Worries about the declining academic performance of boys, a topic of increasing alarm this past decade, have intensified recently. It seems that boys are being judged both unduly harshly and leniently at school. A new study on gender disparities in elementary-school performance — the first study to examine both objective and subjective performance — found that boys were given lower grades than girls, even in cases (such as math and science) where their test scores were either equal to or higher than the girls’ test scores.
It seems like out-and-out discrimination, except there is an interesting wrinkle: teachers didn’t downgrade boys who had identical test scores to girls if they seemed to share the girls’ positive attitude toward learning. In fact, the opposite seemed to occur: the well-socialized boys received a small grade “bonus” for their good behavior relative to other boys, suggesting that teachers may be overcompensating when they encounter boys whose behavior exceeds expectations. In other words, boys who match girls on both test scores and behavior get better grades than girls do, but boys who don’t are graded more harshly. Which means that the issue of what to do with underperforming boys just got a lot more complicated.
We’ve known for a long time that boys, on average, struggle with school more than girls do. Learning disabilities and behavioral problems are more prevalent among boys, and high school and college graduation rates are lower. Boys also receive two-thirds of failing grades and are more likely to find school boring or frustrating.
What’s new is the finding that these gender disparities start so early and appear linked not only to gaps in relatively objective measures like test scores but also to teachers’ assessments of their own students. But since much of the misalignment between test scores and grades (or one might say between reality and perception) is accounted for by differences in social competency, what can we do about it? Some educators have responded by championing single-sex schools and other special supports for struggling boys. The decline of recess and physical education has been harmful to all kids but perhaps more so for rambunctious boys than eager-to-please girls.
But before we start siphoning off boys from mainstream schools or putting trampolines in every classroom, it’s worth noting that gender disparity is only one lens through which we can understand academic performance, and an imperfect one. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, describes how the current vogue for collaborative learning and group projects may leave introverts and solitary thinkers behind. These types of learners are often labeled uncooperative or academically deficient because their learning style doesn’t conform to our current conception of a productive work output. Perhaps instead of dividing classes by sex we should consider dividing by learning style, except that in a society that privileges extroversion, one can only imagine how parents might respond to the suggestion that their child is introverted and shy.
While sex differences are real, and likely honed by cultural training as much as evolution, it’s also the case that differences within sexes are far more significant than the differences across genders. To understand why this is so, we can take the example of sex differences in height. The average American adult male is 5 ft. 9 in. while the average American adult female is 5 ft. 4 in. But if we based all height-related decisions (like sink heights in public bathrooms) on this disparity, we would miss a key point: the range of possible heights for an individual man or woman might go from less than 5 ft. to nearly 7 ft. In other words, there’s far more variation within each sex than between the sexes.
Similarly with children, if teachers expect boys to behave worse than girls, because on average they do so, they may miss girls’ behavior problems entirely or treat well-behaving boys as anomalous, which as the study showed can distort expectations and support for all children. The focus on sex differences also obscures other important variables related to learning — such as age, physical maturity, mental-health issues and home environments, to name just a few. Educating children is a complex task, and while we should be concerned about our boys, we also can’t forget to look at the bigger picture. After all, that’s what learning is all about.