The Program for International Student Assessment, the largest global measure of academic performance among 15 year olds, revealed that America’s teens are lagging behind in math, reading, and science. 

On the 2022 test, for which scores were released last month, we ranked an abysmal 34th in math, 16th in science, and ninth in reading. These are not the scores of a country that is equipped to lead in the 21st century economy. Beneath the surface numbers lies at least a partial explanation of why the U.S. performed so poorly: Boys are getting left behind in reading, and girls are getting left behind in math. 

America’s female test-takers, on the whole, scored 22 points ahead of boys in reading. The boys scored 13 points ahead of the girls in math. 

A score disparity between the sexes is not automatic cause for alarm. Studies show that women’s brains are more oriented toward verbal abilities, while men have the advantage in terms of spatial and visual reasoning. A gap in the test scores, then, is to be expected, and such gaps are found in the test results for many countries. 

But the depth of these gaps, combined with overall weak performance on the test, should tell education leaders that schools are not adequately teaching to students’ unique learning needs. 

The worst thing the education system could do at this point would be to embrace an equity agenda, with the goal of having boys and girls score equally on the test the next time around. This would virtually ensure that boys and girls score equally poorly, shrinking the sex gap at the expense of progress. Equity lowers the bar for the sake of evenness rather than raising the bar for the sake of excellence. Schools need to work toward raising everyone’s scores, and that means admitting that students are individuals and treating them as such. 

Of course, education leaders who pretend there is no difference between boys and girls, and that boys can become girls (and vice-versa) simply by saying so, are unlikely to admit that boys and girls tend to learn differently. Such a person is very unlikely to teach in ways that speak to a range of learning styles. 

The failure to recognize sex-based learning differences, and to hardly recognize learning differences at all, has led to men falling behind in educational attainment. Women now earn college degrees at a higher rate than men and are more likely to graduate high school on time than their male peers. This is not because women are smarter than men; it is because schools, which demand quiet and stillness even from the youngest students, are far better at teaching to female learners than males.

Teaching all students the same information the same way robs all of them of their full academic potential. A kinesthetic learner would likely thrive in an environment with project-based, experiential learning, rather than being stuck in a desk all day. An auditory learner, however, would excel with direct instruction. A student with outstanding talent in one particular subject should be able to access advanced classes, even if his or her government-assigned school doesn’t offer them. Education freedom is the rising tide that can lift all boats.