New research from the University of Georgia and Columbia University finds that girls outperform boys because of their behavior:
“The skill that matters the most in regards to how teachers graded their students is what we refer to as ‘approaches toward learning,'” said Christopher Cornwell, head of economics in the UGA Terry College of Business and one of the study’s authors. “You can think of ‘approaches to learning’ as a rough measure of what a child’s attitude toward school is: It includes six items that rate the child’s attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization. I think that anybody who’s a parent of boys and girls can tell you that girls are more of all of that.”
The study, co-authored by Cornwell and David Mustard at UGA and Jessica Van Parys at Columbia, analyzed data on more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It examined students’ performance on standardized tests in three categories¬¬-reading, math and science-linking test scores to teachers’ assessments of their students’ progress, both academically and more broadly.
The data show, for the first time, that gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.
In plain English, teachers give boys lower grades than they deserve. This not the first time a study found that. Another study published in 2012 found a similar problem. The researchers of the latest study explain this issue as result of boys’ “non-cognitive skills”:
The authors attribute this misalignment to what they called non-cognitive skills, or “how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills.” They even report evidence of a grade bonus for boys with test scores and behavior like their girl counterparts.
Cornwell then goes on to state:
“My argument is that this has always been true about boys and girls. Girls didn’t all of a sudden become more engaged and boys didn’t suddenly become more rambunctious,” Cornwell said. “Their attitudes toward learning were always this way. But it didn’t show up in educational attainment like it does today because of all the factors that previously discouraged women’s participation in the labor force, such as a lack of access to reliable birth control.”
I think there is a different explanation, one that is staring everyone in the face: the teachers.
Boys are not stupid, and they are certainly not disinterested in learning new things. Most boys want to learn and have no problem doing so once the learning environment is not hostile to them. The study from 2012 shows that plenty of female teachers have a bias against boys that affects how they treat and grade them. It does not take a professor to realize that if teachers, particularly female teachers, think boys are too dumb or wild to learn they will treat boys worse than they treat girls.
As the researchers note, the impact of lower grades has a broader effect on a child’s life, from the schools he can get into to the jobs he chooses. However, I think the bigger impact is the attitude that girls are just inherently better at learning. When one starts from the premise and shares it with the boys one teaches, it should come as no surprise that boys like school less and therefore do not try as hard. After all, if you are going to be put down all the time, why bother?
This should prompt more outrage than it does. Can you imagine what would happen if a study showed that predominantly male teachers regularly under-graded girls based on stereotypes about girls’ behavior? Would anyone dare argue that the problem was really girls’ “non-cognitive skills”? Most people would say that the problem lay with the male teachers and their inability or unwillingness to modify their teaching methods to fit girls’ needs and interests.
Yet here we see the same situation in reverse, yet the response is not to question the absurd notion that girls are inherently better behaved and smarter, but to just say “them’s the breaks” and kind of blame boys for wanting to move around and not liking school, as if boys feel that way for no reason.
Boys deserve better than this.