It’s Time to Worry: Boys Are Rapidly Falling Behind Girls in School

Reporter Peg Tyre explains why the challenges boys face in school need to be taken much more seriously.

Are teachers in America devaluing the ways boys learn? (Photothek via Getty Images)

Peg Tyre is the author of two bestselling books. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.

For nearly a decade now, the evidence has been accumulating: Boys, in general, are doing less well in school than girls. And slowly, parents, teachers and school administrators are waking up to the fact that they are going to need to do something about it.

But what exactly is going on with boys? A new study conducted by two economists from the University of Georgia casts some light on the subject. The researchers analyzed a massive amount of data that was collected by the federal government on 10,000 students as they moved from kindergarten to eighth grade.

When the researchers broke down the data by gender, they found that in many cases, classroom grades (subjective measurements awarded by teachers) were not well aligned to test scores. Troublingly, they found that boys, who scored well on tests (indicating mastery of the material being taught) did not get grades from teachers that reflected their abilities in three central subjects: reading, math, and science.

In other words, teachers favored girls.

The researchers then looked at the teachers’ assessment of students’ behavior, which was collected on this group of kids as they moved through school. The researchers found that teachers depressed the grades of boys who they thought didn’t show an “aptitude for learning.” They depressed the grades of boys, not because they didn’t learn the material, but because they didn’t do school well—comport themselves in class more like, well, girls. When the teachers perceived that boys exhibited an “aptitude toward learning,” they graded them on par and sometimes slightly better than their female counterparts.

The challenges boys face in school is a serious issue, but it has been slow to gain traction in education circles. For decades, any discussion about gender and education largely revolved around the troubles girls faced. A dozen or so years ago, a discussion about boys and their troubles at schools would be squashed by a quick quip about the gender balance of, say, Congress and corporate boardrooms.

Right now, boys are falling out of the kindergarten through 12th grade educational pipeline in ways that we can hardly imagine.

But the evidence that boys are struggling in school has deepened and become more worrisome. Right now boys are falling out of the kindergarten through 12th grade educational pipeline in ways that we can hardly imagine. They are expelled from preschool at five times the rates of girls. They are more likely than girls to be left back, identified as having ADHD and behavior problems. In middle school, they get more Cs and Ds. In high school, with the exception of sports, their involvement in extracurricular activities has declined. Boys are more like to drop out than girls.

It’s no wonder that almost more girls than boys attend college. When you look at government census date from 2010, among full-time college goers— 6.4 million of them are female and 5.1 million of them are male.

To be sure, the problems that beset boys in general do not challenge all boys—in every demographic there is a thin margin of high-performing boys (see above, Congress and corporate board rooms). But in general, while girls have all but caught up in math and science classes, boys in every demographic lag behind girls in reading and writing. Low-income boys and boys of color lag behind girls by almost every measure.

Boys often complain that they are treated differently than girls, particularly in elementary and middle school. This study confirms they are right. Some boys complain they are judged more harshly. Now we have evidence to support this as well. And grades matter. While a middle class boy who is getting so-so grades is supported by his educated parents to see himself as a “late-bloomer,” boys from less affluent families don’t have this luxury. They accept the teacher’s judgement on their abilities. Those boys—even ones who are mastering the material being taught—stop seeing themselves as college material.

Some schools have already taken steps to close the so-called “behavior” differential between boys and girls—the ways in which teachers (who are largely female in the elementary and middle school years) can misunderstand and devalue the ways boys learn—and how they express themselves while they are doing it.

In an article in The New York Times, I wrote about schools that were striving to end this kind of “grading for compliance”—or grading boys like defective girls—by giving all children two grades, one for handing in homework, appearing ready to learn and raising your hand, and the other for mastering the material.

The superintendent of schools in Potsdam, New York, Patrick Brady, who has been rolling out a revamped grading system in his 1,450-student district, said the new grading system would allow teachers to recognize academic strengths where they often are not discovered—among minority students, or students from poorer families, or boys—subgroups whose members may be unable or unwilling to fit in easily to the culture of school.

“We are getting rid of grade fog,” Mr. Brady said. “We need to stop overlooking kids who can do the work and falsely inflate grades of kids who can’t but who look good. We think this will be good for everyone.”

This innovative way of looking at grades won’t solve all the problems facing boys—the causes are complex—but as this new research shows, its wider adoption would be a step in the right direction.

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