Letter to the Editor of The Atlantic on Redshirting

IBSC Executive Director Tom Batty wrote this letter to the editor of The Atlantic in response to the article Redshirt the Boys: Why Boys Should Start School a Year Later Than Girls, written by Richard V. Reeves and published online and in the October 2022 print edition of the magazine.

While redshirting might be an option for some families seeking to address the difference in brain-development trajectories of boys and girls, it is certainly not the only one, nor is it the most agile path in addressing the personal needs of each individual boy.

By its very nature, redshirting is a heavy hammer approach, bounded by the rigid restrictions of the school calendar. Children mature at different rates and at different times. Redshirting some boys by a year might be advantageous, for others it may well be detrimental. Some might benefit by a delay of six months or eight weeks, but the school calendar simply does not have the subtlety to adapt to this. It works, as a step function in discrete yearly blocks, whereas development is a continuum, unique to each child.

Choosing a boys’ school is another option open to families. Boys’ schools act intentionally for the developmental needs of boys and their societies. Coeducational schools must address the issue of difference in brain-development trajectories of boys and girls across a broadly spread distribution. How they purposefully embark on this for boys is a key question for parents of boys to pursue with school leaders prior to enrollment.

Accepting the premise, the spread for boys’ schools is narrower and the need to be acting fairly across a stretched distribution is removed. Boys’ schools can act intentionally for boys.

In and out of class, boys’ schools can take time to provide experiences that build the relationships, respect, and trust on which boys thrive. They can find the time to run activities and nurture the stories upon which boys hang their learning. They can take the time to know each boy and guide him to choose engagement with—rather than separation from—learning. They can take time to steer recruitment and professional development toward staff skilled in learning relationships and the development of boys.

Such factors have always been central to the education of boys. In an environment where education and “success” are increasingly premised on a content/test/qualification format, schools are increasingly struggling to find time for what works for boys. The gap widens.

In short, boys’ schools can—with intent and for each boy—take time to develop programs that unearth passions and hone mastery across a broad landscape, so that being interested in things and aspiring to get good at them become habits for life.

And there is good evidence of success. In his significant work, Achievement in Boys’ schools 2013-2016, Dr. Michael Johnston of the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand notes, “The overall picture that emerges is that young men at single-sex schools gain NCEA qualifications, University Entrance and New Zealand Scholarship passes in greater proportions than their counterparts at coeducational schools.”

Cognizant of the possible selection effect “that parents with high aspirations for their sons are more likely to send them to single-sex schools than other parents,” Johnston notes, “Even so, the single-sex advantage is quite striking across nearly the full range of data considered and certain potential confounds, such as socioeconomic variables and choice of assessment type are shown not to be plausible explanations for the demonstrated single-sex advantage.”

Redshirting is one option to parents, but it is not one that is flexible to the unique maturation of each boy. Boys’ schools work intentionally for boys and each boy’s growth.

I know IBSC member schools in the U.S. and beyond would welcome opportunity to engage directly with Mr. Reeves should he wish to learn more about boys’ schools and the choice they offer families.

Tom Batty
IBSC Executive Director