worse Than Girls?

And Kathleen Wynne makes six -- six female Canadian premiers, that is.

It used to be that the arrival of a female premier was big news, but it's getting to the point that pretty soon the arrival of a male premier is going to make headlines. What's going on here?

The fact is Canadian women are doing better across the board. A while back, girls started doing better than boys in elementary school, then the wave moved to high school, then post-secondary education, and now women are starting to do better than men on the job.

So the question becomes: what happened 30 or 40 years ago to start boys' downward spiral?

It goes without saying that we've experienced social and cultural changes that have made it possible for women to excel -- both in higher education and in their professional life. But until recently, boys did better than girls. What's changed?

There are lots of theories out there about why boys suddenly started doing worse than girls in school -- things like boys' active natures, television, lack of male role models, and so forth -- but none of them fully explains the gender gap, since these theories most precede boys' troubles.

However, there was one major change that took place at the exact same time that boys' problems started.

During the 70s, most Canadian public schools began using a new type of approach called child-centred learning. Unfortunately for the boys, child-centred learning works a lot better for girls than it does for boys.

In schools that use child-centred learning, the boys tend to struggle with learning -- especially when it comes to reading. For example, girls do 10-15 percentage points better than boys on Ontario's provincial reading and writing tests (girls also do a few percentage points better in math).

In the good old days, and to this day in jurisdictions that have managed to escape the worst excesses of child-centred learning, there were and are virtually no gender differences in school achievement. In these places, both girls and boys become better readers -- although the boys improve more than the girls.

And when good old-fashioned phonics programs are introduced, there is always significant improvement in reading. A typical experiment in Bristol, England tracked about 700 primary-age children who were taught to read using an excellent phonics program. Although the study included children with every sort of special need, including some in the severe and complex category, the results were overwhelmingly positive:

• The average reading and spelling age for these 700 children was 15 months ahead of grade level after the first year.

• The boys did just as well as the girls.

• The younger children in the age group did as well as the older children.

• Socially-disadvantaged children did just as well as advantaged children.

• Children whose first language was not English did as well as native English speakers.

• No child developed dyslexia, even though many came from families where the older siblings had struggled to learn to read, and had been diagnosed with dyslexia.

Experiments like these prove that boys can become good readers if they receive proper instruction.

The question is not really whether we CAN make it possible for boys to do well in school. The question is whether we WANT to make it possible for boys to do well in school.

It certainly is within Kathleen Wynne's power to help boys. The burning question is whether she will.

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