Boys Left Behind: The Gender Gap in Education

“Boys are hard.” When Charlene Grisim was expecting son Brady, now 7, she heard this over and over. She didn’t quite believe it, though, until she took a job as dean of students (an assistant principal of sorts) at a middle school a few years ago. There, the so-called gender gap became clear, but not in the way she’d expected. It wasn’t that most of the students called into her office for discipline problems were boys – the chairs in her office were evenly populated by boys and girls – but that nearly every time, boys were at a complete emotional loss, overwhelmed by tears, while the girls played it cool. Grisim was shocked.


“Girls held tough; they stood there and calmly talked it through,” she says. Boys were another story. Nine out of 10 times, the boy would cry. Not out of anger, she says; rather, the boy would be engulfed in a tide of feelings he’d worked hard to cover up all day long.


Most boys lacked the coping skills to self-regulate or the emotional vocabulary to express their versions of the story or the reasons behind their actions; the same skills girls engaged in school discipline were quick to employ to their advantage. So in the safety of Grisim’s office, out of sight of mocking peers, boys let their tears loose.


“I think it’s about holding in emotions,” Grisim says. “When someone pin-pokes it, it just spews.”


The Problem with School


It’s no secret that girls fare better in school. The past decade has been good for girls in academics: As research and initiatives like the National Girls Collaborative Project help advance girls’ progress in science and technology, and programming geared to cut out “mean girl” bullying, support healthy body image and develop social-emotional intelligence abounds, girls are surging ahead.


The global “girl power” trend starts in kindergarten, and by the end of high school, more girls graduate than boys and girls make up 70 percent of high school valedictorians. And this pattern continues into higher ed. Globally, there are 93 men per 100 women in universities. In the United States, women make up 60 percent of university graduates, earning 60 percent of master’s degrees and 52 percent of doctorate degrees in the United States.


Young women are entering wage-earning years with more education than their male peers: 38 percent of women ages 25 to 32 have at least a four-year degree, compared to 31 percent of men. And today’s young women are living in a society that’s more supportive of their success than ever before. In a 1993 Gallup poll, 63 percent of those polled felt that society favored men over women; by 2013 that number dropped to 45 percent.


A brighter future has emerged for girls. But in the wave of all this success, boys are lagging behind. They score lower in literacy, communication and empathy, skills essential for classroom and workplace success, and they receive harsher and more frequent school discipline than girls. Although boys make up 54 percent of preschool enrollment, they represent 80 percent of preschoolers suspended. (Read our article High school boys are suspended about twice as often as their female peers, despite data showing that girls and boys misbehave at similar rates.


Book-Smart Boys


While gender differences in education pop up from pre-K through college and beyond, the problem isn’t about book learning. Research suggests that the gender gap in education has little to do with academic deficiencies – academic test scores tend to favor males in some countries and at some grade levels, and females in others, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


Case in point: Boys and girls score similarly in fourth-grade math; while girls pull ahead in literacy, boys fare better in science, particularly in high school. Girls show more literary prowess, with higher scores in reading comprehension and verbal fluency, while boys outperform girls in spatial reasoning and spatial visualization. And boys and girls perform similarly on IQ and achievement tests.


In other words, academic differences between the sexes aren’t clear-cut or easily explained, and neither gender has an across-the-board advantage. But it appears that boys aren’t falling behind in school because they can’t do the work.


So why are boys trailing? Because, experts say, the school environment seems uniquely designed to penalize boys for being, well, boys.


School success favors a particular skill set that boys aren’t born with and aren’t being taught, says psychotherapist Michelle P. Maidenberg, mom to three boys, 15, 11, and 9, and one girl, 6.


In today’s ultra-politically correct climate, it’s not popular to talk about innate biological differences between boys and girls. But differences exist, and when it comes to behavior and success in school, they matter, Maidenberg says. Research shows that in utero exposure to higher levels of testosterone is linked to slower maturation of parts of the temporal lobe, along with lower levels of empathy and lower-quality social relationships.


Girls routinely outperform boys when it comes to self-control and delayed gratification, skills that predict academic and career success. And girls’ frontal cortices mature more quickly than boys’, giving females an early edge in problem solving, planning, communication and relationship building.


“Boys and girls are taught similarly, even though they have different needs. This unfortunately puts boys at a disadvantage,” Maidenberg says. “Research shows that girls tend to be more goal-oriented and better in planning, following directions and organizing. Given the disparities, boys need appropriate skills to compensate for these challenges.”


Discipline Dilemma


These non-cognitive skills are underemphasized in schools, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, despite their critical importance. It’s precisely these non-cognitive skills that may help girls stay out of trouble in school and bounce back more quickly when they are penalized.


Maidenberg’s oldest son, 15, points to gender-biased discipline differences at his high school. Girls don’t necessarily misbehave less often, but they don’t receive the same treatment. “He says girls are always being treated with special privileges, especially when it comes to ‘misbehaving’ in class.” Girls get warnings; boys get sent to the principal.


She recalls a discipline incident that stands out. Last year, she was called to pick up this same son from school. He was accused of destroying a school bulletin board and suspended for the day. Video evidence later proved his innocence, but the experience was jarring for the boy, she says.


“The principal refused to listen to him. When he tried to explain, she asked him if he thought she was a liar. When I spoke to him about it, the first thing he said was, ‘If I were a girl, I wouldn’t have been treated like a criminal.’”


There’s a misperception that boys always require harsh punishment, and that they won’t respond to other types of discipline, Maidenberg says. That’s false; a study from Hanover College suggests that both genders would fare better with inductive discipline – “positive discipline” tactics, such as treating kids with empathy, clearly explaining behavior guidelines and allowing natural consequences to take their course – instead of corrective, or punitive, discipline, such as suspension or losing privileges. Unfortunately, the study notes, schools rarely employ inductive discipline. Simply put: It’s faster to slap down a suspension than examine and address root causes of misbehavior.


Emotional Evolution


In Masterminds & Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World (Harmony, 2013), New York Times best-selling author Rosalind Wiseman writes about the rich emotional world of boys – a topic that surprises parents of boys, she says. “Parents get these one-word responses from boys, ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ ‘I’m fine,’ and think there’s nothing going on, that they’re emotionally stunted,” Wiseman says.


That couldn’t be further from the truth. Boys feel deeply; they get hurt, are humiliated and become caught up in social drama, too. Wiseman should know: As the mom of two boys, 12 and 14, she even found herself falling into the trap of misjudging boys’ communication cues. Too many parents and educators buy into the belief that girls are complex creatures with intricate emotional worlds, and that with boys, what you see is what you get.


“I think we take boys at face value too much, and we don’t give them credit for the fact that there might be a motivation for what they do, something we take for granted with girls,” Wiseman says. “We make these leaps that just aren’t true. Just because a boy is loud doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel things deeply.”


Parents downplay the differences between genders that might matter because we’re afraid to talk about them, but we’re also making differences where there are none, says Christine Organ, author of Open Boxes: The Gifts of Living a Full and Connected Life (220 Communications, 2014) and mom to two young boys. In terms of depth of emotion, boys and girls are more alike than they are different, and yet boys are told to toughen up, be a man, rub some dirt in it, she says.


Her second-grader was recently devastated when a friend scoffed at his athletic ability. She resisted the urge to tell him to brush it off. “I needed to validate his sadness. His friend hurt his feelings. Sadness is normal in that situation.”


Organ did the right thing, according to licensed family therapist Linnea Shapiro Fuchs of the Exceptional Children’s Foundation in California. “We need to help boys develop strategies for dealing with emotional states surrounding disappointments in school, achievement, relationships,” she notes. “They need to develop the ability to move forward after small failures.”


This ability to handle small relationship snafus becomes more vital during the teen years. Modern boys aren’t being taught the social and emotional skills they need to succeed in relationships, says Jo Langford, author of Spare Me ‘The Talk’!: A Guy’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Growing Up (Parent Map, 2015). Boys don’t know how to connect with someone they like, how to show interest, he says. “They don’t know anything about flirting. They know about sex, from Google and porn. It’s sexual but not really sex. That doesn’t teach them how to ask someone out, how to tell someone you’re interested.”


Communication Crunch


The key to ramping up boys’ non-cognitive and relationship skills is building strong relationships at home – which means getting him to talk to you. But parents typically go about this all wrong, Wiseman says. “One of the biggest takeaways [of my work with boys] is that boys want their parents to stop interrogating them at the end of the day.” Trading “How was your day? How was practice? How did the test go?” for a simple “Hi. I’m glad you’re here” works wonders, she says. Connect, but give him space, she says. “Boys open up when they’re ready. Parents are amazed.”


Emotional connection is critical. But to truly champion boys’ success, educators and parents also need to rally around boosting boys’ literacy in the same way that science and mathematics are now emphasized for girls. In Bright Beginnings for Boys: Engaging Young Boys in Active Literacy (International Reading Association, 2008), authors Debby Zambo and William G. Brozo make a case for special supports for boys to help close the gender gap in literacy, a deficit that stretches from 5 percent in elementary school to 14 percent in high school.


Bridging this gap is critical to boys’ success, say Zambo and Brozo. They write: “In a world driven by information and knowledge, boys’ skill deficiencies will limit access to the full range of opportunities enjoyed by their more literate peers.”


Is pairing emotional literacy with actual literacy too lofty a goal? This writer hopes not. Fluent in both language and love, our boys will be poised to succeed.


Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.
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