Here’s 100 Years of Proof That Girls Are Better Students Than Boys

In all subjects, even math and science.

Girls in school
National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
May 1, 2014, 1 a.m.
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.”

And so it began — the end of men, but also an on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion on how to bet­ter boys’ per­form­ance in the classroom.

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.”

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