Why Do Girls Do Better In School?

Why do girls get better grades in elementary school than boys—even when they perform worse on standardized tests? ScienceDaily reports:

“New research from the University of Georgia and Columbia University published in the current issue of Journal of Human Resources suggests that it’s because of their classroom behavior, which may lead teachers to assign girls higher grades than their male counterparts.

‘The skill that matters the most in regards to how teachers graded their students is what we refer to as “approaches toward learning,”‘ said Christopher Cornwell, head of economics in the UGA Terry College of Business and one of the study’s authors. ‘You can think of “approaches to learning” as a rough measure of what a child’s attitude toward school is: It includes six items that rate the child’s attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization. I think that anybody who’s a parent of boys and girls can tell you that girls are more of all of that.’

The data show, for the first time, that gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.

The authors attribute this misalignment to what they called non-cognitive skills, or ‘how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills.’

Research about gender differences in the classroom and beyond has grabbed headlines recently. Titles like Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women and Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up have spent months on best-seller lists and inspired countless discussions in the media.

‘We seem to have gotten to a point in the popular consciousness where people are recognizing the story in these data: Men are falling behind relative to women. Economists have looked at this from a number of different angles, but it’s in educational assessments that you make your mark for the labor market,’ Cornwell said. ‘Men’s rate of college going has slowed in recent years whereas women’s has not, but if you roll the story back far enough, to the 60s and 70s, women were going to college in much fewer numbers. It’s at a point now where you’ve got women earning upward of 60 percent of the bachelors’ degrees awarded every year.’

But despite changing college demographics, the new data may not be reflecting anything fundamentally new.

‘My argument is that this has always been true about boys and girls. Girls didn’t all of a sudden become more engaged and boys didn’t suddenly become more rambunctious,’ Cornwell said. ‘Their attitudes toward learning were always this way. But it didn’t show up in educational attainment like it does today because of all the factors that previously discouraged women’s participation in the labor force.’”

Readers, what do you think? Has something changed for boys, or are girls simply being rewarded now for the behavior they’ve always exhibited? Also: Is this a problem, and if so what should we be doing about it?

For a contrasting view, read this excerpt from a review of Rosin’s book by The Nation‘s Katha Pollitt:

“One problem with Rosin’s optimistic picture is that every fact she cites in support needs about a dozen asterisks after it: women may be taking more than half of college degrees, for example, but both men and women are going to college in greater numbers than in previous decades; men still dominate in science, math, engineering and IT (where the good jobs are); women need a college degree to earn as much as a man with a high school diploma and, in any case, are sandbagged in the workforce by discrimination, as well as by childcare and eldercare responsibilities men are able, still, to slough off onto their wives or sisters. That women earn 20 to 30 percent less than men in nearly every occupation from salesclerk to surgeon is not a detail, and suggests that gender reversal is hardly around the corner, no matter how well girls do in school.” (Read more here.)

9 Responses to “Why Do Girls Do Better In School?”

  1. I think both perspectives are actually true. Girls have always been rewarded for their noncognitive skills and behavior in the younger grades. I was a teacher of younger and middle grades for 11 years and, trust me, active, fidgety boys can be a challenge in a writing class. It’s in the upper grades and at the college level when the gender differences in grades and achievement showed up, or used to. I don’t think boys or teachers have really changed all that much. Girls have more opportunities now, and many boys realize — after watching their dads struggle and flounder, which is what Hanna Rosin’s book is about — that they don’t.
    I’ve written about the gender gap a ton in grad school in my doctoral program (and now I started to on my blog, http://www.jessicasmock.com), and it’s striking to me how the conversation has shifted. When I was in high school (at an all girls school where Carol Gilligan did her research), educators talked about how girls keep falling behind and how schools are failing girls. Now I wonder how much the situation has actually reversed — and more feminists need to get that — or if we’ll continue to see the same patterns of lower incomes and lower representation on the top levels of professions. Is the “boy crisis” real, or is it just a reflection of larger socioeconomic forces that have very little to do with teachers?

  2. Jay says:

    Always knew this since I have a twin sister. She kicked my butt in academics till I go to junior year of HS. I overtook her after that.

  3. I really feel we need to examine how boys and girls are treated from a very young age, as early as one year old. We need to look more closely at how our average stress really does matter and takes up more or less, real mental energy. If one has lower layers of mental work (lower average stress) that one will be able to think, visualize, manipulate, organize, and use information more effectively. If one has higher layers of mental work (higher average stress) that one will have less mental energy to think, learn, and perform other mental work. This will also cut motivation to learn or mental reward received for mental work expended. The effects of differential treatment, more aggressive, less kind, less stable, more commanding, and fewer words during interaction needs to be addressed to see if there are much larger social variables creating less able Male students from an early age that hinders maturity and other mental/emotional/social growth.
    Until we begin looking at differential treatment from an early age and show just how our individual environments create different mental/emotional/social conditioning; how average stress is made up of layers of mental frictions that take up real mental energy, and how differential treatment creates real advantages for girls today, we will continue to be at a loss to explain the growing Male Crisis. Please do not buy into the genetic models, for they will only make it much worse for Male students.
    The problem is more complex than school curriculum or boy chemistry. The problem involves two entirely different treatments of Males and Females beginning as early as one year of age and increases in differential treatment through adulthood. This is creating the growing Male Crisis in the information age. The belief Males should be strong allows more aggressive treatment of Males beginning as early as one year. This is coupled with much “less” kind, stable, verbal interaction and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. This increases over time and continued by society from peers and teachers to others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance from parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; higher average stress that hurts learning and motivation to learn; more activity due to need for stress relief; more defensiveness and wariness of others further hindering emotional and social growth; and higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on pencil and tighter grip) that hurts writing and motivation to write. It creates much lag in development creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues on through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and more escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also the giving of love based on achievement that many Males thus falling behind academics then turns their attention toward video games and sports, risk taking to receive small measures of love/honor not received in the classroom.

    Since girls by differential treatment are given more positive, continual, and close mental/emotional/social/ support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls compared with boys. The lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the more amplified the differential treatment from a young age and increased in more differentiated over time.

    http://learningtheory.homestead.com/Theory.html My learning theory explains how individual environments create large differences in learning over time and provides tools to improve our lives.

  4. There is a major factor here that no one has yet considered in this conversation: that the methods of teaching beginning readers discriminate against boys.
    Whole word recognition has largely replaced phonic processing in teacher training colleges for almost thirty years, the same period in which females have come to the fore.

    Whole word recognition is a three step process.
    Take the word ‘magnet’ as an example:

    1. Pay attention to the letters that attract attention m,g,t
    2. form those letters into a pattern m_g__t
    3. Search in memory for words with simiilar patterns
    (There are only 3 words that fit this pattern, magnet, midget, maggot).

    The problem for boys starts at that first step, for whereas many females may be processing the three letter pattern m_g__t, many males are only processing two letters, m____t and that fits over 40 words meat, mist, must, moat, mutt, mat, met, mast etc.

    Whole word guessing thereby makes for less accurate whole word processing.The size of the problem can be gauged from our study of 911 failing children. The following percentages repeatedly showed the signature patterns of whole word guessing inaccuracy on simple 3 letter words like ‘net’
    Age 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
    % making errors 78% 73% 81% 85% 81% 74% 75% 71% 55% 39%
    The vast majority of these failing readers were boys.

  5. [...] discussion about single parenthood emerged in an unlikely place: the comments section on journalist Annie Murphy Paul’s blog. Murphy Paul wrote about new research from the University of Georgia and Columbia University that [...]

  6. [...] discussion about single parenthood emerged in an unlikely place: the comments section on journalist Annie Murphy Paul’s blog. Murphy Paul wrote about new research from the University of Georgia and Columbia University that [...]

  7. I think there’s also something to what is engaging boys versus girls. Generally speaking, boys are interested in the hands-on, often exercised in science. Girls are more likely to be engaged by narrative, as supported in English classes and the arts. As they go through school, students gravitate to what they enjoy and we encourage that–”Do what you’re passionate about!”–well into their college years. The ongoing conversation about getting more girls into STEM while also encouraging well-rounded students, boys and girls, is working to address what Pollitt argues in her review. But, first and foremost, kids are drawn to their individual interests. They should be part of this debate. How that will materialize is anyone’s guess, but classroom projects that give them an opportunity to work in a medium of their choice or after-school activities that promote individualized learning, is what’s promising.

  8. [...] sermon initial seemed on a blog that belongs to Annie Murphy Paul, a columnist and training consultant who reported on a University of Georgia and Columbia [...]

  9. Ebony says:

    Better grades and lower pay…now that’s motivating :/

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