Girls may be just tougher than boys. That's one way to interpret a new study on the life outcomes of kindergartners who had behavioral difficulties as young children.
It could also be that boys are more negatively influenced by their peers, or that schools respond more negatively to boys, reinforcing bad behavior. Or it could be all of these.
What we do now know is that boys and girls with similar behavior challenges as youngsters will turn out very differently, according to a new study by Jayanti Owens, a sociologist at Brown University.
Owens found that the girls did much better in the long term than boys with similar behavior and self-control problems, graduating from high school and college at much higher rates.
It is now widely known girls are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college, though some dispute the size of the gap. One reason researchers are anxious to understand the gap, however, is the gap is particularly strong among low-income students and minorities.
For instance, in 2010 U.S. girls had a 6.2 percent graduation advantage over boys, but the gap was 12.2 percent among blacks and 7.8 among U.S. born Hispanics, according to research complied by Harvard economist Richard Murnane.
The gender gap in school performance is thus a major emerging front in efforts to combat the achievement gap that separates racial and ethnic groups.
Comparing boys and girls makes for solid research, Owens said, because boys and girls are equally likely to be born into any given home and equally likely to be found in poor and better-off neighborhoods.
Her study was based on a decades-long study of 11,000 infants who were born in the 1980s and followed into adulthood. Parents were asked to rate their youngster’s behavioral problems, Owens said, including “self-regulation, aggression, ability to form positive relationships and attention problems.”
By the time the kindergartners were adults, Owens said, the college graduation gap between boys and girls with similar behavioral challenges was 10 to 15 percent, while the gap in high school graduate was an even more striking 25 to 30 percent.
Owens is relatively agnostic about how to explain her findings and humble about drawing direct policy conclusions from them. For example, she says she “can't rule out the possibility that moms just rate girls' behavior differently.”
That is, mothers may expect more from girls and rate them more harshly. If so, the girls' baseline behavior problems in kindergarten may actually not be as bad as the boys’.
But the "mother ratings gap" explanation seems less likely if we factor in a 2015 study in Florida by a group of prominent economists led by David Autor at MIT. That study compared boy and girl sibling pairs of low-income kids with unmarried mothers. It found that girls in the same family did significantly better on key measures than did their brothers.
Boys were more likely to “have a higher incidence of truancy and behavioral problems throughout elementary and middle school, exhibit higher rates of behavioral and cognitive disability, perform worse on standardized tests, are less likely to graduate high school, and are more likely to commit serious crimes as juveniles.”
This gap, the authors of the Florida study argue, can only be explained by differences in how boys and girls react to similar challenges or by differences in how boys and girls are treated by caregivers and society.
This last possibility would suggest a vicious circle, with early discipline problems from boys prompting counterproductive reactions from parents and teachers.
So while Owens remains agnostic about explanation, as a sociologist she is very attuned to the possibility that institutions are causing the problem and that schools, families and neighborhoods could fix it.
"Stereotypes about boys’ bad behavior may lead educators to come down harder on male students," Owens said. Much academic and policy energy is now being driven into figuring out how this works, and Owens says her next research progress project will use lab experiments to see if teachers judge similar behavior differently in boys and girls.
Whatever is going on, it’s not isolated to a single place, and so is probably not caused by a single institutional error.
Everywhere across the developed world, girls are outperforming boys. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development reports that in 2013, 55 percent of secondary school graduates in OECD member countries were girls, while 60 percent of all low-performing students on the PISA test were boys.
"If you look at how boys and girls feel about schools across a number of different countries," said Andrew Penner, a sociologist at U.C. Irvine, "the only one where we have data in which boys say they like school more than girls is Indonesia."
To account for this nearly universal gap in educational enthusiasm purely by culture and institutions takes some doing. Like Owens, Penner is a sociologist who is reluctant to trespass into biology or neurology. But he also expresses openness to biological factors.
"The idea that women are biologically more robust is on pretty strong footing," Penner said, pointing to a body of research that show that boys are more likely to die in infancy than girls, for example.
Owens said she would be out of her field to comment on possible neurological gender differences that might make girls more resilient, but she did not discount that these could play a role.
But, Penner adds, it is notoriously difficult to separate nature from nurture. The emergence of epigenetics, he suggests, drives home this inseparability of biology and society.
Epigenetics is the science of how genes are turned on or off by environmental influences. Epigenetic switches can carry across generations, Penner notes, meaning that what we think of as inherited traits may actually reflect the culture or experiences of parents or grandparents.
But the present also matters, of course.
Owens thinks the behavior problems flagged in her study were severe enough for such a young age that the children she studied "very likely reflect adverse childhood experiences of trauma, abuse or neglect."
And home environments may play a key role not just in the early behavioral difficulties but also going forward toward adulthood. Owens points to multiple studies suggesting that boys suffer more than girls from problematic home environments, such as limited or harsh discipline, lack of cognitive stimulation, father’s absence or income instability.
“When both boys and girls have similar negative experiences, the effects on boys tend to be more negative,” Owens said.
Any conversation about family influence reaches back to the famous 1966 Coleman Report. Commissioned by Congress as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the report aimed to find levers that would help overcome education gaps between Americans of different races and ethnicities. The report concluded that schools cannot overcome a child’s “background and general social context” and that “inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life."
Much of the recent push in education reform research has been an effort to overcome the challenge of the Coleman Report, both by reaching more into home, neighborhood and peer spheres, and by expanding the role of the school to include “wrap around” services that make up for what is lacking elsewhere.
“These is a growing belief that school reform can make a difference,” said Joscha Legewie, a sociologist at Yale who has done research on peer influences.
Legewie’s research on schools in Berlin, Germany, published in 2012, suggests boys are more influenced by their peers than are girls, and that really good schools do a better job of supplanting negative peer influences in boys.
Boys surrounded by peers from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Legewie argues, end up defining their emerging masculinity as anti-academic. Girls are much less affected by weak schools, and strong school environments narrow the gender gap by supplanting peer influence.
The notion that boys may be more vulnerable to negative peer influences than girls has found support from some surprising angles.
One 2002 study looking at housing projects in Chicago found that girls benefited more from trees and grass outside their home windows than boys did. It wasn't until doing a focus groups with the mothers that the peer group explanation surfaced.
“‘This is a dangerous place,' the mothers said,” according to University of Illinois professor Bill Sullivan, the study's lead author. "'We don’t let our girls go far from home. But the boys are boys: they’ll go wherever they want.'”
Whatever is going on, it’s been going on for quite some time. Andrew Penner points to an intriguing 1944 study of over 300,000 final semester grades in core high school courses. That study found that boys were 2.25 times more likely to fail than girls.
So why do girls outperform boys in school? Why are boys more vulnerable to negative peer influences? Why do boys apparently suffer more from home-based trauma than girls?
“There are probably multiple factors in play,” Legewie says, “and there will not just be one dimension that will solve the puzzle.”
Whether the answer is nature or nurture, the urgency is clear. As the authors of the Florida study point out, the African-American boy/girl high school completion gap is triple — and the U.S. born Hispanic gap is double — the gap found among their white counterparts.
Thus, any effort to address racial and ethnic schooling gaps could well begin by tackling the gender gap, and Owens’ demonstration that its roots reach to early childhood raises but also focuses key questions about next steps.