The Gender Gap, Revisited

THE GENDER GAP, REVISITED….A couple of weeks ago I linked to a New Republic article by Richard Whitmire in which he investigated gender differences in school achievement and concluded that the reason more girls go to college than boys is because girls have way better reading skills. In Slate today, Ann Hulbert responds:

Over the next two decades [since 1980], as women continued to get college degrees in ever greater numbers, there’s evidence to suggest that girls’ gains at the pre-college level weren’t as striking and don’t appear to have been at the expense of boys….The trend is relative stability for all, rather than marked mobility for either gender. Boys’ reading scores have declined somewhat over the past decade, but they were lower than girls’ from the start; girls’ scores have barely budged.

Hulbert has a point, but she also glosses over some very real differences. The chart on the right shows the NAEP data she relies on for her conclusion (see page 28 in this report for a bigger version), and although the trendlines are indeed pretty stable, it’s worth noting that NAEP test results are extremely sensitive: 10 points is roughly equal to one grade level. This means that in 1985, 17-year-old girls were about one grade level ahead of boys in reading and in 2001 they were about 1.3 grade levels ahead. That’s a pretty sizable difference, and I think Hulbert is wrong to dismiss it so casually.

Overall, I’m inclined to agree with Hulbert that viewing educational differences through a gender lens has limited utility, regardless of whether those differences are caused by biology, culture, or anything else. It’s not the biggest problem on our plate, and it’s not at all clear that gender-specific teaching styles would accomplish very much anyway. Still, facts are facts: high school girls read at a significantly higher level than high school boys, and as other barriers against women have dropped over the years, it should hardly come as a surprise that this advantage has transformed itself into higher college graduation rates. Whether it’s our biggest problem or not, it’s probably one worth paying attention to.