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The serious reason boys do worse than girls

(U.S. Department of Education via Flickr)

It's one of the biggest puzzles in education. Since the 1950s, boys in America been falling behind girls in school. They have more trouble graduating high school, and are less likely to get college diplomas. 

Though there have been many theories for the gender gap in academic achievement, this remains a hotly debated issue. Is it the culture? Do girls get more encouragement to succeed in their studies? Is there something biological going on? Do boys mature too late? Are they just more fragile at young ages?

And what if this is the human race's destiny? "What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?" Hanna Rosin wondered in her provocative Atlantic essay from 2010.

A team of economists from MIT, Northwestern, and the University of Florida has been investigating the question of the female advantage using a vast trove of data collected by the state of Florida. In their preliminary research, they have found that upbringing counts for a lot. The gender gap gets wider in poorer families. Girls from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to succeed than boys raised under the same circumstances.

As I wrote in November:

The latest research from Autor and his colleagues shows that early-life adversity causes boys to struggle much more than girls. It's not yet clear why girls are so tough, but they seem much better suited to the challenges of modern childhood. The gender differences are minimal in households with resources — but among poorer families, boys systematically fall short of their sisters and female peers. This pattern implies that if income inequality continues to worsen, the gender inequalities will worsen, too.

Now, in a new paper released Monday, the economists have found additional evidence that bad schools exacerbate the differences in academic achievement between boys and girls. The phenomenon is illustrated in a stunning chart, seen below. 

The economists plotted the average test scores of boys and girls at various middle schools in Florida. The schools are ranked by quality, based on how good they are at improving kids’ test scores. At the far left are the worst schools. At the far right are the best schools.

It’s obvious from this chart that test scores are higher at the better-ranked schools. That’s why the dots slope upward to the right. The better the school, the higher the test scores.

What’s striking is the difference between the test scores of boys and girls, and how it widens at lower-quality schools. At the best schools in Florida, boys and girls are on equal footing. At the worst schools in Florida, the boys fall behind the girls.

This pattern — boys suffering more than girls at bad schools — is true for suspensions and absences too. At lower-ranked schools, boys are suspended far more than girls, and are less likely to be in class. At higher-ranked schools, the gender gap narrows. 

How they proved that schools are causing some of the gender gap

So far, this has been a relatively simple comparison. The charts show that boys from bad schools are falling behind, but they don’t exactly prove that the schools are causing it. That’s because Florida, like most states, has a lot of class segregation in its schools. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to go to worse schools. It could be that the schools contribute nothing to the problem of the gender gap — it could be that the gender gap is mostly caused by different family circumstances.

But that isn’t the case. To prove that the school environment itself has been causing boys to fall behind, the economists compared brothers and sisters who went to the same school. Siblings are more similar than strangers, since they usually grow up in the same household, were exposed to the same things, and had access to the same resources.

Furthermore, since their previous research has shown that boys are more sensitive than girls to family disadvantages, the economists also controlled for that fact in their statistical tests. They accounted for how poverty, low mother’s education, bad neighborhood quality, and a slew of other factors widen the gender gap. They also examined families that moved school districts to see how the same children fared at different schools.

After stripping away all the alternative explanations, the economists found that the schools themselves do deserve some of the blame for causing boys to suffer academically compared to girls. There’s something about the way that class is conducted at Florida’s worst schools that disadvantages boys. It may have to do with how students are disciplined, or the way that lessons are taught.

Why this is disturbing

The gap in test scores caused by the worst schools is not huge — roughly speaking, it's as if boys were given a below average teacher, or if boys were put into classes with a handful of extra students. But the point is that boys and girls aren't going to different classrooms or getting different teachers. They're going to the same classes, being exposed to the same school environments — and yet, boys are less likely to succeed. 

“This just adds to the overall panoply of evidence that disadvantageous childhood conditions are particularly pernicious for boys, leading to lower test scores, more behavior problems, lower rates of employment in early adulthood, and even higher rates of incarceration,” says David Autor, a professor of economics at MIT and an author on the study.

It's unlucky enough to be born to a poor family, to grow up in a poor neighborhood and attend bad schools. As recent research shows, it's doubly unlucky to be a boy facing those circumstances.