We must find out why boys don't measure up to girls academically

[Vancouver Sun, September 24, 2009]

The increase in the number of women in colleges and universities has been a great success story, not just in Canada but in most industrialized countries.
More than half of undergraduates in 2006 were women, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Women have come a long way from the early 1970s, when more than two-thirds of the students were men.

But it also reflects a disturbing performance gap on the path to post-secondary education. Boys are being left in the dust.

As The Vancouver Sun's education reporter Janet Steffenhagen reported in June, girls have come to dominate the stage when academic awards are handed out in high school. And a study published earlier this month argues that lower grades boys are earning in high school are keeping them out of university.

In British Columbia, the Foundation Skills Assessment -- the annual test of basic skills that the B.C. Teacher's Federation rails against -- shows a significant gender gap in reading and writing in all three grades tested, Grade 4, Grade 7 and Grade 10, but less of a difference in math.

More girls also graduate on time; 81 per cent for girls versus 74 per cent for boys.

Torben Drewes, an economist at Trent University looked at the performance gap between boys and girls as part of a larger project examining the effectiveness of student aid.

Other studies had shown that boys don't work as hard as girls in school. Drewes created a mathematical model to test whether that lack of effort was, as one might expect, responsible for the lower grades.

According to the model, even if boys were to spend as much time on homework as girls, they would still underachieve. The extra effort would close only half the gap.
Drewes argues that boys may need to be treated as a disadvantaged group when their marks are being considered by post-secondary institutions.

But a better approach is to take the problem seriously earlier on and work to close the gap. As Steffenhagen reports, some school districts in B.C. are looking at the issue, but many are not.

That said, the problem is not simple. There are still more perceived opportunities for boys than for girls to earn good wages by going into trades instead of going to college or university .

School officials -- at the urging of the province -- have pushed the trades option, which while open to girls is still more of a male domain. This lucrative opportunity may have given some boys an excuse not to try as hard in high school.
But that doesn't begin to explain the gap that starts in elementary school. We need to find out more about differences in the way boys and girls learn to see if reading and writing should be taught in different ways for boys.

We also need to look at the cultural influences that may be subtly persuading boys that math and science are worth the effort while acquiring language skills is not.
But we should also keep in mind that while girls are earning greater rewards in school in the form of higher grades, the gender gap in the labour market still favours men.

Are these factors related? The main thing we have learned is that this whole area of under-performance of boys in academics deserves a lot more attention.