The education gender gap, it seems, is a very real thing. According to a new paper from the Third Way, a Washington-based research group, there is a correlation between college graduation rates and the behavior gap between young boys and girls. The paper's authors, Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann, argue that the gender gap in behavioral skills "is considerably larger than the gap between children from poor families and middle class families or the gap between black and white children."
We know that by kindergarten, girls are better prepared for the demands of elementary school; they're generally more attentive, independent, and better behaved. And because of this (and a host of other reasons) girls academically outpace their male counterparts. This, according to Third Way, has a lasting effect on boys' performance in school. By eighth grade, academic behavior is fixed, and "eighth grade grades," writes DiPrete and Buchmann, "are a better predictor of completing college than standardized tests scores." Though the behavior gap is apparent as early as kindergarten, by eighth grade girls are far more likely to earn better grades. The trend persists through high-school and into college: Women now outperform their male counterparts in university settings, taking home nearly 57 percent of university degrees.
The New York Times was quick to posit a link between the struggling economy and what they termed America's "fidgety" "boy problem." Conservative commentators like Christina Hoff Sommers have been trumpeting this for years. In Hoff Sommers' estimation, schools devalue boys' "interests and enthusiasms" to the point of treating them like "defective girls." So, are schools really educating girls at the expense of boys? Do we actually have a "boy problem?"
The short and easy answer should be no, classrooms and college campuses still cater to boys, particularly white ones. Study after study has shown that boys, especially if they're white, are the beneficiaries of classroom privilege. They are routinely given a multitude of advantages that girls are not. Teachers call on boys at a nearly two to one ratio and college professors are more likely to mentor white men than any other student group on campus. So if boys are given more than ample opportunities to succeed, then why do women still academically outpace them? It's a complicated question with a host of complicated answers.
Part of the answer may be racially discriminatory practices still at work in our educational system. The Education Department's Office of Civil Rights found that black children, particularly boys, are far more likely to be punished and suspended from school at disturbingly young ages. If Third Way's paper is correct, that there is a correlation between early behavior and college graduation, then it should come as no surprise that graduation rates among men of color are some of the lowest in the nation.
But even accounting for discriminatory practices, girls still have the upper hand. It may seem that much of our panic over the academic successes of boys isn't really so much of a "boy problem" as it is a gender problem.
Here's what everyone forgets: Girls have always outperformed boys in school. Researchers at the University of New Brunswick analyzed data stretching back 100 years and found that girls have always had better grades, in pretty much every subject, including science and math. So, the fact that girls are now overtaking boys in college shouldn't be much of a surprise.
The root cause may be that different genders are socialized differently. Girls have long been socialized to be polite, pliant, and well-behaved; these are traits that benefit them well in school, but are a double-edged swords in the professional world. Boys, on the hand, are less likely to receive encouragement to perform well in school, and behavioral issues are often justified with a "boys will be boys" mentality, rather than perceiving such behavior as a disengagement from education.
"Boys are getting the wrong message about what you need to be successful," Buchmann told the Times. "Traditional gender roles are misguiding boys…being tough and being strong are not what leads to success." Indeed. In Scandinavian countries, where boys and girls alike receive similar messages about the importance of academic performance and equal opportunity, there is virtually no performance gap. It would appear that if America has a "boy problem," then it's of our own making. Old-fashioned gender stereotypes seem to hurting the very group they are designed to protect. The question that remains, of course, is to how to rectify the problem.