Gender Gap: A Disadvantaged Start Hurts Boys More Than Girls

By the time boys from poor neighborhoods start kindergarten, they are already less prepared than their sisters. The gap keeps widening: They are more likely to be suspended, skip school, perform poorly on standardized tests, drop out of high school, commit crimes as juveniles and have behavioral or learning disabilities.

Boys tend to have more discipline problems than girls over all. But the difference is much bigger for black and Latino children — and more than half of the difference is because of poverty and related problems, the researchers found. For instance, while boys in well-off families have almost the same test scores as their sisters, the gap is more than three times as large in the most disadvantaged families, the study found. While well-off boys are 3.1 percentage points less likely than their sisters to be ready for kindergarten, the most disadvantaged boys are 8.5 percentage points less likely.

The pattern is clear at Astor School, a kindergarten through eighth grade public school in a low-income part of Portland, Ore. More than half the students are economically disadvantaged, and nearly half are minorities.

Photo

Tiger Crowley, 4, center, with his family. According to his mother, self-discipline has been more of a struggle for him than for his older sisters. Credit Carl Kiilsgaard for The New York Times

Girls generally enter kindergarten with skills suited to doing well in school, like sitting still and using a pencil, while many boys act younger, having trouble listening to adults and controlling their impulses, said Jeff Knoblich, the school counselor.

“Boys get a message from a very young age to be a man, and to be a man means you’re strong and you don’t cry and you don’t show your emotions,” he said. “I see boys suffering because of that, and a lot of that comes out in aggressive behaviors.”

Problems in elementary school have long-term effects. Early suspensions are strongly correlated with not graduating from high school. The modern economy relies on skills like cooperation, empathy and resilience — and many boys are entering the work force poorly equipped to compete.

The researchers — who also included David Autor and Melanie Wasserman of M.I.T., Krzysztof Karbownik of Northwestern and Jeffrey Roth of the University of Florida — examined various reasons boys could be falling behind. By analyzing brothers and sisters in about 150,000 households using databases from the health and education departments in Florida, they could control for differences in families.

They concluded that boys aren’t born this way. Babies of low-income mothers are less healthy, but the boys are not worse off than the girls.

Though disadvantaged children are more likely to be in underperforming schools or neighborhoods with drugs and violence, this alone does not explain the gender gap, the researchers said. Even in the same neighborhood and schools and for children of the same race, the gender gap is wider in less-advantaged families.

“Boys particularly seem to benefit more from being in a married household or committed household — with the time, attention and income that brings,” Mr. Autor said.

The researchers compared families based on whether the parents were single or coupled, and also looked at the education level of the mother, the income of the neighborhood and the quality of the school. They said they could not isolate which variable mattered most, probably because they are all intertwined.

But they said there were clues to why boys are extra sensitive to disadvantage. A big one is that impoverished households are more likely to be led by single mothers, and boys suffer from a lack of male role models.

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