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.”