The Reverse Gender Gap

The data is indisputable: Boys now lag behind girls in several significant areas of education. But the roots of the new gender gap are more complex and nuanced than has been reported. And so are the solutions.

For years, women lagged behind men in educational attainment. More boys went to college, and Census data shows that twice as many men as women got bachelor’s degrees in 1960. Two decades later, a funny thing began to happen. By the mid-1980s, women not only caught up but also started to gain on men, not just by inches, but miles. Now, 57 percent of college students are women, and women earn about one-third more bachelor’s degrees than men, says the National Center for Education Statistics.

As attention focuses on girls and women in STEM fields and they skyrocket ahead, however, some argue that the boys and men are getting left behind. In fact, a Mt. Everest of evidence points to an entrenched reverse gender gap—boys lagging behind girls— that surfaces as early as kindergarten. Here’s a sample: According to U.S. Department of Education data, boys receive 71 percent of school suspensions. Boys make up 67 percent of special education classrooms. Boys are five times more likely than girls to be labeled hyperactive and 30 percent more likely to flunk or drop out of school.

“It’s a story about females’ real gains, but also about stagnation in education for males that raises daunting challenges for American society,” write sociologists Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann in their new book The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools.

One of the most talked about issues in education, the widening achievement difference between boys and girls has been debated vociferously for more than a decade. In the popular press, four words encapsulate the crux of the matter: Are schools failing boys?

The question has a way of raising hackles and attracting polarizing expositions on the state of American schooling that are often fraught with political agendas. It suggests that there is a war against boys, as author Christina Hoff Sommers argued in her 2001 book of that title, and that gains by girls have been at the expense of boys. Other experts reject framing the conversation in terms of winners and losers. One of those is Adam J. Cox, a clinical psychologist who earned his doctorate in counseling psychology at Lehigh University. He has written extensively on the social and emotional development of children and adolescents based on his experiences in his private practices in Pennsylvania and, more recently, Rhode Island.

“The anxiety that lies beneath much of the gender consternation is a zero sum  mentality that leads some to believe that if we devote resources and attention to boys, those resources and that attention must result in a concomitant reduction for girls,” says Cox, author of the 2006 Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect and the 2012 On Purpose Before Twenty. “I think that’s erroneous.”

While the data exposes an indisputable gender gap, the reasons why this is the case are anything but settled. Some researchers point to biological differences between boys and girls in the way they learn. Others say the gap all but dissolves when race and socio-economic factors are considered. Some advocate single-gender schools; others see little value, and perhaps even disadvantage, in that approach.

Some writers even argue that the gender gap has not truly resulted in any disadvantage to boys in the long run. They point to a wage gap that persists, with women earning on average only 77 cents to every $1 men get, according to Census data. Men also run the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies; women hold only 4.2 percent of those CEO positions, according to the nonprofit Catalyst. And women are under-represented at all levels of government. For example, women hold only 18 percent of the seats in Congress, says the Center for American Women and Politics.

However, Hoff Sommers contends, those data have little to do with educational attainment in school and instead are often used as a way to distract people from the very real effects of the three decade- long focus on girls and their needs. In reality, there is not a single explanation or fix, as is often the case.

The roots of the gender gap are much more complex and nuanced than often reported. Many factors can account for the discrepancies between the academic achievement of boys and girls. It is a picture that continues to emerge, and most recently, has focused on social norms for boys and girls and the way those standards impact educational success.

In Boys of Few Words, Cox argues that many boys face communication challenges—born of innate brain differences and learning styles as well as social pressures and stereotypes—that hurt their chances of success in traditional classrooms, and ultimately the workplace, now more than ever.

“In your son’s twenty-first-century education, career, and relationships, he’ll be expected to participate in highly social networks,” he writes in his book. “His success will hinge on how well he can access and join those networks.” According to Cox, boys often feel alienated in school from the earliest grades. “They feel as though it’s a place they don’t belong, where their particular ways of processing are not valued,” he says. “Very often, we’re pathologizing boys for being boys. They are being treated as less-than members of a classroom, and people who are deficient or insufficient in a number of ways.” The key, Cox says, is to teach boys at young ages strategies to connect and communicate, to build their communication competency. That might involve learning how to give compliments or cultivating a conscience. In schools, Cox advocates social-skills groups, where teachers and students have conversations and students learn to voice their opinions.

“This is a huge social issue,” he says. “We are so much more of a social culture. It seems your success in the world, whether you’re accepted and liked by other people, the degree to which others see you as smart and successful—a lot of that has to do with your ability to read subtle social signals. It is important that boys be oriented to those things at a time when their brain still has neuroplasticity, when there is still learning going on.” To be fair, many boys excel in traditional schools,

and there is more variation among boys and girls than between the genders. Researchers also agree that the overall academic prowess of girls is not due to more smarts. In fact, boys and girls share very similar cognitive abilities.

In non-cognitive skills, however, differences are significant. A 2012 study by  Christopher Cornwell, head of the economics department at the University of Georgia, and colleagues found that boys on average score 15 percent lower on an assessment of non-cognitive skills (engagement in class, ability to sit calmly, interpersonal skills) than girls. The study falls short of calling teachers sexist, but points to the fact that the majority of elementary teachers are female, for the first time suggesting that a gender gap persists as a function of educators’ behavioral perceptions of their students.

In addition, more girls like their teachers and schools. According to 2007 data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey (ECLS-K), 67 percent of eighth-grade girls report enjoying school compared to 59 percent of eighth-grade boys.

The difference in engagement, in particular, could explain the gender gap. Interestingly, boys tend to start school as eager and as excited as girls, often with similar connectedness to teachers, says James Earl Davis, a professor of educational leadership at Temple University in Philadelphia who studies gender and education.

“Then it’s squelched early on, by third or fourth grade.” Why the change? Boys “continue to get the message they’re not doing right,” Davis says, echoing Cox.

The Cornwell study also found that primary school teachers generally graded boys lower than girls, even though the boys scored similarly or better than the girls on standardized tests. For example, the data show that although boys out perform girls on math and science test scores, girls are assigned the higher grades by their teachers. The misalignment, the researchers say, is because teachers factored  behavior and comportment into the mix.

Besides social norms, some observers have attributed boys’ lower interest in school to biological differences. Cox, for example, points out that girls in general interpret language better than boys, an advantage that can carry over to the classroom. “Girls hear language more deeply, using more of their brain to process and understand language than do boys,” he writes. “The expanded processing capability adds up to additional social perception and the versatility to use that knowledge in social communication.”

Learning styles, in general, also vary between boys and girls. While many girls absorb academic lessons by listening and looking, many boys rely on kinesthetic learning, that is movement and touch, to master new information, Cox says. The typical classroom, however, rarely involves moving around. In fact, students are expected to sit still in rows of desks while the teacher delivers the lesson.

Many kinesthetic-oriented boys are the ones getting in trouble at school for fidgeting and worse. “At an all-boys school, a lot of that is let go,” Cox says. “People don’t constantly provide a correction.” At the Fenn School, an independent, 4th to 9th-grade boys school in Concord, Mass., the Lower School day includes “flop,” a few minutes break to “just flop on the ground,” Cox explains. “That is an ideal intervention for boys. It’s highly effective in helping them to cope with restlessness and excessive energy.”

He also urges more male teachers in the lower grades to serve as role models, more boy-friendly books (sci-fi, action and adventure) and more projects that involve doing something “heroic.”

“Where is the room to be Harry Potter?” he asks. The answer could be as simple as allowing older students to mentor younger ones, he says. While research shows that male teachers in the lower grades improve the likability of school for boys, it does not necessarily translate into stronger academic outcomes. All-boys schools also have mixed results. “There’s been a proliferation of same-sex schools and classrooms in public schooling,” Davis says. “We would love to see more achievement outcomes.” He reminds that urban schools, in particular, struggle with issues of teacher competency—and that issue does not go away simply by reorganizing the students into single sex groups. DiPrete, who also is the Giddings professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York, says his research shows that the gender gap diminishes in relation to the strength of the academic climate in a school—and that often depends upon the girls. “Girls, as a group, tend to be more academic-oriented,” he says. “When you take all the girls out, you are simultaneously, in general, making the classroom environment less academic. And that hurts boys.”

Still, many schools are seeing positive results from single-sex options. In South Carolina, for example, more than 100 co-ed public schools are experimenting with segregating boys and girls for large chunks of the school day when core subjects are taught. Overall, reports suggest increased academic performance and decreased disciplinary issues for boys and girls in these single-gender classes.

“There should always be opportunities for girls to be among girls and for boys to be among boys, and hopefully for girls to be nurtured by women and boys nurtured by men,” says Davis, who likes the idea of co-ed schools that use gender pullouts for academics, not just to address social and health issues.

However, the opportunities for boys to be exposed to male role models are distinctively disadvantaged across the nation by the dominance of women in teaching. Some have posited, not without warrant, that female teachers instinctively reinforce “female” behavior and fail to acknowledge, or even punish, the gender-specific behaviors of boys.

Peter J. Kuriloff, research director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives in Philadelphia and a professor of teaching, learning and leadership at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that public schools in general are failing both boys and girls. “The way the kids are taught in most ordinary public schools is boring,” he says. “That’s not good for boys or girls.”

DiPrete says schools have not kept pace with a changing economy and that boys have suffered more for it. “The economy has changed fundamentally,” he says, as manufacturing jobs have given way to an information age that requires higher education. “Boys as a group are still operating in this old world that doesn’t exist anymore. Girls have made a more successful transition.”

Schools, he says, need to help all students, but particularly boys, see clearer pathways, the practical value of education as a way to improve engagement.

Cox would agree. He has spent two years interviewing boys from around the world, the basis of On Purpose Before Twenty. “We cannot hope to educate the next generation for the good life,” he writes, “without making a more considered life part of that equation. Schools are an essential catalyst for this growth, and for shaping people whose strength should be manifest more in their citizenship than consumption. “Because the education of youth has become unbalanced,” he adds, “favoring an intake of content over a plan of action, young people are searching for a sense of agency.”

Those words resonate with Alexander Kopelman, co-founder and head of the Children’s Arts Guild in New York. The after-school, nonprofit program seeks to help boys develop emotional skills by way of art.“We feel gender socialization is very detrimental to boys,” he says, noting the gender gap. Boys and men, he says, are often taught to swallow their feelings. Consider the classic, boys don’t cry. “What we’re learning is to cut away a very essential part of ourselves, and to view it as the other, and as something that’s weak and undesirable,” he says. “As we get older, we sort ourselves into what boys and girls do and don’t do.”

That can impact interest in books—and ultimately academic performance. Or it can impact love of art—and creative expression. Many boys, Kopelman says, will not pursue art because it’s viewed as something girls do. At the guild, the goal is to break down those stereotypes. Boys aged pre-K through fifth grade are exposed to male role models and creative projects. They might have a contest to see which team can build the tallest structure, or they might cook together or draw with pastels.

The fundamental question, he says, should not be focused on whether schools are failing boys. That only stirs hard feelings and controversy, he says. Others posit that it was exactly this type of focus (i.e., “are schools failing girls?”) that resulted in the impressive gains made by girls over the past several years and should be used as a model for boys. Conservative author Kate O’Beirne contends the past two decades have seen many classrooms turn into reeducation camps for young boys.

Kopelman asks what is the practical value of an education and how should that education look. “What,” he says, “are we preparing students for?” The answer when it comes to boys may well demand schools of the future that look quite different from current, traditional models.<

As Cox says: “We are a diverse species, and we have a range of differences. We ought to have schools, which are so important, that accommodate some of those differences.”