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Closing the Gender Achievement Gap: Ongoing Work for Schools

Men are traditionally thought to be left-brain thinkers, which makes them more analytical and logical. Women, the thinking goes, are more creative and holistic, making them primarily right-brain thinkers…

While such gender-based stereotypes are finally falling by the wayside, questions remain about the role that gender plays in student performance and achievement in school. Should it play a role at all?

The school-based gender gap refers to the disparity in achievement between genders in an educational environment. Often, this disparity is influenced by social factors.

From 2008 to 2015, gender gaps in math and reading gradually narrowed–with math closing at a much faster clip. A recent Stanford University and Learning Policy Institute study found no significant national gaps in math after years of higher achievement rates among boys. Reading gaps, however, have widened, with girls nearly three-quarters of a grade level ahead.

While understanding national trends is helpful, new research points to the need to look at gender gaps within local communities, or school districts.

Stanford University and the Learning Policy Institute compared gender gaps in nearly 10,000 school districts across the country. The study found that performance gaps between male and female students varied substantially from district to district.

Some of the largest gaps in math and reading achievement were found in wealthier districts–especially those where men had higher average incomes than their spouses.

In low-income districts, gender gaps largely favored girls in both reading and math.

Researchers say such disparities in achievement are likely tied to social realities of students’ communities. Who are the people students look up to? Do they get equal encouragement to do well in school? Do parents–consciously or unconsciously–encourage one gender over the other? All these factors can have strong effects on student achievement, experts say.

Continuing to close gender gaps requires a comprehensive effort. Here are three ideas to ensure a level academic playing field, based on recent research:

1.When designing curriculum, understand longstanding gender dynamics–both inside and outside your schools.

Take the time to really understand what’s going on in your school. Is there an obvious gender gap? If so, what subjects do boys struggle in? What about girls?

In affluent communities that are predominantly white or Asian-American, boys have traditionally outperformed girls in math. Experts say this may in part be caused by historical family dynamics in which men traditionally earned more than their spouses in math- or science-oriented careers. Understanding these dynamics is vital to tackling gender gaps, writes Claire Cain Miller and Kevin Quealy in The New York Times:

The gap was largest in school districts in which men earned a lot, had high levels of education, and were likely to work in business or science. Women in such districts earned significantly less. Children might absorb the message that sons should grow up to work in high-earning, math-based jobs.”

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2. Help students rethink traditional stereotypes.

In some communities, gender stereotypes, unsurprisingly, play an outsized role in gender gaps. African-American and Hispanic boys, for instance, in low-income neighborhoods, often ignore academic pursuits to preserve community conceptions of “masculinity,” Prudence L. Carter, Co-Director of the Stanford University Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, writes in the Harvard Educational Review:

“The seemingly culturally based concept of resistance is shown to have a serious gender interaction, and the potential for emasculation causes Black and Latino males to be more disengaged academically than their female counterparts.”

To counteract this trend, California’s Oakland Unified School District launched a first-in-the-nation program called Manhood Development Project, as the Detroit Free Press reports. Started in 2010, the program combines academic mentoring, motivational psychology, and character education. It incorporates an Afrocentric curriculum and encourages “brotherhood” on campus among male students.

School leaders say incorporating the program as a regular course during the school day–rather than as an extra after-school program–has helped to enhance its effectiveness. The numbers speak for themselves: the graduation rate among African-American males as well as the number of African-American males on the honor roll have both increased, while the suspension rate and the number of students entering the juvenile justice system have declined.

3. Encourage all students equally in all subjects.

Everyone knows how difficult it can be to break long-held perceptions.

According to researchers in the journal AERA Open, teachers in wealthy communities often underestimate the capabilities of girls in math courses, which often leads to inequitable teaching practices.

As school districts focus on narrowing persistent gender gaps, they’ll need to ensure that all students have equal access to all subjects, as math education expert and author, Jo Boaler, said in a recent seminar (first reported in The Seattle Globalist):

“…if students spend time in class where they are given access to high-level content, they achieve at higher levels. So, why not give all students access to advanced math courses?”

Has your school or district identified a gender gap among students? What steps are you taking to implement equal opportunity learning for all students? Tell us in the comments.