Girls, boys, and gender bias in school

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.

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11 thoughts on “Girls, boys, and gender bias in school

  1. “However, I think the bigger impact is the attitude that girls are just inherently better at learning.”

    This attitude on the part of female teachers is exactly parallel to what Malcolm X documented when it came to racist attitudes towards black children.

    This is child abuse, nothing else.

  2. This doesn’t surprise me. Not that long ago a female head teacher got up in front of a UK national conference and told the assembled throng that there was no point in trying to teach boys anything as they were too stupid. Nobody called her on it.
    From there it’s not too much of stretch to picture female teachers penalising boys for being…boys.
    Also, not being funny but the traditional test of how well somebody does at school is to see how well they do in tests/exams. Sounds like somebody added a whole set of extra criteria just for the sake of it.

  3. “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.”

    uh…. what??? What does birth control have to do with down-scoring the boy’s quizzes? Like, most women now work, mostly women choose elem. ed., so, now 95% female teachers… and… what exactly?

  4. “Can you imagine what would happen if a study showed that predominantly male teachers regularly under-graded girls based on stereotypes about girls’ behavior?”

    I don’t have to imagine it, it’s exactly what happened. Study after study came out that showed that if you tell a girl “women are bad at math” she’s going to do worse on the math test. Nobody seems to put two and two together and think that maybe this same thing can happen to boys. Nah. It’s much easier to just say that boys are lazy and dumb.

  5. uh…. what??? What does birth control have to do with down-scoring the boy’s quizzes?

    I assume he meant that women having greater access to birth control allowed more of them to go to school. Of course, the vast majority of female students in elementary and high school are incapable of becoming pregnant, so the comment is rather odd.

  6. “…women having greater access to birth control allowed more of them to go to school…”

    J, so he, you mean, … a whole generation of girls raised with the expectations that, instead of being stay at home mothers being a great part of their life/role/”career”/identity as in say, 150 years ago, they have big career dreams which motivate school performance early on? Perhaps.

    I’d agree though, that birth control technology is the root to upsetting the whole gender paradigm and vast subsequent government programs that attempt to fill in for, simply put, absent mothers (day care) or absent fathers (child support, “welfare”, etc). That’s simplistic as can be, but I think if you imagine tomorrow there was absolutely no birth control at all… a lot would change.

    Still that remark bothers me. Belies a certain gender binary, or feminist … “it’s the patriarchy” kind of blind justification.

    Good post. I think what’s most remarkable about it though, is how deferent social science is to politics, and how political ideas invade the science so easily.

  7. The irony is that such ‘boys are unteachable’ comments go hand-in-hand with ‘all the technical fields are dominated by men’ complaints. Apparently, boys are too dumb to learn but still manage to dominate all the brain-intensive professions. Because patriarchy, or something.

  8. Copyleft:

    Kind of reminds me how some people will insist that women are “better” than men (smarter, kinder, more nuturing, more spiritually aware, more evolved whatever) yet complain about men’s oppression. Makes one wonder how, if men are so inferior, we managed to oppress women for centuries.

  9. Pingback: Girls, boys, and gender bias in school part 2 | Toy Soldiers

  10. Interesting article. I think you’re on to something to something here. I’m a middle and high school English teacher and what you’ve written and quoted here has merit. Many teachers simply do not want to deal with boys and how they act in the classroom. Boys act differently than girls–they’re more active and they’re more physical. They come to school and they want action. They’re less about discussions than they are about discourse and about getting things done. A lot of the fuss about rowdy boys in school comes down to not understanding this. It’s easier to label little Joey as ADHD and give him pills than it is to admit they he’s a 9 year old with energy to burn. Or maybe he’s just bored. It happens. School isn’t always the most exciting thing to a young boy. And why hasn’t anyone connected the dots between schools reducing recess time or doing away with it and boys’ classroom behavior?

    I’ve met and heard of many female teachers at all grade levels who’ve said, “I just don’t do well with boys” or “I favor the girls.” They’ve said this point blank and somehow they managed to get along. Would I get along the same if I said “I favor the boys”? Of course not. I can’t favor anyone and need to accommodate everyone as best as possible.

  11. Pingback: United Kingdom Eliminating feminist teacher bias erases boys' falling grades, study finds

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