Why Girls Are Outperforming Boys in School

students in classAll-boy classrooms, more male teachers, and longer hours on the playground — these are often suggested answers to improving male achievement in school and close the gender gap in school. But they’re misguided ones that assume all boys have the same needs and that they’re different from the needs of girls, said the authors of a new book, The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools.

Instead, what research shows to be helpful for boys—and all kids—is school-wide focus on academic achievement. “Our research shows that boys will compete for good grades and often achieve them in schools where academic effort is expected and valued,” said co-author Claudia Buchmann, sociology professor at Ohio State University.

It’s also very important, she noted, for teachers and parents to make it clear to students that their hard work in middle and high school leads to success in college and well-paid careers. Girls seem to understand this. But boys…not so much. And it’s a growing problem for them—and our nation.

In 2010, the college completion rate for men was just 27 percent — not much better than it was 40 years ago. But, for women, it was 36 percent, up from 14 percent in 1970. “We’ve seen astonishing change over a very short period of history,” said co-author Thomas DiPrete, a Columbia University sociologist.

The road to success in college starts early—and girls have taken the lead from the very start. At every grade, from kindergarten on, girls have better social and behavioral skills than boys, and they earn better grades. But are the girls just plain smarter? No, not according to researchers. Girls and boys have very similar rates of intelligence. But girls do work harder—and their hard work pays off.

“It isn’t about ability. It’s about effort and engagement in school,” Buchmann said. Girls are more likely to say they like school and that good grades are important to them. And their motivation translates into effort: Girls are more likely than boys to spend time studying. “Success in academics, like success in sports, requires a big investment in time and effort. The more you practice, the better you become,” Buchmann said.

Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to say that they’re going to make a lot of money even without education. They’re overly optimistic. And the problem is worse for boys with less-educated fathers. They’re even less likely to get good grades or graduate from high school. “They may hold out-dated views of masculinity—that it’s more about physical strength,” said Buchmann.

The consequences for men are clear: You need a college diploma to get a well-paid job these days. And folks without degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed in today’s economy. “Men’s failure to get more education limits income gains for them and their families,” said DiPrete. What’s more, it also is slowing the nation’s economic growth, he added. The United States is falling behind other nations in terms of college completion, and the small number of male college graduates is a key contributor to the problem.

Of course, women still have to overcome obstacles. They still earn less money: an average 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man. And they’re still too often closed out of science and technology fields. “Men and women still largely educate themselves in different fields—with dramatic consequences across their lifetimes,” said Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland-College Park professor of sociology.

But the strategies that work best with boys would also work well for women, the researchers said. “Schools should set high expectations, and treat students as individuals…not part of a gendered group,” Buchmann said. “These same reforms will also help girls.”

  • The authors make a good point that good instruction works for both boys and girls. Personalizing instruction will help learners achieve at higher levels. I wonder, do boys just question authority (the teacher/school) more than girls, when the work is unrewarding? Therefore, they refuse to do “boring” work, work that is not relevant. Are girls doing better because they are more risk adverse, thus they just do the work to please and avoid conflict? Is this the best way to educate future innovators? Hard work is a great attribute, one the authors say girls have. So, teachers who provide rigorous and relevant work, with multiple pathways to mastery will find both girls and boys working hard to master the learning, because in their minds it matters.

  • Jane

    Great article. I do think boys can perform better, both socially and academically, if they put their minds to it. They just don’t seem to push themselves as hard as girls do.

  • Melanie Miday-Stern

    I think that sports, music, acting, and other “glamorous” professions are pushed on boys and not the realization that they have to have an education in order to do some of these things. Not all boys are LeBron James, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, LL Cool J etc. If education was made “glamorous” to boys, I think they would put forth more effort. They think the end all to be all is playing professional sports, being the next big rapper, or whatever. It’s sad b/c I have a classroom of 9 boys and over 2/3rds think they will be the next big thing and could care less that their grades are in the toilet or close to it. It’s very sad indeed! Now, just to help them achieve is harder than keeping them in school!

  • Anne Zuidema

    A good point is the personal contact and how valued each child feels.

  • Marcus Hochman

    Really……we needed research to tell us that boys are not as mature and develop at a slower pace then girls…my inner Homer has to state… D’oh!….

  • Sam

    The problem with boys is that they need stronger authority in school, they need more physical activity ie. sports and just be allowed some rough and tumble play. Schools are now banning games like tag, tag of all things. There’s a big difference between aggression and good-natured rough play. Tight rules and deadlines and academic competition work wonders for boys. The problem is that all these things do not work for girls and our schools are now focused only on the success of girls so boys have been intentionally left behind. What this bodes for our nation is yet unknown and so we will just wait and see. Others like Britain are taking steps to fix the problem but they way things are we never will until its too late.

  • Gary


    Unfortunately Britain isn’t going to fix it. However the author hits the nail on the head with this:

    “It isn’t about ability. It’s about effort and engagement in school,” Buchmann said. Girls are more likely to say they like school and that good grades are important to them.

    Social changes have virtually dismantled the strict disciplinary system that existed in British schools until the mid 1980s. This disciplinary system, along with strong parental support for their children and teachers, was crucial in keeping boys focused which is why there was no gender gap in British education up to this time. Since then we have had to devise ‘boy friendly’ education to substitute for the missing discipline (and parental support). This has resulted in the dumbing-down of school subjects in an effort to get boys to enjoy, and engage, in school work. The result of course is that boys have been appearing to do better in dumbed-down qualifications year-on-year, but the girls (capable of self-motivating and behaving) have been doing a whole lot better.

    You only have to look at Asian boy pupils as evidence. They have the drive, discipline, and particularly parental support that existed for British boys 40 years ago. I know because I was one of those boys. I have also taught in a high school in the last 10 years. Boys do not need any ‘special’ education or constant soothing words that they are better than they think they are. Teachers, and particularly parents, need to tell them to stop blaming everybody else at get off their lazy backsides and put some effort into school work.

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  • Mark

    Well there are several things to consider here. Schooling is designed by women, for women, and done in a manner that appeals to women. The vast majority of teachers are women and identify with the needs and learning style of girls in their classes. Boys on the other hand are different. They learn differently, have far more energy that they need to expend each day in physical exercise and often have much more difficulty focusing on what appears to them to be ENDLESS, repetitive and often boring subject matter delivered in a way that appeals to young girls. When it comes to reading and classroom assignments, we replaced great works of literature like Treasure Island and Moby Dick with Twilight and the Hunger Games….books that appeal to young women but hold little interest for men of any age. We increasingly replace gym classes and physical exercise with art classes and ESL.
    I’m going to sound very sexist for a moment, but I feel this needs to be said. Teenagers are sexual beings, hormones dictate their reality in High School. Teenage boys already have enough trouble focusing on their classwork without the added distraction of teenage women in the classroom. This is in no way intended to demean women… quite the opposite, however I feel High School dress codes should reflect the fact that women are a MASSIVE distraction to young males, and often dress with that specific intent in mind. We wouldn’t allow professionals of either gender to wear shorts and tank tops in an office environment because it would be disruptive and unprofessional, so why do we allow teenagers to wear short shorts and tank tops in an educational environment?

  • We are not! getting at the root of the problem. We are still looking at learning from the horrible myth of genetics and effort by Galton. We need to understand as is stated, it is not about ability, but we also need to understand it is not about effort either. We need to see how differential treatment from an early age creates very different tools that enable girls to perform much better than boys in school. Note this differential treatment is maintained by parents, teachers, and peers.

    We need to see how boys and girls begin very equal but due to much differential treatment, boys are not prepared for the information and drive from it by this differential treatment. The belief Males should be strong allows aggressive treatment of Males as early as one year. This is coupled with much “less” kind, stable, “verbal interaction” and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. This increases over time and continued by society from peers, teachers and others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance from parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; also higher average stress that hurts learning and motivation to learn; also more activity due to need for stress relief; also more defensiveness and wariness of others further hindering emotional and social growth; and higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on pencil and tighter grip, also lower social vocabulary hurts writing) that hurts writing and motivation to write. It creates much lag in development creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. It creates the combination of low social vocabulary and higher average stress that hurts love of reading independently. This greatly hurts communication with adults/teachers. This differential treatment continues through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also society gives love and honor based on achievement. Males not achieving are then given more discipline and ridicule to make them try harder, based on myth of genetics and fear of coddling Male children. Males thus falling behind academics then turn their attention toward video games and sports to receive small measures of love/honor not received in the classroom. It is not the video games, the sports, or the television, but the differential treatment creating the lack of achievement and then the need to continually generate love and honor in small ways from outside school.

    Since girls by differential treatment are given much more positive, continual, mental, emotional/social/ support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward by parents, teachers, and peers this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls compared with boys. We are given love and honor simply for being girls. We enjoy lower average stress with more ease of learning and less need for activity; lower muscle tension for more ease of writing/motivation; and a much higher social vocabulary from much positive verbal interaction along with much freedom of expression that allows for even more development of verbal skills and communication skills. We are treated much better by teachers due to society’s dictation of treatment of boys and girls. We are able to communicate and relate to all the words and instructions from the teacher and the books we read.
    The lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the more amplified the differential treatment of more set in place more harsh treatment to make boys tougher; more anxieties thrust out upon the Male children as a catharsis knowing society will look the other way. There are much fewer knowledge and skills for the information age in those areas. However, even in those settings, the girls are treated with an almost opposite treatment, with much more kind, caring, verbal interaction and much continual mental, emotional support and skills from that support. This is maintained by parents, teachers, and peers. Although lacking in some resources and needs prevail, the care and support make up for this in a large way. This creates a much larger gulf between boys and girls in lower socioeconomic areas.

    Note, that girls in higher socioeconomic brackets are also doing better than their Male peers due to the same differential treatment but with more needs, knowledge, and skill provided from their environment.
    So you see it is not about effort, but about the huge variable of differential treatment that is creating the growing Male Crisis in every country. I fear if we continual to use the horrible myth of genetics and push boys harder thinking they will be forced to learn, we will have much more ridicule of boys and men followed by a rebellion by Male children and later men. We have the skills to begin now using our wonderful insights to use these wonderful variables as wonderful tools to help all students continually change and improve their lives. http://learningtheory.homestead.com/Theory.html

  • Reason

    To essentially describe girls as being harder workers or more focused in schools designed by women for women is to completely dismiss everything we’ve learned about self-efficacy (Albert Bandura) and school connectedness–people work harder when they feel like they can be successful and like others care about them. Our schools discipline boys and find boys eligible for special education at alarmingly disproportionate rates…how do you think this impacts boys’ attitudes towards schools, school work and school staff? This author needs to dig a little deeper before dismissing the root causes of performance disparities in our boys and girls.