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Girls vs. Boys in School: A Growing Gap

While women have overtaken men in college-going rates and college degrees in recent decades, K-12 school girls have outperformed boys for nearly a century, studies say.

One of the most comprehensive is “The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools.”  Authors Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann note that in 1960, more than twice as many men as women ages 26-28 were college graduates. By 2010, the percentage of women with bachelor’s degrees had far eclipsed men, 36 percent to 27 percent. Women also earned 60 percent of master’s degrees and more than half of doctoral and professional degrees. Although women still lag men in science and engineering programs, they earn more advanced life sciences degrees, the authors found.

A study released last spring by the Pew Research Center found 71 percent of female high school graduates enrolled in college by the following fall, compared with 61 percent of male grads. The percentage of women increased by 8 percent since 1994, but the percentage of men remained the same.

Meanwhile, high school girls have long out-performed boys academically, according to a number of studies.

In a study released last spring by the American Psychological Association, covering students from 30 countries — 70 percent of them from the U.S. — researchers found girls have earned higher grades than boys in all subjects for nearly 100 years.  The study’s authors said it defies the stereotype that boys do better in math and science, but also refutes fears of an emerging “boy crisis” of lagging achievement because the gap hasn’t changed significantly in recent years.

Why do girls score higher than boys, on average? It’s not that they’re smarter, say DiPrete and Buchmann, noting boys do slightly better on math tests. Rather, they write, “The difference in grades lies in effort and achievement.” Girls are more likely to say they like school and that grades are important, and on average spend more time studying, the authors say.

Societal norms about masculinity have not done boys any favors academically, either. Boys who are involved in music, art and other extra-curricular activities get better grades, but such pursuits and seeking good grades are “often denigrated as un-masculine” by other boys, the authors say.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, psychologist Enrico Gnaulati cited studies indicating girls are better at self-discipline and planning, favoring them in the classroom, while boys’ competitive instincts help them do better on tests. Wrote Gnaulati, “These days, the whole school experience seems to play right into most girls’ strengths—and most boys’ weaknesses.”

Read the Parent Story: Among Top 10 Grads, Girls Top Boys (Again)

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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