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Why girls do better in school

Wayne Folta writes, “In light of your recent blog post on women in higher education, here’s one I just read about on a techie website regarding elementary education”:

Why do girls get better grades in elementary school than boys—even when they perform worse on standardized tests?

New research . . . suggests that it’s because of their classroom behavior, which may lead teachers to assign girls higher grades than their male counterparts. . . . The study, co-authored by [Christopher] Cornwell and David Mustard at UGA and Jessica Van Parys at Columbia, analyzed data on more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It examined students’ performance on standardized tests in three categories—reading, math and science-linking test scores to teachers’ assessments of their students’ progress, both academically and more broadly.

The data show, for the first time, that gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.

The authors attribute this misalignment to what they called non-cognitive skills, or “how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills.” They even report evidence of a grade bonus for boys with test scores and behavior like their girl counterparts. . . .

I believe it. The teachers in elementary school were always putting me down, sending me to the principal, telling me I wasn’t so special. But I knew I was special. My problem was, it took me a long time before I realized that lots of people are special in their own way.


  1. Rege says:

    I wanted to take a look at the details of the study, but the link goes to a UGA press release which does not link to the original. However, one of the authors does have the paper posted on his website:

    I just found it a few minutes ago and haven’t looked at it yet. I wonder if you have any thoughts on it.

  2. Lex says:

    An odd paper. It reads as if they come up with the fact that grades represent non-cognitive aspects of schooling out of no where.

    This issue with grading has been studied fairly well in education for over 50 years, stated well by Talcott Parsons even, but they cite none of the original research in the article, or even the more recent education research.

    “The pupil is evaluated in diffusely general terms; a good pupil is defined in terms of a fusion of the cognitive and the moral components, in which varying weight is given to one or the other. Broadly speaking, then, we may say that the ‘‘high achievers’’ of the elementary school are both the ‘‘bright’’ pupils, who catch on easily to their more strictly intellectual tasks, and the more ‘‘responsible’’ pupils, who ‘‘behave well’’ and on whom the teacher can ‘‘count’’ in her difficult problems of managing the class.” (Parsons 1959, p. 304)

    Parsons, T. (1959). The school class as a social system: Some of its functions in American society. Harvard Educational Review, 29, 297–318.

  3. katzman says:

    This issue has long been around and widely discussed.

    K-12 schools are generally “anti-boy” — structured to “feminize” boys … by forcing active, healthy, and naturally rambunctious boys to regimented obedience… making them sit quietly in neat little classroom rows during prime daytime hours.
    Normal boyhood behavior is pathologized by the education establishment. Boys are given the message that they are ‘defective’ (.. most certainly compared to girls)… and that natural boyish behavior must be ‘corrected’ {punishments & prescription drugs are popular treatments}.

    Thus, basic schooling tends to be a hostile-environment for most boys — diminishing healthy childhood development rather than fostering it.

    Observable results are that boys drop out of school, are diagnosed as emotionally-disturbed, and commit suicide 4 times more often than girls; they get into fights twice as often; they murder 10 times more frequently and are 15 times more likely to be the victims of a violent crime. Boys are 6 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD; boys get lower grades on standardized tests of reading and writing, and have lower class rank and fewer honors than girls. Women are now the student majority at college level.

    Boys and girls are different… but formal American schooling crusades to erase that delta.

    “We need to raise boys like we raise girls” — Gloria Steinem

    • conchis says:

      What evidence is there to distinguish the following two causal models:
      (1) [Boy’s behavior] -> [Pathologised by schooing system] -> [Negative outcomes for boys]
      (2) [Boy’s behavior] -> [Negative outcomes for boys] -> [Pathologised by schooing system]?

      P.S. I thought that the article was claiming that boys DO NOT “get lower grades on standardized tests of reading and writing”. Is that impression incorrect?

    • Andreas Baumann says:

      You know, that “feminized” practice of sitting still in prime daytime hours was what made the Western civilization, and boys happened to function rather well in it for the last 8 centuries or so.

  4. Chris G says:

    > “… even when they perform worse on standardized tests … “

    Whenever you see the mention of “standardized tests” you’ve got to ask, “Standardized with respect to what?” (Sorry, I should probably read the article before griping but I will anyway.) Just as there are when someone says “It’s just common sense.” there are presumptions being brought to the table in a standardized test. More to the point, I’m skeptical of intergroup comparisons based on standardized test scores. What are the checks to see that the test in question doesn’t introduce a bias in favor of or against particular groups?

  5. Fran says:

    But they still do better in universities. I am not saying girl behavior rewards is not happening in school, actually I have been there seen that, but it cannot be the whole story.

    I remember once in the faculty of mathematics and statistics we did a study related to the perceived satisfaction of students and I suggested to add a question about the average grade of students in the questionnaire, my excuse was that average grade might change the perception about how satisfying was their experience as students but I actually wanted to know if there was any difference between boys and girls in a top math university.

    Because every single Fields’ medal has been awarded to men I was sure that the average grade among boy should be significantly higher but when data came back it turned out that it was the other way around and no girl behavior is rewarded at least in my faculty, sure we could still tell things that female teachers have more sympathy for their ‘comrades’ but I don’t think that can explain the difference.

    The size effect was a clearly significant one point (in Spain grades go from 0 to 10) favoring girls… So I began thinking that maybe we men are truly sexist pigs putting down women just for being so… nonetheless after my initial shock I realized that variance among boys was twice as big compared to girls’ which explains why despite girls having a better average grade they never make it into the Field’s medal category; only big outliers do that, and those outliers are easily found when you variance is big even if you average is not so much.

  6. LJ says:

    Lot’s of interesting theories and suggestions :) However for me, the very essence of this posting is another confession; “I was a BAD student in elementary school!”

  7. JCB says:

    Always nice to find some science to validate your preconceived notions. How convenient!

    Maybe we should ask whether what the authors call “approaches to learning” — which apparently includes putting effort into homework assignments, demonstrating learning in the classroom, things the authors label as “noncognitive skills,” as well as non-disruptive behavior — should be some part of basis for grades for students at this age, or for that matter at any age. I am not sure we should expect or want grades to follow standardized test scores. Success in life is not predicted strictly by performance on IQ tests, and I believe a survey of Mensa members will support this. It is not merely a feature of primary school.

    Still, I can believe that boys are discriminated against to some degree in primary school. As a solution, I suggest that more men go into teaching at this level.

    • Fran says:

      as well as non-disruptive behavior — should be some part of basis for grades for students at this age, or for that matter at any age.

      If I understand you correctly it seems you are okay to downgrade Sir Isaac Newton to a B in Math because he is naughty, and to updgrade The Dalai Lama to an A+ because he is such a good boy… That is downright fraud and, anyhow, I still prefer Dr. House when I am sick.

      • JCB says:

        You don’t understand me correctly then. Do you not understand the word “part”? I would agree, though, that behavior for the most part should not form a part of subject grades. It should be in a separate category.

        But the authors include homework in this “attention to learning.” Did Issac Newton correctly complete and submit his homework assignments? Are you going to argue that homework should not be included in grades? I do not consider performance on homework to be “noncognitive.”

        I would argue that yes homework should be included, and “the proposition that students who perform equally well in subject-area tests should receive (roughly) the same subject-area assessment from the teacher” (p. 251) is not necessarily what we should expect or want to be the case. To show what the authors want to show, I think they need to further break apart this ATL.

        • Fran says:

          part noun 1. a portion or division of a whole that is separate or distinct; piece, fragment, fraction, or section; constituent: the rear part of the house; to glue the two parts together.

          That is why I partly modified Newton’s grades in math in my example, so yes, I do understand what “part” do you? It seems to me that “for the most part” you don’t.

          • Anonymous says:

            Well from what little I have gathered through my google searching, Newton wasn’t even very good at math in primary school. I would be happy to consider any reliable sources you have to the contrary.