Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 29, 2013

The Gender Gap: Why girls often out-achieve boys in school


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Few boys would expect to get on a varsity basketball team without playing basketball in junior high or on junior varsity teams.

Yet many think they can become an all-star college student without doing homework or practicing good study skills in their elementary through high school years, said sociologist Claudia Buchmann, a Benzie County summer resident who co-authored a new book on the growing education gender gap in education.

Today, 57 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients in the United States are women, up from 52 percent in 1990, she said, citing research she and fellow sociologist Thomas A. DiPrete conducted over several years before writing “The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools.”

“Our research shows that success in college is about practicing and honing skills, learning how to study and how to be organized in middle school through high school,” she said.

Boys on the average are underperforming in school, she said. They have lower grade point averages than girls in the elementary grades through high school. They spend less time on homework than girls do. Even so, many boys tend to be over-confident about their academic abilities and have unrealistic expectations about their future. They expect to go to college and get rich.

Statistics culled from her and DiPrete’s decade-long study of large-scale national education and census data suggests another reality: Eighth-graders who earn A’s and B’s have a 6-in-10 chance of finishing college. Those odds plummet to 1-in-10 for eighth-graders receiving “B” and “C” grades.

A key finding of DiPrete’s and Buchmann’s work is that the most important predictor of boys’ achievement in college is how school systems expect, value and reward academic effort. The co-authors also say that boys need to learn how much today’s economy rewards academic achievement rather than traditionally masculine blue-collar work.

The seed for their labor-intensive investigation began a decade ago. Buchmann, then the mother of a boy in kindergarten, noticed while volunteering in her son’s classroom that more boys than girls needed one-on-one help. She mentioned it to DiPrete, who had just come from an school event where his daughter and other all-A students received special recognition for receiving all A’s. Almost all of the students recognized were girls.

“The Rise of Women” is believed to be the first thoroughly researched book on the subject, Buchmann said. It was published in March by the Russell Sage Foundation, which is devoted to research in the social sciences.

Several books based on anecdotal evidence have addressed the educational gender gap over the last dozen years and stirred debate about the need for single-sex schools, the notion that girls and boys learn differently and criticism that boys are being short-changed in the nation’s schools.

The authors disagree with the idea that boys’ underperformance in school is caused by a “feminized” learning environment that needs to be made more boy-friendly. Their charting of data shows that boys do better in classrooms with girls present and that both boys and girls score higher on math and reading tests. Overall, cognitive abilities of boys and girls are similar.

Their research also revealed that girls generally like school, are more engaged in it and care more about pleasing their teachers.

“The difference between other books and ours is that we need to substantiate what we say because it’s an academic book,” Buchmann said. “People tend to look for scapegoats or easy solutions. Our book tries to think about complex policy recommendations based on what social science tells us.”

Both authors are sociology professors — Buchmann at Ohio State University and DiPrete at Columbia University in New York.

Their book also attributed part of the rise in bachelor degrees for women to modern trends such as increased employment opportunities for women, the decline or delay in marriage, and lower fertility rates that have increased their ability to complete college.

What are the policy implications of the educational gap research?

“This issue has more to do with educating students, both male and female, about the realities,” Buchmann said. “For me, the concern is how we — parents, guidance counselors, teachers, colleges and universities — send the message that academic excellence matters.”

Among the realities she mentioned: Blue collar jobs have dwindled. Trades and blue collar jobs are not as good as they once were. Pensions often aren’t available anymore.

“We know that boys spend less time on homework than girls do but there’s not much talk in school about how do you do homework,” she said. “Most of the conversation is focused on knowledge. We need to do a better job of explaining that if you continue to underperform, you likely won’t get a college degree.”