Boys may very well be in crisis when it comes to the classroom, but if so, that’s the way it’s always been.
In 2006, Newsweek magazine declared it, loud, on their cover: America’s boys were in crisis.
Boys were falling behind their female counterparts in school. They were getting worse grades, lagging on standardized tests, and not attending college in the same numbers as girls. “By almost every benchmark,” Peg Tyre, the author of the cover story, wrote, “boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind.”
This “boy crisis,” however, was based on an assumption: that males had previously been on top. Granted, there was evidence to support that idea. For one, educational institutions for most of modern history have been openly sexist, favoring boys. And traditionally, males had outperformed girls in standardized tests and in math and science. But “by the mid-1990s, girls had reduced the gap in math, and more girls than boys were taking high-school-level biology and chemistry,” Tyre wrote.
The assumption that boys had been the better students didn’t seem right to (married) researchers Daniel and Susan Voyer of the University of New Brunswick in Canada. “I’ve been collecting grade data for a long time,” Daniel Voyer says in a phone interview. “Typically if you find gender differences, they are in favor of girls — it doesn’t matter what it is. So it started to kind of puzzle me.” And so the pair set out to test, collecting every study they could find on grades and gender since 1914 and crunching the numbers in a mega-meta analysis, the first of its kind.
What resulted was a data set totaling more than 1 million students and this conclusion: Not only are girls the better students in every subject tested, that has been the case for at least 100 years. Boys may very well be in crisis when it comes to the classroom, but if so, that’s the way it’s always been.
The Voyers read through more than 6,000 articles to arrive at their final sample of 369 studies. It was an exhaustive process. “I just called it the bane of my existence,” Voyer, who embarked on the work in 2011, says.
The Voyers limited their sample to studies of teacher-assigned grades and excluded those of standardized tests. Tests can exhibit a phenomenon called stereotype threat, in which stereotypes (let’s say, girls don’t do well on the math portion of the SAT), become self-fulfilling prophecies. The grade data are also richer: encompassing the entirety of academic experience, not just one afternoon test date. Plus researchers have shown that grades in high school are as good or even better indicators of college success than standardized tests.
While the girls’ advantage is largest in reading and language studies, it exists for all subjects, even math and science. And though they tested data from across the world, the Voyers found the gender gap was largest in the United States.
What’s most striking is that the gender gap held across the decades. If the boy crisis existed, they would have seen boys’ performance peak and fall over time. That wasn’t the case. “Boys have been lagging for a long time and … this is a fairly stable phenomenon,” the paper concluded.
Theories abound over why girls outperform boys. It could be that girls are more willing to seek help with challenges, that they are more patient and attentive in class, that the structure of the classroom is better suited to their psychology. “By kindergarten, girls are substantially more attentive, better behaved, more sensitive, more persistent, more flexible, and more independent than boys,” The New York Times reported earlier this week.
All of which might be true. But the bottom line is that it’s really hard to know for sure.
The classroom is the nexus of American society. It’s where children’s social status, parental involvement, culture, and hereditary abilities clash with a system of varying standards and varying quality of teaching. The results of that clash are clear — that girls are outperforming boys — but the interaction of the inputs aren’t. “There’s something going on,” Voyer says, “And there’s something going on for 100 years. What the heck is going on? I really don’t know.”