The Shameful Truth About Our Treatment of Boys

January 10, 2013

adhdA new study of nearly 6,000 elementary school children has found that boys are discriminated against beginning in kindergarten. Christopher Cornwell, an economics professor at the University of Georgia, says that “gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls.”

Despite having higher scores on standardized tests, boys get lower grades than girls. Why? Because teachers are basing grades at least partly on classroom behavior, and the standards are very much geared to female norms.

The skill that matters the most in regards to how teachers graded their students is what we refer to as ‘approaches toward learning’. You can think of ‘approaches to learning’ as a rough measure of what a child’s attitude toward school is: It includes six items that rate:

  • the child’s attentiveness
  • task persistence
  • eagerness to learn
  • learning independence
  • flexibility
  • organization

I think that anybody who’s a parent of boys and girls can tell you that girls are more of all of that.

I’ve been extremely concerned about this trend since I noticed it personally as early as 1992. At long last this discrepancy is being acknowledged, owing to the disparity in educational achievement. Cornwell says “the disparity in educational attainment between males and females has been so widely reported in recent years that the basic facts are now well known and are driving public policy debate.” That’s a very welcome, albeit belated, development.

We extend the analysis of early-emerging gender differences in academic achievement to include both (objective) test scores and (subjective) teacher assessments…we show that the grades awarded by teachers are not aligned with test scores, with the disparities in grading exceeding those in testing outcomes and uniformly favoring girls, and that the misalignment of grades and test scores can be linked to gender differences in non-cognitive development.

…Boys in all racial categories across all subject areas are not represented in grade distributions where their test scores would predict. Even those boys who perform equally as well as girls on reading, math and science tests are nevertheless graded less favorably by their teachers.

 Here’s what the disparity looks like for kindergarten boys:

Std. DeviationTest ScoresGrades

(Note: Values are approx., gauged visually from study graphic.)

Another interesting finding was that boys who adhere to female norms on non-cognitive skills were not penalized. Effectively, the more female behavior was rewarded with a grade “bonus” for males. 

The implications of this are obvious. Masculinity, even normal maleness, is being punished in schools from a very young age. Only the most female-acting boys are rewarded with a fair assessment. Cornwell notes that this practice may permanently affect a boy’s educational prospects.

The trajectory at which kids move through school is often influenced by a teacher’s assessment of their performance, their grades. This affects their ability to enter into advanced classes and other kinds of academic opportunities, even post-secondary opportunities. It’s also typically the grades you earn in school that are weighted the most heavily in college admissions. So if grade disparities emerge this early on, it’s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned.

Twenty years since I first noticed this in the culture (and I’m sure it was not new then), we can see that this by-product of feminism has been very costly to young men. As I wrote three years ago:

If there is an asymmetry, and I think there is, then it needs to be corrected, or we’ll all pay. We can’t have healthy relationships if men are not thriving. Stifling creativity and inquiry while adhering to a preferred political ideology is what got us here in the first place. It’s time to level the playing field.

Christina Hoff Sommers explains why feminists have been so successful in getting their way, something she calls a structural asymmetry:

There are approximately 112 important centers for the study of women. It is an elaborate empire of . . . activism that produces volumes and volumes of research, some good, but much of it ideological. But since they are the groups addressing issues, Congress listens to them, and journalists call them when they want to write stories. If there’s any social policy practice that has a disparate impact on women, they’re right there to make it known and to correct it.

I appreciate Dr. Cornwell’s research and earnestly hope that the truth about what’s happening in schools continues to be addressed and exposed.