Growing Gender Gap – This Time It’s The Boys

Posted on January 16, 2010
by FeliciaOctocog

Pick an educational statistic, any statistic. Let’s say high school drop out rates, standardized test scores, college entrance rates, college graduation rates.  Boys are underperforming girls in a big way and this is something we all need to be concerned about.  When I was in school in the 60’s, it was a female gender gap.  Remember the Cinderella Complex?  Through changes in education, cultural attitudes and workplace opportunities, gender parity was reached through the 80’s. However, in the last 10 – 15 years, it has been a slow decline in male academic achievement. This has been seen across income and ethnic groups as well as in other countries. Here are the theories being discussed:

  1. The importance of verbal and writing skills have become paramount in the classroom more so in the last 15 years than before.  As a child growing up in the 60’s I don’t remember doing the amount of writing that elementary and secondary students are doing today.  Studies have shown that girls outperform boys in verbal skills, particularly at younger ages. You see a new emphasis on literacy skills in math as well. Instead of just raw calculations math problems are as much literacy (reading and logic) as they are numeracy.  MCAS requires kids not only to understand the word problem but to explain the solution in a narrative. It is now not only important to know that 5+5=10 but explain in writing why it equals 10.
  2. Boys have more energy, fidget more, and are less able to focus for long periods of time, particularly in the lower grades. So in the last 10 -15 years, students are spending more time prepping for standardized tests and taking standardized tests. This is more in-the-seat learning. This, too, favors achievement for girls
  3. As more time is spent prepping for tests, there is less time for gym, and hands-on activities, all of which boys tend to do better at.  Not that girls would not benefit from the same type of learning but boys tend to perform better with this type of learning.
  4. Over-glorification of sports by school administrators and local media, not to mention the over-zealous parents.  When you extol the athletes at the expense of the academically gifted, you make academic achievement a not-so-cool thing for boys. Local papers will dedicate 2 -3 pages to local sports but nary a small article on the academic achievements of its students.  Girls don’t have the pressure of athletics.
  5. Not-cool factor – particularly for minority boys, being smart, means trying to be white.  It is not an accepted norm to be smart.
  6. Some suggest that the extraordinary performance of girls in school have simply raised the bar, perhaps discouraging (some saying emasculating) their male counterparts but that this is only a temporary swing of the pendulum which will correct itself.

So this then begs the question of what to do about it?  Should we look into single sex schools or new teaching approaches that address learning differences?  In an increasingly “creative economy” where verbal skills are more important, how does one teach boys these necessary skills without totally turning them off to education?  Should we incorporate more kinesthetic learning, for example? For such an obvious problem, there seems to be pathetically little research being done on this so a first step might be to dedicate some money to better understanding the source of the growing problem and then finding some solutions.