As the new school year ramps up, teachers and parents need to be reminded of a well-kept secret: Across all grade levels and academic subjects, girls earn higher grades than boys. Not just in the United States, but across the globe, in countries as far afield as Norway and Hong Kong.
This finding is reflected in a recent study by psychology professors Daniel and Susan Voyer at the University of New Brunswick. The Voyers based their results on a meta-analysis of 369 studies involving the academic grades of over one million boys and girls from 30 different nations. The findings are unquestionably robust: Girls earn higher grades in every subject, including the science-related fields where boys are thought to surpass them.
Less of a secret is the gender disparity in college enrollment rates. The latest data from the Pew Research Center uses US Census Bureau data to show that in 2012, 71% of female high school graduates went on to college, compared to 61% of their male counterparts. In 1994 the figures were 63% and 61%, respectively. In other words, college enrollment rates for young women are climbing while those of young men remain flat.
This begs a sensitive question: Are schools set up to favor the way girls learn and trip up boys?
Let’s start with kindergarten. Claire Cameron Ponitz from the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia has dedicated her career to studying kindergarten readiness in kids. She’s found that little ones who are destined to do well in a typical 21st century kindergarten class are those who manifest good self-regulation. This is a term that is bandied about a great deal these days by teachers and psychologists. It mostly refers to disciplined behaviors like raising one’s hand in class, waiting one’s turn, paying attention, listening to and following teachers’ instructions, and restraining oneself from blurting out answers. These skills are prerequisites for most academically oriented kindergarten classes in America—as well as basic prerequisites for success in life.
As it turns out, kindergarten-age girls have far better self-regulation than boys. A few years ago, Ponitz and her colleagues confirmed this by putting several hundred 5 and 6-year-old boys and girls through a type of Simon-Says game called the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task. Trained research assistants rated the kids’ ability to follow the correct instruction and not be thrown off by a confounding one—in some cases, for instance, they were instructed to touch their toes every time they were asked to touch their heads. Curiously enough, remembering such rules as “touch your head really means touch your toes” and inhibiting the urge to touch one’s head instead amounts to a nifty example of good overall self-regulation.
The researchers combined the results of boys’ and girls’ scores on the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task with parents’ and teachers’ ratings of these same kids’ capacity to pay attention, follow directions, finish schoolwork, and stay organized. The outcome was remarkable. They discovered that boys were a whole year behind girls in all areas of self-regulation. By the end of kindergarten, boys were just beginning to acquire the self-regulatory skills with which girls had started the year.
This self-discipline edge for girls carries into middle-school and beyond. In a 2006 landmark study, Martin Seligman and Angela Lee Duckworth found that middle-school girls edge out boys in overall self-discipline. This contributes greatly to their better grades across all subjects. They found that girls are more adept at “reading test instructions before proceeding to the questions,” “paying attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming,” “choosing homework over TV,” and “persisting on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration.” These top cognitive scientists from the University of Pennsylvania also found that girls are apt to start their homework earlier in the day than boys and spend almost double the amount of time completing it. Girls’ grade point averages across all subjects were higher than those of boys, even in basic and advanced math—which, again, are seen as traditional strongholds of boys.
What Drs. Seligman and Duckworth label “self-discipline,” other researchers name “conscientiousness.” Or, a predisposition to plan ahead, set goals, and persist in the face of frustrations and setbacks. Conscientiousness is uniformly considered by social scientists to be an inborn personality trait that is not evenly distributed across all humans. In fact, a host of cross-cultural studies show that females tend to be more conscientious than males. One such study by Lindsay Reddington out of Columbia University even found that female college students are far more likely than males to jot down detailed notes in class, transcribe what professors say more accurately, and remember lecture content better. Arguably, boys’ less developed conscientiousness leaves them at a disadvantage in school settings where grades heavily weight good organizational skills alongside demonstrations of acquired knowledge.
These days, the whole school experience seems to play right into most girls’ strengths—and most boys’ weaknesses. Gone are the days when you could blow off a series of homework assignments throughout the semester but pull through with a respectable grade by cramming for and acing that all-important mid-term exam. Getting good grades today is far more about keeping up with and producing quality homework—not to mention handing it in on time.
Gwen Kenney-Benson, a psychology professor at Allegheny College, a liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania, says that girls succeed over boys in school because they tend to be more mastery-oriented in their schoolwork habits. They are more apt to plan ahead, set academic goals, and put effort into achieving those goals. They also are more likely than boys to feel intrinsically satisfied with the whole enterprise of organizing their work, and more invested in impressing themselves and their teachers with their efforts.
On the whole, boys approach schoolwork differently. They are more performance-oriented. Studying for and taking tests taps into their competitive instincts. For many boys, tests are quests that get their hearts pounding. Doing well on them is a public demonstration of excellence and an occasion for a high-five. In contrast, Kenney-Benson and some fellow academics provide evidence that the stress many girls experience in test situations can artificially lower their performance, giving a false reading of their true abilities. These researchers arrive at the following overarching conclusion: “The testing situation may underestimate girls’ abilities, but the classroom may underestimate boys’ abilities.”
It is easy to for boys to feel alienated in an environment where homework and organization skills account for so much of their grades. But the educational tide may be turning in small ways that give boys more of a fighting chance. An example of this is what occurred several years ago at Ellis Middle School, in Austin, Minnesota. Teachers realized that a sizable chunk of kids who aced tests trundled along each year getting C’s, D’s, and F’s. At the same time, about 10% of the students who consistently obtained A’s and B’s did poorly on important tests. Grading policies were revamped and school officials smartly decided to furnish kids with two separate grades each semester. One grade was given for good work habits and citizenship, which they called a “life skills grade.” A “knowledge grade” was given based on average scores across important tests. Tests could be retaken at any point in the semester, provided a student was up to date on homework.
Staff at Ellis Middle School also stopped factoring homework into a kid’s grade. Homework was framed as practice for tests. Incomplete or tardy assignments were noted but didn’t lower a kid’s knowledge grade. The whole enterprise of severely downgrading kids for such transgressions as occasionally being late to class, blurting out answers, doodling instead of taking notes, having a messy backpack, poking the kid in front, or forgetting to have parents sign a permission slip for a class trip, was revamped.
This last point was of particular interest to me. On countless occasions, I have attended school meetings for boy clients of mine who are in an ADHD red-zone. I have learned to request a grade print-out in advance. Not uncommonly, there is a checkered history of radically different grades: A, A, A, B, B, F, F, A. When F grades and a resultant zero points are given for late or missing assignments, a student’s C grade does not reflect his academic performance. Since boys tend to be less conscientious than girls—more apt to space out and leave a completed assignment at home, more likely to fail to turn the page and complete the questions on the back—a distinct fairness issue comes into play when a boy’s occasional lapse results in a low grade. Sadly though, it appears that the overwhelming trend among teachers is to assign zero points for late work. In one survey by Conni Campbell, associate dean of the School of Education at Point Loma Nazarene University, 84% of teachers did just that.
Disaffected boys may also benefit from a boot camp on test-taking, time-management, and study habits. These core skills are not always picked up by osmosis in the classroom, or from diligent parents at home. Of course, addressing the learning gap between boys and girls will require parents, teachers and school administrators to talk more openly about the ways each gender approaches classroom learning—and that difference itself remains a tender topic.