As the new school year ramps up, teachers and parents need to be reminded of a well-kept secret: Across all grade levels and academic subjects, girls earn higher grades than boys. Not just in the United States, but across the globe, in countries as far afield as Norway and Hong Kong.
This finding is reflected in a recent study by psychology professors Daniel and Susan Voyer at the University of New Brunswick. The Voyers based their results on a meta-analysis of 369 studies involving the academic grades of over one million boys and girls from 30 different nations. The findings are unquestionably robust: Girls earn higher grades in every subject, including the science-related fields where boys are thought to surpass them.
Less of a secret is the gender disparity in college enrollment rates. The latestdata from the Pew Research Center uses U.S. Census Bureau data to show that in 2012, 71 percent of female high school graduates went on to college, compared to 61 percent of their male counterparts. In 1994 the figures were 63 and 61 percent, respectively. In other words, college enrollment rates for young women are climbing while those of young men remain flat.
This begs a sensitive question: Are schools set up to favor the way girls learn and trip up boys?
Let’s start with kindergarten. Claire Cameron from the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia has dedicated her career to studying kindergarten readiness in kids. She’s found that little ones who are destined to do well in a typical 21st century kindergarten class are those who manifest good self-regulation. This is a term that is bandied about a great deal these days by teachers and psychologists. It mostly refers to disciplined behaviors like raising one’s hand in class, waiting one’s turn, paying attention, listening to and following teachers’ instructions, and restraining oneself from blurting out answers. These skills are prerequisites for most academically oriented kindergarten classes in America—as well as basic prerequisites for success in life.
As it turns out, kindergarten-age girls have far better self-regulation than boys. A few years ago, Cameron and her colleagues confirmed this by putting several hundred 5 and 6-year-old boys and girls through a type of Simon-Says game called the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task. Trained research assistants rated the kids’ ability to follow the correct instruction and not be thrown off by a confounding one—in some cases, for instance, they were instructed to touch their toes every time they were asked to touch their heads. Curiously enough, remembering such rules as “touch your head really means touch your toes” and inhibiting the urge to touch one’s head instead amounts to a nifty example of good overall self-regulation.
The researchers combined the results of boys’ and girls’ scores on the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task with parents’ and teachers’ ratings of these same kids’ capacity to pay attention, follow directions, finish schoolwork, and stay organized. The outcome was remarkable. They discovered that boys were a whole year behind girls in all areas of self-regulation. By the end of kindergarten, boys were just beginning to acquire the self-regulatory skills with which girls had started the year.
This self-discipline edge for girls carries into middle-school and beyond. In a 2006 landmark study, Martin Seligman and Angela Lee Duckworth found that middle-school girls edge out boys in overall self-discipline. This contributes greatly to their better grades across all subjects. They found that girls are more adept at “reading test instructions before proceeding to the questions,” “paying attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming,” “choosing homework over TV,” and “persisting on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration.” These top cognitive scientists from the University of Pennsylvania also found that girls are apt to start their homework earlier in the day than boys and spend almost double the amount of time completing it. Girls’ grade point averages across all subjects were higher than those of boys, even in basic and advanced math—which, again, are seen as traditional strongholds of boys.
What Drs. Seligman and Duckworth label “self-discipline,” other researchers name “conscientiousness.” Or, a predisposition to plan ahead, set goals, and persist in the face of frustrations and setbacks. Conscientiousness is uniformly considered by social scientists to be an inborn personality trait that is not evenly distributed across all humans. In fact, a host of cross-cultural studies show that females tend to be more conscientious than males. One such study by Lindsay Reddington out of Columbia University even found that female college students are far more likely than males to jot down detailed notes in class, transcribe what professors say more accurately, and remember lecture content better. Arguably, boys’ less developed conscientiousness leaves them at a disadvantage in school settings where grades heavily weight good organizational skills alongside demonstrations of acquired knowledge.