The US gender gap in math is starkest in the richest, whitest school districts

Surprising results from a district-by-district breakdown.
Surprising results from a district-by-district breakdown.
Image: Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Imagess
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Very privileged parents often talk a big egalitarian game while exhibiting some pretty traditional roles, with dad working while mom stays home. New research shows that in the places where these families cluster—in wealthier, whiter school districts, where men earn more than women, have higher levels of education, and are more likely to work in business or science—boys outperform girls in math by a larger margin than in other communities.

The finding is based on data from more than 260 million state tests given to students in grades three through eight in 10,000 US school districts.

The study found that in the US on average, there is no gender gap in math scores, while in low-income districts, girls tend to outperform boys. But in districts with the highest socioeconomic status, girls noticeably trail their male peers.

“It was sort of surprising because a lot of highly educated, liberal folks might think that they are more egalitarian and they express more egalitarian norms, but it looks like they are producing less egalitarian outcomes in math,” said Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and the lead author of the study.

In test after test, in the US and around the world, girls tend to do better on reading but findings of a gap in math have been mixed. Since international, national, or state-level data can obscure local differences, Stanford and the Learning Policy Institute created the most comprehensive US district-level education data set ever to see what impact local communities have. The goal, Reardon said, was to”to map the patterns of gender achievement gaps across the entire country in order to develop a better sense of what kinds of communities and school districts most commonly provide equal educational opportunities for girls and boys.”

The results, based on tests from the 2008-09 through 2014-15 school years, suggest that achievement gaps may not be as fueled by subject as they are by parents, schools, or communities.

There is no way to know from the study what caused girls to do worse than boys in richer neighborhoods, but the authors posit a few ideas. Perhaps role models matter—maybe boys see their fathers working more and earning more and that fires them up to perform better in math, or girls see mothers working less or earning less and internalize a message that they should try less. Maybe parents with resources react to small preferences young kids express about activities—shaped no doubt by societal gender norms—and reinforce those through activities, sending Jason to robotics club and Jade to ballet. Or, it’s possible schools in wealthier neighborhoods treat boys differently, encouraging them more than girls in math.

The reading gap favors girls

Overall, the researchers found that gender gaps have been narrowing in both math and reading, but closing much faster in math.

However, there remains a staggering gap in reading scores—and it favors girls in every grade, every year, and every district. Nationally, in English and language arts, girls outperform boys by nearly three-quarters of a grade level, according to the new study. And the gap widens as children age. As EdWeek’s coverage of the study notes, girls on average outperform boys by about a half of a grade level in fourth grade, but a full year by eighth grade.

This begs the question of why society has been so preoccupied by the gender gap favoring boys in math and less worried about the giant, and growing, gap favoring girls in reading.

“The more work I do in this area, the more I see how boys educational opportunities are constrained by gender,” said Erin Fahle, a doctoral candidate at Stanford and one of the authors of the research.

Researchers have not unpacked why boys are struggling so much in reading subjects. Fahle said that one theory often offered is that girls have better attention and self control—executive function skills—which might allow them to excel more in reading. But that doesn’t explain why girls might do worse in math. “I think math takes a lot of focus too,” she said.