Boys lag girls most in poorer places
To narrow the educational gender gap, we'll need to pay more attention to geography, race and economic class...
Top line: The gender gap in education can be seen at every level, in every city and every state.
Stat of the week: There are currently 1.6 million more young women with a bachelor’s degree than men. (To put it into perspective, that’s just less than the population of West Virginia.)
Chart of the week: How girls overtook boys in 8th grade math across the U.S.
Why it matters: Geographical variation points to various possible causes of the gender gap, including differences by race, school quality and more.
My colleague Ember Smith and I have a new piece up over at Brookings, “Boys left behind: Education gender gaps across the US”. We look at the geography of the gender gap in education, in K-12 education and in terms of college attainment.
There’s a gap in favor of girls and women everywhere - but the size of the gap varies a lot. In North Dakota, young women are 50% more likely to have a four-year college degree; in Utah, they are only 14% more likely. There are pretty big differences by city, too: here’s the gap in college degrees among young adults in the biggest 25 U.S. metros (head over to Brookings for the interactive version):
A couple of trends stood out to me from the analysis. First, in K-12 education, girls are not just way ahead in English, but in many places are quite far ahead in math (as the GIF at the top of the post shows). I don’t think many people know how quickly the story on math has changed, at least from grades 4 through 8 which is the data we show in the Brookings piece. Also, a big shout here to Sean Reardon at the team over at the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University whose data we are using here.
I had a sense that while girls were ahead in English, boys were still ahead in math. But that’s basically not true anymore. A similar story can be seen at city level. There are more big cities where girls are ahead of boys in math (in grades 4-8) than where boys are ahead of girls:
Second, in some states and cities the gender gaps are much deeper. You can see from the chart above that girls are well ahead of boys - about a third of a grade level - in math in Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama. The picture for English is similar, but at a different level: girls are way ahead everywhere on this front. But in states like Arkansas and Louisiana, girls are more than a grade level ahead of boys in English:
An obvious question here is the role of race. We know that the male/female education gaps are much bigger for Black Americans - which is surely part of the explanation for why the gender gap is bigger in cities like DC, Baltimore and Chicago. I’m working on a paper looking at on-time high school graduation rates by sex and race in states where the data is available, so look out for that. In general the intersection of race and sex is not considered enough in terms of boys and men - a key argument in Chapter 4 of Of Boys and Men:
Black women are seizing educational opportunities long denied to them, and on some fronts they have overtaken white men. Black girls are more likely than white boys to have graduated from high school; young Black women aged 18 to 24 are more likely than young white men to be enrolled in college; and more Black women aged 25 to 29 hold more postgraduate degrees than white men of the same age. The gaps here are modest, but they illustrate the important educational gains made by Black women in recent years. The gender gap in education between Black women and Black men is much wider than the one between white women and white men. For every Black man getting a college degree, at all levels, there are two Black women.
But class matters a lot too. As I write there (p. 71):
The developmental gap between boys and girls starting kindergarten is much wider for children from homes with less educated mothers and less involved fathers. In high school, boys’ academic performance is much more affected by family background—measured in terms of income, parental education, and marriage—than girls’. The bigger impact of class position on boys and men is also clear in postsecondary education: girls raised in the poorest families (i.e., the bottom fifth of the distribution) are 57% more likely to get a 4-year college degree than boys from similar backgrounds, compared to a difference of just 8% among those from affluent (top fifth) families. In the UK, the gender gap in college attendance is widest for those who are eligible for free school meals.
The basic picture suggests that less poverty and family instability, less neighborhood poverty, and better schools are all important ways to improve outcomes for all children - but especially boys.
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Race does matter and so does class but in some areas it does not. Stanford University's CEPA reporting for 2019 shows Gender gaps in literacy ACROSS economic substrates. These are shocking results which we need to do much more specific research into in order to support boys.
it cost my wife and I $60,000 in specialty school tuition and tutors to get our moderately dyslexic, ADHD child up to grade level in reading first, then all subjects. It worked, but the cost is beyond the reach of 95% of parents. It's sickening that overcoming these genetic challenges has become a matter of a) parents' educational attainment and b) class more broadly. We should be ashamed as a nation.