The puzzling gender achievement gap and what “they” say. But why do boys get lower grades than girls, and why have they responded so much more slowly and partially to changes in the job market that have increased the rewards for academic achievement? Researchers agree that it is not because girls are smarter. In fact, while boys score slightly higher in math tests and girls score slightly higher in reading tests, overall the cognitive abilities of boys and girls are very similar. The difference in grades lies in effort and engagement. On average, girls are more likely than boys to report that they like school and that good grades are very important to them. Girls also spend more time studying than boys.
Many observers believe that boys’ lower engagement with school is a result of biological differences between males and females. They say that boys need to engage in rough and tumble play, get their hands dirty, build things, and read books about war, espionage and sports if they are supposed to learn. Boys fail, they claim, because schools do not give boys enough opportunities to do “boy” stuff.
What we say.We do not agree. Our research shows that boys’ underperformance in school has more to do with society’s norms about masculinity than with anatomy, hormones or brain structure. In fact, boys involved in extracurricular cultural activities such as music, art, drama, and foreign languages report higher levels of school engagement and get better grades than other boys. But these cultural activities are often denigrated as un-masculine by pre-adolescent and adolescent boys — especially those from working- or lower-class backgrounds. Sociologists C.J. Pascoe and Edward Morris relate numerous examples of boys who strive for good grades as being labeled “pussies” or “fags” by their peers.Commentators who emphasize boys’ special needs usually propose that wemake schools more “boy-friendly” by offering single-sex classrooms where “boys can be boys,” by recruiting more male teachers, and by providing more rough and tumble activities. Our research shows that, contrary to what is rapidly becoming “conventional wisdom,” this is precisely the wrong strategy. Most boys and girls learn more in classrooms where girls are present. In classrooms with more girls, both boys and girls score higher on math and reading tests. And several recent studies refute the claim that teacher gender matters for boys’ or girls’ achievement.
The briefing report closes with two key findings that point a way forward:
- firstly that it appears that one reason for girls being more interested and engaged in pursuing education is that boys appear to have less understanding of how their future success in tertiary education and careers is directly related to the amount of effort they put in during their secondary education;
- secondly the culture of a school around expecting, valuing and rewarding academic achievement is the most important predictor of boys’ achievement.
Suggested reforms centre on developing school cultures that set high expectations, treat students as individuals rather than gender stereotypes, and motivate all students to make the investment in their education that creates the best odds for them achieving higher education and stronger employment prospects.
The win-win news is that the same reforms that help more boys achieve college success help girls as well. For example, schools with strong science curricula not only promote male achievement but increase girls’ plans to major in science and engineering. Schools that promote strong academic climates reduce gender gaps in grades and promote healthy, multi-faceted gender identities for both boys and girls. In education, as in the rest of society, it’s time to discard the zero-sum game of the “gender wars” mentality and start helping males and females to work together for success.
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