No longer a boy’s world: Boys and special education

Wayward Sons, a recent report published by the policy think tank the Third Way, finds that the average girl’s educational and career outcomes have improved over time, while boys tend to be faring worse. This widening “gender gap,” the report contends, suggests “reason for concern” and “bodes ill for the well-being of recent cohorts of U.S. males.”

Explaining why boys are struggling now more than in past decades is, of course, extremely complex. One line of inquiry might consider the changing schooling experiences of boys and girls: Could it be that boys are becoming increasingly harder to educate? Might schools tailor education in ways unsuitable for boys’ needs? Or is it a mix of both?

Fair questions—and using Ohio’s special education data, I look at whether there’s any evidence that (a) boys might be harder to educate than girls and (b) whether schools might respond to difficult-to-educate boys by referring them into special education.

The Ohio data is nothing short of remarkable: There are considerably more boys identified as disabled than girls. (The referral and identification process is a joint effort between the parent and the school.) Statewide, 166,690 boys (65 percent) and 88,539 girls (35 percent) were identified as disabled in 2011-12. This compares to a 51 percent male to 49 percent female ratio for all K-12 students—disabled and non-disabled together.

A similarly disproportionate number of boys populate the specific disabled categories. In fact, every single category except one (deaf-blindness) has more boys than girls.[1] The bullets below, and as displayed in chart 1, present the male-female percentages for the state’s top five special education categories, by student enrollment in 2011-12:

  • Specific learning disabilities: 64,130 boys (61 percent of this group) and 41,133 girls (39 percent);
  • Other health impaired – minor: 23,923 boys (70 percent) and 10,152 girls (30 percent);
  • Speech and language impairments: 21,361 boys (67 percent) and 10,340 girls (33 percent);
  • Cognitive Disabilities (mental retardation): 14,887 boys (58 percent) and 10,852 girls (42 percent);
  • Autism: 13,816 boys (85 percent) and 2,485 girls (15 percent).

Chart 1: Proportionally more boys than girls identified as disabled - by largest special education categories, 2011-12

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education, Data Warehouse Reports

That there are more boys than girls who are identified as disabled is not a one-year phenomenon as chart 2 indicates. We see that the percentage of male special education students has remained steady, slightly above 65 percent since 2003. Interestingly, however, the percentage of males in the specific learning disability (SLD) category has declined from 69 percent in 2002-03 to 61 percent in 2011-12. Meanwhile, the proportion of males has risen incrementally in the other two disabled categories displayed. (Only the three largest categories by 2011-12 student enrollment are displayed.)

Chart 2: More boys than girls identified as disabled – overall disabled and select categories, 2002-03 to 2011-12

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education, Data Warehouse Reports

Whether it’s the “boy or the school” that accounts for the disproportionate identification of boys as disabled can’t, of course, be answered definitively with these data. It could be that schools are quick to relocate hyperactive or slow-learning boys into special education. (Naturally, categories such as deaf-blindness or autism wouldn’t be valid under this explanation. But the Other Health Impairments-Minor, somewhat of a catchall category for unruly kids, could be.) Yet, it could also be that learning-disabled boys are wired in such a way that special education is an entirely justifiable action taken by a school and parent.

In the end, the dismal findings about boys in Wayward Sons, together with special education data that indicate that too many boys have difficulty in today’s classrooms—and that disabled identification is an oft-used solution—should prompt rethinking about how schools educate boys. Is special education the only—and best—solution for behaviorally- or learning-challenged boys? Could schools better meet boys’ needs through single-gender schools or classrooms? Could schools ratchet up efforts to recruit and retain male teachers? (Ohio’s teacher force is 75 percent female.) Should schools carve out more recess or physical education time for boys? What about establishing more vocationally focused high schools? Any or all of these practices might just put boys on a better educational and vocational trajectory than our current system has.


[1] Ohio schools can classifies special education students into fourteen categories. For the definition of each disability, see EdResourcesOhio.org’s online glossary.

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