Education Week - November 29, 2017 - 7
NARROWING GENDER GAPS
By Sarah D. Sparks
Girls often outperform boys in
reading, but a new international
study suggests having more girls
as classmates may give high school
boys an achievement boost, too.
Using data from the 2009 Program
for International Student Assessment,
a benchmarking test of 15-year-olds in
33 countries, researchers led by Margriet van Hek, a sociologist at Utrecht
University in the Netherlands, looked
at how school characteristics affected
boys' and girls' reading performance.
They found girls scored nearly 30
points higher than boys on a 600-point
reading scale, and all students scored
better when girls made up at least 60
percent of students in the school.
In the study, published in the Journal of School Effectiveness and School
Improvement, the researchers analyzed the concentration of poverty, the
percentage of teachers with a college
degree, and the proportion of girls to
boys, in each school. On average across
more than 281,000 students in more
than 10,000 schools, students had
higher reading scores in low-poverty
schools and schools where a majority
of teachers had a college degree. But
van Hek also found that, while students in the lowest-poverty schools
had higher reading performance overall than those in the highest-poverty
schools, girls' reading was affected
more strongly by a school's resources,
while climate was slightly more associated with boys' achievement.
"Boys' poorer reading performance
really is a widespread but unfortunately also understudied problem,"
van Hek said. "Our study shows that
the issue is reinforced when boys attend schools with a predominantly
male student population."
The study, however, did not include boys-only international
schools. Leonard Sax, an advocate
for single-gender schools and author of Why Gender Matters, argued,
"this study is more evidence in support of an already-robust empirical
finding, namely: If you are going to
offer a co-ed classroom, try to have
a majority of girls in the classroom."
The findings are likely to add to
ongoing debate about when and
whether boys and girls should learn
together, as enrollment in singlegender schools surges nationwide
and several of the country's biggest
districts, including Dallas and Washington, experiment with the model.
An Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data found
there were 283 single-gender, traditional public schools nationwide,
including charter schools, as of the
most recent data in 2014-15. That's
a 67 percent jump in the last five
years, and the number of students
enrolled in those schools has more
than doubled in that time. Education
Week found students in single-gender
schools in the United States are more
likely to be poor and of black or Hispanic backgrounds-and more girls
than boys are enrolled.
Erin Pahlke, an assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College in Washington, was not part of
the Netherlands study but said its
results didn't surprise her. Prior research, she said, has suggested boys
are more likely to be focused and
better behaved in classes where they
are outnumbered by girls. "One argument is it changes the classroom behavior, and so impacts the amount
of on-task time in the classroom,"
Pahlke said. "That's powerful and
But Bradford Giola, the headmaster of the 775-boy Montgomery Bell
Academy in Nashville, Tenn., argued a single-gender class can buoy
boys' interest in reading. "I don't
believe boys' schools, girls' schools,
public or private schools are better by the nature of what they are;
I believe culture decides what is a
great school. However, there are elements of being a boys' school that
PISA reading score
How Mixed-Gender Classes Might
Help Boys Improve Reading Skills
A study found that boys score higher in reading in
classes with 60 percent or more girls.
SOURCE: 2009 Program for International Student Assessment
can provide distinct differences and
opportunities," said Giola, who also
teaches a senior English class at the
7-12 school. He added, "Girls are
typically much better readers, but in
a boys' school you can teach a love of
reading, you can help them get beyond the stereotypes ... and help the
boys understand the interior world
of the written world and how it connects to their own interior world."
Van Hek and her colleagues also
compared reading performance in
schools whose principals reported
high or low levels of student absenteeism, bullying, disrespect of teachers, and other markers of a school's
overall climate. Both boys and girls
performed better in reading in
schools rated in the best quarter for
school climate, versus those with
the worst climate-but the benefit
for boys was 9 points greater on the
PISA scale than the benefit for girls.
Yet, a good school climate alone did
not account for the difference in boys'
performance, she found.
Pahlke noted that the findings
might be less about gender than about
high achievement; if girls on average
outperform boys in reading, then boys
in a class of mostly girls may be surrounded by high-achieving students,
changing the tenor of the classroom.
"Part of the answer could be
around how we socialize kids in
terms of gender stereotypes," she
said. "We should be making sure
that boys see models like male
teachers and we are consistently
giving the message that thinking
critically and focusing is something
for both boys and girls."
Research Analyst Alex Harwin conducted
the data analysis for this report.
EDUCATION WEEK | November 29, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 7