Research Brief

Gender Gaps in School Performance

Socioeconomic factors magnify the boy-girl divide and can explain cross-race differences

Girls do a lot better than boys in the classroom, whether the measure is grades, disciplinary actions or graduation rates. So, over the course of 30 years, the percentage of U.S. women 26-to-28 years old who earned at least a bachelor’s degree rose from 21% (1980) to 30% (2000) to 36% (2010). Over that same period, the share of men with four-year degrees barely increased, from 25% to 28%.

This reversal in the educational gender gap has left educators and parents to wonder: Why are boys falling behind in America?

Socioeconomic factors are receiving increased attention among those studying the gender gap in education, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s David Autor, Northwestern’s David Figlio, Emory’s Krzysztof Karbownik, University of Florida’s Jeffrey Roth and UCLA Anderson’s Melanie Wasserman, whose research is published in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.

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The researchers found, for instance, the gender gap in high school completion rates was substantially smaller in families living in better economic circumstances. When they adjusted for the family’s socioeconomic situation, the larger boy-girl gaps in high school graduation rates observed among minority children shrank dramatically: from 6.7 to 5 percentage points (a 25% reduction) for black children and 2.1 to 1.3 percentage points (a 38% reduction) for Hispanic children.

So, economic well-being affects the gender gap in educational attainment. But why do boys suffer more from a dearth of economic resources?

To track the gender gap from birth through high school graduation, the authors utilized a unique set of longitudinal data from Florida: the birth certificates and academic, disciplinary and graduation records for more than 1 million children born from 1992 through 2002.

The characteristics used to measure a child’s socioeconomic status included the mother’s age and education, whether the birth was paid for by Medicaid, the mother’s marital status upon the birth of her child, the median income in the ZIP code of the mother’s residence when she gave birth, a measure of economic mobility tied to ZIP codes and the ranking of the public schools the child attended.

The educational and behavioral outcomes were determined by kindergarten readiness scores, school attendance rates, standardized reading scores and on-time high school graduation rates.

To address the possibility that males might start life at a disadvantage, the researchers assessed whether gender gaps in neonatal health — as measured by birth weight, maternal health and other health assessments — differed across families of varying socioeconomic levels.

Poor children and minority children generally scored lower in these areas. For example, at birth, white children weighed an average of 250 grams more than black children and about 90 grams more than Hispanic babies. However, researchers found no evidence that birth weight gaps between boys and girls might explain the larger gender gaps in educational performance among children from low socioeconomic status families and minority families. White boys weighed on average 121 grams more than white newborn girls, and a similar birth weight gap existed between black boys and girls, according to the study. The Hispanic birth weight gap was only slightly smaller.

They conducted similar tests with sibling boy-girl pairs to see if that changed the findings. But it didn’t.

The researchers looked outside the family to see how the educational gender gap might be influenced by the quality of the neighborhoods and schools. Neighborhood income levels impacted the gender gap outcome slightly, and boys attending lesser-quality schools scored lower on standardized tests than girls. Combined, these factors accounted for less than a quarter of the gender gap attributed to family disadvantage, according to the researchers.

Researchers are still struggling to identify exactly why boys and girls who grow up in similar circumstances have different outcomes. One possible explanation is that boys and girls in disadvantaged families respond differently to their home environment. Another possibility is that these parents treat their sons and daughters differently in ways that impact their educational performance.

The authors point to previous research that found parents in low-income households, which are disproportionately headed up by woman, spent more time mentoring daughters than sons. It is also possible that parents in higher-income households give sons extra attention, which helps narrow the gap.

Solving this problem has been challenging, given the multitude of factors that influence a child’s development. Wasserman suggests one answer might be to provide additional support and resources to the families or schools serving boys from disadvantaged families. Some of the approaches being tested in schools include reading assistance, mentoring programs and a review of disciplinary practices that have historically penalized minority boys over others.

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About the Research

Autor, D., Figlio, D., Karbownik, K., Roth, J., & Wasserman, M. (2019). Family disadvantage and the gender gap in behavioral and educational outcomesAmerican Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 11(3), 338–381. doi: 10.1257/app.20170571

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