Boys enjoy educational advantages despite being less engaged in school than girls

Multi-Ethnic Group of elementary school kids getting out a yellow school bus at school's out. Boys and girls age 6-11. They walk on behind another. They cross the street and the Stop sign of the yello school bus is open.  This was taken in Canada.

Girls are more engaged in school than boys, and that is a big reason girls (and women) tend to do better educationally. But rather than thinking of engagement as an educational advantage, we might better consider it as protective to girls, who confront many other disadvantages in school and life.

This is the takeaway of a research brief I recently published in the journal Educational Researcher. Nationally, girls do better than boys on reading tests but trail boys on math tests. I analyzed nationally representative data on boys’ and girls’ fifth-grade reading and math test scores and reports of their classroom behavioral engagement throughout elementary school. I found that if there were no gender differences in behavioral engagement patterns through elementary school, fifth-grade reading test score gaps could reverse and math test score gaps could triple in size.

That means focusing simply on increasing boys’ behavioral engagement in school overlooks unaddressed needs of girls. It may be time to reconsider what we mean when we say that girls have behavioral “advantages” over boys in school.

What is behavioral engagement, and why do girls have more of it than boys?

Behavioral engagement is participation in the work and social life of school in ways educators value and expect. That means following classroom expectations like raising your hand, respecting others’ personal boundaries, turning assignments in on time, and responding appropriately to negativity—among many more positive behaviors expected in class. Underlying behavioral engagement is a wide-ranging set of social and behavioral skills that families instill well before children enter school and skills that children learn along the way while in school.

The literature is divided on why girls seem more engaged in school than boys. One perspective emphasizes gender (and class) bias on the part of mostly middle-class, female teachers who evaluate students’ behaviors. Another perspective emphasizes gender socialization—that girls tend to be raised to behave in ways that align with how educators expect all students to behave. Although both can be true, some work using national data casts doubt on the teacher bias narrative by presenting evidence of a direct link between behavioral engagement and later learning. This suggests girls’ higher behavioral engagement likely stems from gendered ways of socializing young children prior to and during elementary school.

Why would boys score higher if they were as engaged as girls?

Since girls are more engaged than boys, equalizing engagement could lead to large reading and math achievement gaps favoring boys. Part of the explanation is that gender gaps on achievement tests have a lot to do with engagement and motivation to take the test itself. If boys were engaged in school more generally, it’s reasonable to believe that would translate to boys wanting to do better on these tests. However, my and other research suggests it’s not likely to be just a question of boys being more intelligent and underperforming because they lack interest in doing well on the test.

What is it then about schools that helps boys, even when they aren’t very engaged? Existing literature helps us understand.

First, girls aren’t encouraged to be interested in the same intellectual pursuits as boys. For example, although explanations of gender STEM gaps vary, research has shown that gender bias can arise through parents’ and teachers’ own anxieties about STEM subjects and their beliefs about boys’ and girls’ natural abilities in STEM fields. Those early redirections ripple into adulthood—women still lag men in engineering, physical science, and computer science degree attainment–but are not necessarily due to differences in academic ability. For example, a recent study shows that low-achieving men are much more likely to major in physics, engineering, and computer science relative to low-achieving women after accounting for a range of student-level factors.

Second, other behaviors in school are sanctioned and rewarded differently by gender. Girls may be socialized early in life in ways that help them engage in school, but educators and peers informally reward and reinforce hegemonic masculinity and, with it, boys’ superiority and flouting of school rules. For example—as Michela Musto has recently shown us–boys misbehave more than girls in class, but teachers and peers also encourage and reward boys to engage by challenging girls’ perspectives and dominating discussions. In the end? Peers regard (usually white) intelligent boys as much more “exceptional” than otherwise similarly intelligent girls.

Where to go from here?

At the very least, this research challenges the perspective that girls have taken a resounding advantage in educational pursuits due to legal, political, and advocacy movements over the last 50 years. That perspective does correctly recognize the social and economic consequences of ignoring boys’ comparatively languishing behavioral performances in schools. Yet a simple focus on improving boys’ outcomes will certainly uncover remaining constraints on girls in schools and society at large. That will include some interventions that we are aware of, such as encouraging girls to build confidence and aspire to enter STEM fields. Others may be clear only after looking under the gilded veneer of high engagement that helps girls shine in school.