Researchers Tomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann, writing for the Democratic centrist group Third Way, noted that young girls may have long out-performed boys in the classroom but it is has only been in recent years that they’ve taken advantage of it.
“In the past, girls did not take educational advantage of their superior academic performance by going to college in large numbers,” the researchers said. “As most Americans believed that the point of an education was simply to make women better wives and mothers. But with declining gender discrimination and rising labor market opportunities for women, their numbers in rigorous high school classes and the ranks of college students increased rapidly.
“Today, girls take more advanced courses in high school and on average perform better than boys in these courses do,” the sociologists reported.
DiPrete, a professor at Columbia University and Buchmann, a professor at Ohio State, are perhaps best known for their groundbreaking 2013 book, The Rise of Women, which analyzes the upward trajectory of women in academics since World War II as men have stagnated even as the need to have a college degree to compete in the economy has escalated.
In the paper for Third Way, the researchers first establish the link between middle school and college. That is, eighth graders who do well in school are far more likely to not only attend college but to finish:
- Students who get mostly A’s in middle school have a nearly 70 percent chance of completing college by age 25. But those who get mostly B’s have only a 30 percent chance of completing college and less than one in 10 students who get mostly C’s in middle school will complete a bachelor’s degree by age 25.
There is also strong evidence showing that girls do better than boys in school well before the critical high school years. DiPrete and Buchmann said their research finds that “girls’ academic performance advantage over boys is already well established by eighth grade.”
Indeed, DiPrete and Buchmann said that “the social and behavioral skills gap between boys and girls is considerably larger than the gap between children from poor families and middle class families or the gap between black and white children.”
The point of the paper is to shed some light on the vexing issue of why so many college students fail to graduate. Understanding the problem suggests potential actions in the early grades, especially as it relates to young boys.
They found evidence that the gap begins as early as the third grade. “The female advantage in reading tests is about .15 standard deviations at the beginning of kindergarten and declines only slightly through the end of fifth grade,” they reported.
“In contrast, kindergarten boys have a slight lead over girls on tests of mathematics at the start of kindergarten, and this gap grows to about .25 standard deviations by the end of third grade, and remains at that size as of fifth grade.”
Perhaps more important, however, is the edge girls have in social and behavioral skills, “which include attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, flexibility, organization, expressing feelings, ideas, and opinions in positive ways, and showing sensitivity to the feelings of others.”
What are the root causes? The academics said the reason behind the gender gap are complex and require more study.
They noted that the male deficit in social and behavioral skills at an early age is clearly one factor. But they also said that boys are more negatively affected than girls by growing up in families with absent or less-educated fathers.
“Boys are also more negatively affected than girls by classrooms that lack a strong learning-oriented environment,” DiPrete and Buchmann explained. “Too many adolescent boys underinvest in education due to out-of-date masculine stereotypes that depict academic excellence, attachment to school, and interest in art, music and drama as unmasculine.
“These stereotypes, in turn, are fueled by boys’ failure to understand (or the system’s failure effectively to communicate) the strong connection between effort in school and later success in the labor market. While the causes are complex, our results contain a straightforward conclusion: because boys’ academic deficit is well established by middle school, reforms targeting the early and middle school years offer the greatest potential for closing the gender gap in college completion,” they said.