Published: January 23, 2002
By Michelle Galley
In the fall of 1998, Peter Holland, the superintendent here, wondered if something was amiss. A disproportionate majority of the high school students being inducted into the National Honor Society were girls. Many more girls than boys were receiving end-of-the-year awards for academic achievement. And significantly more girls than boys were on the honor roll. What was going on?
After some checking, Holland soon discovered that he was not alone. Four of Belmont's neighboring districts in suburban Boston were experiencing similar disparities. Holland didn't know it at the time, but that same gap has been occurring across the nation. According to a number of studies and several researchers, boys are faring far worse than girls in school.
In fact, some experts say, mounting evidence suggests that boys are far less suited than girls to succeed in the academic environment. Those researchers point, for example, to boys' lower scores on the language arts sections of standardized tests, to their out-of-proportion placement in special education classes, and to the number of times boys are disciplined compared with girls.
Such experts say that educators have been slow to recognize that boys and girls often have different styles of learning and varying classroom needs. They say that boys perform best when they have frequent recess breaks and are able to roam around the classroom. And boys themselves say they are more likely, for instance, to enjoy argument and lively classroom debate, which often is discouraged, they say.
The school environment is not particularly boy-friendly, William S. Pollack, an assistant clinical professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University's medical school, concludes in his 1998 book, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood.
"Boys receive between five and 10 times more disciplinary actions in elementary and middle school than girls do," Pollack said in a recent interview. "And mostly we're told that's because they're more difficult. My answer is, it's because the environment is more difficult for them to attune to."
The attention currently being given to the problems boys face in school comes a decade after such research on girls claimed the spotlight. In 1992, for example, an influential report from the American Association of University Women, "The AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls," said, in essence, that schools were not girl-friendly.
According to the research cited in that report, boys received more attention from teachers than girls did, and nearly all textbooks were biased in favor of boys.
Research that soon followed the AAUW report cited girls' lower scores in mathematics and science as indicators of gender inequities in education.
While not discounting the hurdles girls have encountered in the classroom over the years, a number of experts point to girls' gains in math and science, and their outperformance of boys in English and reading, as critical to any gender comparisons in education.
The gender gap in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, which tests proficiency in math and English language arts, has shrunk significantly, says Barney Brawer, a researcher at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who recently broke down the scores from the state assessment by sex.
"The math gap is gone consistently," he says.
In 1998, the first year the MCAS test was given, 7.3 percent of 10th grade boys and 6.4 percent of sophomore girls taking the math test scored at the "advanced" level. By 2001, 18.8 percent of boys and 18.3 percent of girls who took the test scored at that level, shrinking the gap from nine-thenths of a percentage point to half a percentage point, according to Brawer's research.
For English language arts in 1998, 7.3 percent of female test-takers in 10th grade scored at the advanced level on the MCAS, while only 2.6 percent of male sophomore test-takers did so. Both boys and girls improved in subsequent years, but girls still significantly outperformed boys. Nearly 20 percent of girls taking the test scored at the advanced level in 2001, while 11.3 percent of boys reached that level.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given periodically to a sampling of students nationwide, both female and male 12th graders showed gains in mathematics from 1990 to 2000, with girls slightly narrowing the gap with boys.
In 1990, the average score for 12th grade girls on the NAEP math test was 291, compared with 297 for 12th grade boys. In 2000, girls in that grade posted an average score of 299, while boys scored 303.
But girls enjoy a decided—and growing—edge in reading, scores from the national assessment suggest. On the 1992 NAEP reading test, 12th grade boys scored, on average, 10 points lower than girls did. And in 1998, the most recent year for which scores are available, boys scored 15 points below girls
Internationally, researchers see similar patterns. According to the Program for International Student Assessment, a 32-nation study of educational achievement that released findings last month, girls scored significantly higher than boys in reading in each country included in the study. With the exception of Iceland, New Zealand, and Russia, boys scored higher in math than girls did, though that gap was much smaller than the one in reading.
Girls vs. Boys
Gaps between boys' and girls' achievement in reading show up early. Girls and boys have similar skills overall when they enter kindergarten, but girls are slightly ahead in reading, according to the report "Entering Kindergarten: A Portrait of American Children When They Begin School."
The report, released a year ago by the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, also says that more boys experience developmental delays, and that "girls are more pro-social and less prone to problem behaviors."
The NCES also recently reported in the Digest of Education Statistics in January, 2001 that girls are more able to stay on task, better able to pay attention, and more eager to learn when they enter kindergarten.
But a study released in the fall of 1999 by the University of Chicago says that by age 4 1/2, boys have a better understanding of spatial relationships than girls do. Spatial skills are important, for example, in interpreting graphs, maps, and X-rays, the report notes.
Big Boys Don't Cry
Boys at that young age are also more able to have close friendships and talk about those relationships than they are later in life, according to Judy Chu, a researcher at New York University who has worked with Carol Gilligan on boys' relationships and development.
Gilligan, the chairwoman of the gender studies program at Harvard University's graduate school of education, is most noted for her research that determined that early adolescence is a time of turmoil for girls. Now, Gilligan is theorizing that early childhood is a similarly tumultous time for boys.
Working from that theory, Chu conducted an intensive study of six boys, ages 4 and 5. She started visiting them when they were in preschool, and ended up observing them 39 times in the 1997-98 school year and the 1998-99 school year, when they were in kindergarten.
The boys were chosen because they attended prekindergarten at the Atrium School in Watertown, Mass., where Gilligan had done some of her previous research on girls. Chu says that, contrary to some of the recent literature in psychological journals that portrays young boys as emotionally deficient, she found that the boys she observed demonstrated an amazing ability to form meaningful relationships, and an ability to talk about their relationships.
"I was completely taken by surprise," she says. "I didn't think that 4-year-old boys could do that."
But as they grew older, their social skills, such as attentiveness, articulation, and responsiveness became harder to detect, she says.
That has a lot to do with what boys commonly learn from experience: Big boys don't cry. Boys feel "it is unsafe in the sense that people are not going to be receptive to their sensitivities," Chu says. "It is a wise decision to not reveal vulnerabilities."
The boys moved into a phase of showing "pretense" says Chu. Before she could talk to the boys about their relationships and feelings, she had to work through their saying things like "I'm the king of the world," says Chu. In preschool, the group of boys created a club that they called the "mean team." It was formed so that the boys could act out against and differentiate themselves from the girls, who were dubbed the "nice team," says Chu. One boy told Chu that he liked to play with the girls, but was worried that he would be kicked out of the club if the boy who was the leader of the mean team found out.
Chu says that try as they might, it is difficult for parents or teachers to shield boys from society's messages that certain behaviors are more acceptable for girls than for boys. "It is virtually impossible to take a boy out of that reality," she says.
And that preoccupation with pretense can make learning difficult. "It would make sense that boys would struggle in reading if they are not fully focused," she says.
A group of middle school boys from minority, low-income backgrounds in Long Beach, Calif., seems to have overcome some of the messages they picked up from society. When the boys were educated in single-sex classrooms, their behavior changed in a way that surprised even the boys, says Kathryn Herr, an associate professor of education at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She spent the 1999-2000 school year studying 1,100 students—boys and girls—who were being educated in single-sex classrooms.
Being in classes without girls made the boys feel that they could take more risks and ask more questions, Herr says. And the girls, meanwhile, "felt somewhat more comfortable" without the boys around, she found.
"Both reported that the single-sex classes made for a safer environment," Herr says.
And some of the boys began helping each other succeed. Boys began to think that they were "in it together," Herr says. "They were startled by that," she adds.
The boys, she says, also reported that they "were supported and felt more known by their classmates and their teachers."
Nearly two-thirds of the students receiving special education services in the United States are boys. A study published last February in the journal Education and Treatment of Children says explanations for that fact abound.
The article, written by researchers from the Beach Center on Families and Disability at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and the ARC in Silver Spring, Md., identifies three especially prominent theories about why more boys than girls are placed in special education.
One is that boys are more susceptible to some genetic disorders and are predisposed to learning disabilities. Because girls mature more rapidly and have fewer birth defects, they may have a biological advantage over boys.
Another theory is that because boys are more likely to misbehave in class, they are more likely to get referred to special education programs.
And third, researchers in the field of gender equity have proposed that gender bias could be at the root of the discrepancy. They say that educators expect less from girls, and so they will more readily excuse low achievement from them. Educators set higher standards for boys, the reasoning goes, so if boys don't meet those standards, they are seen as needing special education.
To study some of the factors that contribute to placement in special education, the researchers reviewed the records of 695 students with mental retardation and specific learning disabilities from three midsize districts for three school years: 1992-93, 1993-94, and 1994-95. All of the students were at least 6 years old and were being admitted to special education for the first time.
The researchers gathered data about gender, reasons for referral, and the grades of the students when they were referred to special education, and drew on observations from classroom teachers about the students' behavior, coordination, and academic skills.
Of the students studied, only 2.5 percent of the girls had been referred to special education because of behavior problems. However, 20 percent of the boys had been referred for that reason. "Boys are more likely to be referred by regular education teachers, presumably because they are more disruptive and difficult to manage," the study says.
Because girls typically do not act up the same way boys do in classrooms, the researchers concluded that girls potentially are underrepresented in special education.
No Brainy Geeks Allowed
Back in Massachusetts, Superintendent Holland was determined to get to the bottom of the gender discrepencies the Belmont district faced. He set up a 10-member task force of parents, teachers, and administrators that met 11 times between November 1998 and May 1999.
The panel studied the makeup of various honors-level classes and extracurricular activities. As expected, more boys than girls were taking part in sports activities. And more girls than boys participated in academically oriented activities, such as the debate club and student government.
In the 1997-98 school year, boys made up only one-third of the students in the Advanced Placement English courses. The AP math classes were evenly divided between boys and girls. And the AP science courses were 55 percent male and 45 percent female.
The panel also wrote a questionnaire and surveyed small groups of parents, students, and teachers at Belmont High School, located in an upper-middle-class community northwest of Boston.
Doug Weinstock, a retired principal who served as the panel's chairman, said parents reported that their boys needed more support and needed to be encouraged to take more difficult academic courses.
Some faculty members from the high school and the district's Chenery Middle School were concerned that the task force's investigation would undermine the work that already had been done to benefit girls and ensure they got their fair share academically.
"Our task force did not see this as an either-or situation," says Weinstock, who served as an elementary school principal before retiring recently from the 3,700-student Belmont district. "We wanted to see what would be beneficial to all students."
Holland himself discussed the disparities between the boys' and girls' achievement levels with groups of sophomores and seniors at Belmont High. Members of the task force met separately with a group of senior boys and a group of senior girls.
In a report later released by the task force, some girls cited "peer culture and a lack of acceptance [among boys and girls] of the one-dimensional 'brainy' boy." Boys said that even in elementary school, they perceived that it was not acceptable to be a "geek" interested in schoolwork. And several boys reported that teachers appeared to have " 'given up' on them," and needed to have higher expectations for boys.
As a result of the task force's work, the district has become much more aware of boys' academic-achievement levels, Holland says. But change has been slow in coming, he says. District officials have tried to encourage middle school teachers to steer boys into harder classes for high school. But it will take several years to see results, the superintendent says.
Some high-achieving seniors currently attending Belmont High School have their own thoughts about why girls seem to be doing better than boys.
Greg Michnikov, 17, says that part of the problem could be that there are more female teachers than male teachers. "Females get along better with females than males do," he says.
NCES statistics show that three-quarters of the K-12 teachers in the United States are women.
"Females are more people pleasers," says Zdenka Sturm, a 17-year-old student at Belmont. "The teacher is a person, so when the girls please the teacher, the teacher rewards them with good grades," she says.
"Guys are more likely to say things, even if they are not sure that what they are saying is valid," adds Eden Lin, a 17-year-old boy. "Guys have a more confrontational approach to doing things than girls," he says.
But it's more than just getting along, says Brian Caliando, 17. Teachers discourage argument, which boys thrive on, he says.
"If someone poses an argument that coincides with the teacher's, he or she will let the argument go," Caliando says. "Then when you bring up a more radical idea, the teacher will come at you, so it's just a little more discouraging."
Lin says that to raise boys' achievement levels, schools should allow them to be more aggressive in the way they approach learning. "If we assume that guys tend to be more hands-on, and I think that is true, if you translate that tendency toward aggressiveness into the academic realm," he says, "I think it would be riding the natural impulses of males to learn that way."