Here’s an op-ed by Richard Whitmire in the Dallas Morning News. The piece opens by citing the standard numbers on gender gaps in college — nearly 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees go to women and 62 percent of associate’s degrees go to women. But note, too, these strange and striking numbers that come later in the piece in response to the dismay of college admissions officers over the disparity in admissions:
“One possibility is that admissions officers are looking in all the wrong places. The boys are findable; it’s just that they don’t necessarily attend 11th- and 12th-grade college nights in the gym.
“My suggestion: Skip back a few grades to ninth grade, where you’ll find schools awash with boys. Ninth grade is the “bulge” year, in which nationally there were 113 boys for every 100 girls in 2007, according to the Southern Regional Education Board, which tracks such statistics. Depending on race, ethnicity and location, the ninth-grade bulge for boys gets even bigger: Among black Americans, there are 123 boys for every 100 girls; among Hispanics, 122. Geographically the bulge is larger in the 16 states covered by the board, with Florida registering 117 boys for every 100 girls.
“As an example, let’s take Baltimore’s Patterson High School, located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. If you showed up to recruit the Class of 2009 on graduation day, you would have found 164 female and 107 male students. A quirk of birthrates? Not exactly. Had you checked on the ninth-grade class there in September 2008, you would have found 278 girls and 400 boys.”
Whitmire follows with a lengthy analysis well worth reading. As a complement to it, take a look at this report from the Center on Education Policy that just came out. It reviews state test data on reading and math for boys and girls at three grade levels. “In math,” it concludes, “there was no consistent gender gap in 2008.” Nationally, boys and girls reached proficiency levels at the same rate, and no state showed a gap of more than ten points.
In reading, though, “girls outperformed boys in 2008 at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.” In some states, on the “proficiency” scale, the gap exceeded 10 points.
In light of employers and higher-ed folks claiming that reading skills are essential to achievement across a wide range of jobs and disciplines, the connection between reading gaps and general achievement gaps between men and women is clear. The researchers at CEP have a recommendation at the end, however, that I think will have limited impact if followed. They say that “Researchers and state officials might investigate ways in which the school environment may be changed to better address the needs of boys.”
Yes, schools have to respond to the reading gap, but other studies such as the NAEP Trends reports indicate that reading scores are closely correlated to leisure out-of-school reading, perhaps more than they are to homework reading. That is, reading skills are built more through general reading habits at home and on vacation than through in-class instruction. And schools can do only so much to affect those hours.