The college gender gap begins in kindergarten

Writing for Fordham’s Flypaper, Michael Petrilli explores the college gender gap and finds that it begins in kindergarten. Petrilli’s recommendations rest on three facts:

  1. At the close of the 2020–21 academic year, women made up 59.5 percent of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5 percent, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse. In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues.
  2. Virtually all American students who are academically well-prepared for college continue to matriculate into college and then go on to graduate. It’s just that many more of these students are young women instead of young men. In other words, the college readiness gap is perfectly predictive of the college completion gap.
  3. Gender literacy gaps begin early. By fourth grade, two-thirds of the gender literacy gap is evident. But the gender gap in literacy in kindergarten is quite small, the equivalent of one point.

So what is causing this gap? Petrilli writes:

In an excellent article that also points to elementary schools as the birthplace of the gender gap, Richard Whitmire suggests that the reforms of recent decades have pushed literacy instruction earlier, and boys, with their slower-developing brains, can’t keep up. Maybe.

But the ECLS studies provide both test scores and teacher surveys for every child, meaning that scholars can compare students’ literacy abilities as judged by the tests with teachers’ perceptions of each child’s skills. That’s exactly what Joseph Paul Robinson and Sarah Theule Lubienski did in an a great, oft-overlooked study. And guess what. Teachers systematically underestimated little boys’ reading abilities—both at kindergarten entry and as they made their way through elementary school. Previous studies indicate that this might be because of the “good girls” theory: Teachers think little girls are better readers because they tend to behave better, and think squirrely little boys are poor readers, even when they aren’t. Furthermore, teachers tended to believe that their best readers were disproportionately girls, even when the literacy assessments themselves did not show that to be the case.

As the authors explain, that perception gap could have serious real-world repercussions for boys, as they are placed in lower reading groups than they qualify for, and are handed less challenging books than they can handle.

Indeed, we know from a growing literature that teacher expectations can have a big impact on student outcomes—and that when expectations vary by race, it can contribute to the racial achievement gap. So it is with gender.

So what might we do? As Whitmire says, in part we need to keep working to ensure that all teachers understand and are ready to use the “science of reading” in the early grades. But we should also make sure they are aware of any anti-little-boy biases they might harbor.

It surely would also help if more early-elementary teachers were male. It would be hard to do worse on this particular gender gap, as a whopping 89 percent of elementary school teachers are female. A famous study by Tom Dee found that eighth grade boys benefitted greatly from being assigned to male teachers. That would likely be the case for younger boys, as well.

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