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Are girls smarter than boys? Not exactly

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Are girls smarter than boys? Not exactly

Jun 12, 2024 | 1:13 pm ET
By Kalman Hettleman
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Are girls smarter than boys? Not exactly
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Pexels.com photo by Katerina Holmes.

Who’s smarter in school, girls or boys? You would think girls are, based on lots of evidence.

On the gold standard National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, boys trail girls in reading while math scores are roughly equivalent. In Maryland’s own tests, girls hold a big lead in reading while boys have a small edge in math.

The divergence begins early. Girls are “14 percentage points more likely to be ‘school ready’ at age 5  … a much bigger gap than the one between rich and poor children, or Black and white children.” By high school, boys have significantly lower grade point averages and higher dropout rates.

And it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

Why does the gap exist and what can be done about it?

Before we answer these questions, it should also be of deep concern that on the surface, girls may not be that academically smart either. In Maryland, though doing better than boys, only 52 percent of girls are achieving proficiency in reading. So maybe the problem lies less with boys and girls and more with adults in public office and educators who fail to provide enough opportunity for all schoolchildren to succeed.

Still, the gap matters. Alas the reasons for it are, you guessed it, complicated. To start, let’s dispose of IQ as the cause. As reported in Neuroscience News, “Psychology and intelligence researchers are unequivocal: men and women do not differ in actual IQ. There is no ‘smarter sex.’”

Rather, the most credible explanation for the gender gap is that boys develop important skills and good habits later than girls. According to research, the prefrontal cortex in the brain “matures about 2 years later in boys than in girls.”

By the end of kindergarten, “boys were a whole year behind” in such traits as “capacity to pay attention, follow directions, finish school work, and stay organized.” This is often fatal. Their late start puts them at a huge disadvantage since all students who fall behind in the early grades in learning foundational skills for reading rarely catch up.

Up the grade ladder, the differences in learning styles between boys and girls widen. Girls are “more apt to plan ahead, set academic goals, and put effort into achieving those goals.” Boys have less discipline and are less conscientious.

All the while,  boys tend to overstate their intelligence while girls underestimate theirs: It’s been called the “male hubris, female humility” syndrome.

A related reason for the gender gap may be that boys, who equal girls in innate academic abilities, get lower grades because teachers ” may subconsciously reward students exhibiting traditional female behaviour, such as quietness and neatness, which makes life easier for them.”

No easy answers

There are no easy ways to unravel these developmental, psychological and social threads. But a standout effort to try is found in a 2022 book: “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do about It,” written by Richard V. Reeves, a Brookings Institution scholar.

Reeves serves up three main school policy prescriptions.  The most intriguing is to “redshirt” all boys; that is, enroll all boys in kindergarten a year later than girls.  (Redshirting is a common term for when colleges hold athletes out of competition for a year to improve their skills or maturity.)

While redshirting boys is a novel proposal, it has roots in longstanding practices under which some kindergarten or first-year students are held back and placed for a year in a “transitional” program. This happens predominantly in some private schools where parents can afford to pay for an extra year of school. But why shouldn’t an extra year be available for all children, as advocated by policy expert Michael  J. Petrilli and others? The extra year up front, it’s argued, avoids the later loss of self-esteem and stigma of “retention.”

Still, Reeves’s proposal is a political non-starter. Redshirting boys only, notwithstanding the gender gap, may be illegal discrimination against girls. Plus, the additional year of school for boys would be a budget-buster for already underfunded public schools.

The second policy Reeves advances is recruitment of more men as teachers. According to some evidence, male teachers might improve the academic outcomes for some boys. “ It’s a national shame,” Reeves writes, “that only 3% of preK and kindergarten teachers are men.”

The catch here is that almost all school systems are already making such an effort, with scant success. In Maryland,  Black men comprise just 4% of all teachers.

Reeves’s third proposal is “a massive investment in male-friendly vocational education and training.” That’s a great idea. The pillar on career as well as college preparation in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future is particularly well designed and potentially beneficial. It aims to equip students to graduate and get good jobs if that’s their choice. Key is upgrading career and technology education (CTE) so that students have a menu of career preparation programs developed in collaboration with employers.

Still, giving girls second-class treatment in CTE is unfair (even if were legal and that’s dubious). It seems all the more unacceptable in the context of gender inequality in the workplace. As one author put it, girls beat boys at school and lose to them at the office. Women are still up against the glass ceiling, “old boys” networks and sexual harassment.

One more possibility is single-sex schools, but they have a checkered track record. (Ironically, three successful single-sex schools in Baltimore City are exclusively for girls.)

So where are we? I’ve shot down Reeves’ remedies, but what recommendations do I have to offer? Sorry dear readers: I don’t think that any initiatives that focus only on boys will do little more than tweak the system. Boys’ scores are unlikely to rise unless girls’ do, too.  A rising tide of public school reform lifts all boats.

So boys and girls alike, all aboard the Blueprint ship and, hopefully, full steam ahead for passage to school success.