‘The Weaker Sex?’ Girls Are ‘Outclassing’ Boys In Education

Matt Vespa
Posted: Mar 27, 2015 11:30 AM
‘The Weaker Sex?’ Girls Are ‘Outclassing’ Boys In Education

The “boy crisis” has been the subject of debate amongst educators, policy wonks, and feminists. Yet, when you look at the data, girls have been getting better grades than boys for years. And by years, I mean for nearly a century. Feminists contend that while there is a double-digit gap between eighth grade boy and girl scores, the “crisis” disappears in the real world, where men are paid more [insert shoddy 77¢ statistic here] regardless of their grades, their alma mater, or their field of study. Then again, an education system where boys underperform, or lag behind, shouldn’t be taken seriously because they, you know, end up coming out on top in the real world isn’t a serious argument. Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. In math, a new study shows that boys are about three months ahead of girls in schooling. In science, the genders are about equal, but when it comes to reading; the female gender is supreme (for now). And that lack of reading for boys is the root of the problem (via the Economist):

The OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] deems literacy to be the most important skill that it assesses, since further learning depends on it. Sure enough, teenage boys are 50% more likely than girls to fail to achieve basic proficiency in any of maths, reading and science.

To see why boys and girls fare so differently in the classroom, first look at what they do outside it. The average 15-year-old girl devotes five-and-a-half hours a week to homework, an hour more than the average boy, who spends more time playing video games and trawling the internet. Three-quarters of girls read for pleasure, compared with little more than half of boys. Reading rates are falling everywhere as screens draw eyes from pages, but boys are giving up faster. The OECD found that, among boys who do as much homework as the average girl, the gender gap in reading fell by nearly a quarter.

Once in the classroom, boys long to be out of it. They are twice as likely as girls to report that school is a “waste of time”, and more often turn up late. Just as teachers used to struggle to persuade girls that science is not only for men, the OECD now urges parents and policymakers to steer boys away from a version of masculinity that ignores academic achievement.

Boys’ disdain for school might have been less irrational when there were plenty of jobs for uneducated men. But those days have long gone. It may be that a bit of swagger helps in maths, where confidence plays a part in boys’ lead (though it sometimes extends to delusion: 12% of boys told the OECD that they were familiar with the mathematical concept of “subjunctive scaling”, a red herring that fooled only 7% of girls). But their lack of self-discipline drives teachers crazy.

Perhaps because they can be so insufferable, teenage boys are often marked down. The OECD found that boys did much better in its anonymised tests than in teacher assessments. The gap with girls in reading was a third smaller, and the gap in maths—where boys were already ahead—opened up further. In another finding that suggests a lack of even-handedness among teachers, boys are more likely than girls to be forced to repeat a year, even when they are of equal ability.

What is behind this discrimination? One possibility is that teachers mark up students who are polite, eager and stay out of fights, all attributes that are more common among girls. In some countries, academic points can even be docked for bad behaviour. Another is that women, who make up eight out of ten primary-school teachers and nearly seven in ten lower-secondary teachers, favour their own sex, just as male bosses have been shown to favour male underlings. In a few places sexism is enshrined in law: Singapore still canes boys, while sparing girls the rod.

Once reading proficiency is dropped due to the perception that reading is girly, amongst other things, the female advantage over their male peers, unsurprisingly, continues into higher education. Changing social factors has contributed to the deluge of women entering higher education, but men still dominate the fields that maximize the income from their degrees, such as computer sciences and engineering:

According to the OECD, the return on investment in a degree is higher for women than for men in many countries, though not all. In America PayScale, a company that crunches incomes data, found that the return on investment in a college degree for women was lower than or at best the same as for men. Although women as a group are now better qualified, they earn about three-quarters as much as men. A big reason is the choice of subject: education, the humanities and social work pay less than engineering or computer science. But academic research shows that women attach less importance than men to the graduate pay premium, suggesting that a high financial return is not the main reason for their further education.

At the highest levels of business and the professions, women remain notably scarce. In a reversal of the pattern at school, the anonymous and therefore gender-blind essays and exams at university protect female students from bias. But in the workplace, says Elisabeth Kelan of Britain’s Cranfield School of Management, “traditional patterns assert themselves in miraculous ways”. Men and women join the medical and legal professions in roughly equal numbers, but 10-15 years later many women have chosen unambitious career paths or dropped out to spend time with their children. Meanwhile men are rising through the ranks as qualifications gained long ago fade in importance and personality, ambition and experience come to matter more.

So, is this the “end of men?” Hanna Rosin, the author who delved into this topic, thinks that women are ahead of the curve educationally and professionally. She uses the cardboard man/plastic woman model to describe the changing economic dynamics between the genders. In short, women are adapting more efficiently.

A multitude of social factors has allowed this to happen:

The Pill and a decline in the average number of children, together with later marriage and childbearing, have made it easier for married women to join the workforce. As more women went out to work, discrimination became less sharp. Girls saw the point of study once they were expected to have careers. Rising divorce rates underlined the importance of being able to provide for yourself. These days girls nearly everywhere seem more ambitious than boys, both academically and in their careers. It is hard to believe that in 1900-50 about half of jobs in America were barred to married women.

Additionally, we’ve become a more technologically focused economy, thus the beginning of a steady loss in the job opportunities for men without higher education degrees. For decades, America’s strong manufacturing base has allowed men with no college education to succeed and work their way into the middle class, usually through back-breaking work.

Though it’s really not the end of men. Jessica Bennett, formerly of the Daily Beast, mentioned that it might be the end of the “Don Draper” type of dude:

In the end, what it may well be is not the end of men at all, but the end of a certain kind of man: the Don Draper, bringing-home-the-bacon, gender role–specific kind of guy who refuses to do the laundry, pick up the kids, and can’t quite come to terms with his wife being behind an executive table, and not a blender. And perhaps it’s that kind of man that we’ve said goodbye to a long time ago.

Rosin says her goal is to help men and women learn to navigate these changes, not draw battle lines based on gender. Which is a noble effort … as long as you can get past that pesky title.

Indeed, that is true. America is a majority two-income household nation. Yet, back to the “boy crisis,” some say it’s really not happening at all–and that all-male classrooms, male teachers, and “boot camp” style teaching are not the solutions (via WaPo):

[S]ome are advocating boys-only classrooms in which boys would be taught in boot-camp fashion. In a recent Newsweek cover story, Houston neurologist Bruce Perry described today's co-ed classes as a "biologically disrespectful model of education." In the New Republic, Richard Whitmire wrote of a "verbally drenched curriculum" that is "leaving boys in the dust." New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that boys ought to be given books about combat, to hold their interest. (Forget Julius Caesar, give them GI Joe?)

There's actually not much evidence that most boys lack verbal skills. In 2005, University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde synthesized data from 165 studies on verbal ability and gender. They revealed a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless. And psychologist Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College looked at many studies of verbal and math abilities and found that, overall, the gender differences were remarkably small.

Judith Warner at Time wrote in 2013 about gearing schools to stress academic achievement and–on the domestic front–emphasizing the importance of fatherhood:

Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann, sociologists at Columbia and Ohio State universities respectively, spent 10 years digging through all the data on boys’ and girls’ academic achievement, trying to figure out what’s true and what’s false in the boy-crisis story. Drawing together all the best research, they found that, indeed, girls now take more advanced college-preparatory classes than boys, and earn higher grades in those classes. They go on to earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men.

Yet they also found that the academic discrepancy isn’t new. Surprisingly enough, girls have been outperforming boys in school for a century — so much so, Buchmann tells me, that when the first U.S. colleges and universities began admitting young women and quickly saw that they were winning the lion’s share of academic honors, some actually reversed their co-educational policies. What has changed, they say, isn’t the relative status of boys (a devaluing of maleness in the classroom) or a feminization of education (that much cursed need to shut up and sit still) or a dearth of men in the teaching profession (boys, it turns out, do equally well with female and male teachers). Instead, they say, there has come to be a real discrepancy in boys’ and girls’ attitudes and effort — backed up by the messages that boys and girls are getting about academic achievement at home.

Girls, it turns out, spend more time studying than boys do and are more likely to say that good grades are very important to them. Boys, on the other hand, particularly if they’re from working-class or low-income backgrounds, often suffer socially if they work hard to get good grades. They’re considered “fags” if they do the things that are associated with higher academic performance — participate in music, art or drama, for example. And while girls are hearing the message loud and clear that their hard work in school will lead to success in college and, later, in the workplace, that lesson just isn’t getting through to boys, particularly boys whose fathers didn’t go to college.

“When you look for differences among boys, rather than just differences between boys and girls, the boys who are achieving well are different. They’re more likely to come from families where a father is involved and the father is highly educated and has a white-collar job. The fathers are so important because they help boys understand that being a man isn’t just about acting tough or showing physical prowess but that academic achievement is something that’s very desirable for men, and they make that connection between doing well in school and doing well in today’s economy,” Buchmann says. “These boys haven’t gotten the message or have gotten the wrong message about what it takes to be successful.”

How to fix this? Ten years of research shows that change won’t come through all-male classrooms or more male teachers or a more boy-centric curriculum, the authors say. We need instead to change our schools so that they consistently promote a culture of high academic achievement — a goal that should be obvious but is clearly lacking in many of our sports-obsessed learning institutions. Schools need to promote that culture consistently and evenly for all students. Set high standards and expect students to reach them — and provide extra support for those who need it.

So, while women are academically dominating the education scene, that’s mostly grounded in historical precedent. It’s nothing new. At the same time, reforms need to be made to ensure boys are able to more or less catch up to girls, especially when reading becomes a larger part of the curriculum. It’s not feminization of education, but the problem is not going to be solved any sooner unless we tackle the disintegration of the family, particularly the rise of fatherless homes.

Yet, as George Will wrote in 2010, these reforms could be hard to institute since 90 percent of a school’s performance–and success–revolves around the family structures of the student body:

In 1966, the seismic Coleman Report concluded: "Schools are remarkably similar in the way they relate to the achievement of their pupils when the socioeconomic background of the students is taken into account." (Emphasis added.)

Subsequent research suggests that about 90 percent of the differences among the proficiency of schools can be explained by five factors: days absent from school, hours spent watching television, pages read for homework, the quantity and quality of reading matter in the home -- and the presence of two parents in the home.

Rebuilding family structures is a problem that can't be fixed with a new federal law, nor any direct action by the federal government.