The New York Times is reporting that a new study to be released in the Journal of Human Resources has a possible answer to the question of why girls get better grades that boys even hen their test scores show similar levels of ability: they behave better in the classroom.
The study’s authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted.
The scholars attributed this “misalignment” to differences in “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys.
That young boys are less equipped for prolonged sedentary, quiet work will not come as a surprise to any parent. My son, while bright and eager to learn, can’t even stay in his chair for the duration of dinner. Sitting still and doing desk work or intensive listening requires a lot of effort for him and a lot of reminders to pay attention from adults. It’s not any sort of pathology. He’s just a little boy. Based on my observations of his preschool classmates, that’s how little boys are.
What does surprise me a bit is that teachers don’t adjust their expectations to take boy impulsivity and high physical energy into account when grading them. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t understand kids’ behavior across the board. I would have thought that there’d be a curve of sorts in their minds that helped correct for bias against the kids who do well academically but do it while wiggling in their chair the whole time.
In a long opinion post in the Times, writer Christina Hoff Summers, a scholar familiar with the problems our current education system presents to boys, presents a number of reasons addressing this bias is important. Summers notes that minority boys are less likely to succeed academically than minority girls and suggests that addressing the divide in gender performance might also even out performance across racial lines. She also cites examples of corrections in education systems that other countries have made to accommodate the needs of boys in school:
WHAT might we do to help boys improve? For one thing, we can follow the example of the British, the Canadians and the Australians. They have openly addressed the problem of male underachievement. They are not indulging boys’ tendency to be inattentive. Instead, they are experimenting with programs to help them become more organized, focused and engaged. These include more boy-friendly reading assignments (science fiction, fantasy, sports, espionage, battles); more recess (where boys can engage in rough-and-tumble as a respite from classroom routine); campaigns to encourage male literacy; more single-sex classes; and more male teachers (and female teachers interested in the pedagogical challenges boys pose).
I read the paragraph above and my neck nearly snapped from nodding. My son will start kindergarten in the fall and my biggest trepidation is the short recess periods I know he’ll get. He can do concentrated sitting and listening or table work for a while but then he needs to get up and move. Even just having the opportunity to do a few jumping jacks between quiet activities would be helpful to him. I’ve also thought single sex classes within co-ed schools would be a good option for many kids, boys and girls alike. I have no data to back it up, it just appeals to me on a gut level. And male teachers? My son absolutely responds to male instructors different than he responds to female instructors. Don’t get me wrong. He loves his female teachers and learns a ton from them. But his attachment to his 25 year old male gymnastics instructor is something else, altogether. I think there’s an aspirational factor involved. He sees himself in a male instructor and is automatically more attentive to what he says.
Some of the things Summer’s suggests are things parents can do easily as a supplement to classroom education. It’s easy enough to hit the library and get books that meet any child’s interest and use them to spark an affection for reading. And parents can incorporate physical activity outside of school as well. We’ll be walking to school next year so he’ll have a chance to get some exercise to blow off a little steam and get focused for the day.
Another thing I think might be of benefit for boys is to make teachers aware of studies like this. Teachers are smart and if they were conscious of a possible unconscious bias in their grading, they would become more mindful of their assumptions. Another idea would be to change up grading methods to deal more with whole child factors so that behavior is considered as a separate factor. Evaluating behavior could inform next steps for children as they move forward in the system.
What I don’t want to see is legions of parents overreacting and storming their local elementary school demanding special grading for boys. While these findings are interesting and could be used when refining the education system, I don’t think there’s any real danger that boys are becoming an academic underclass.
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