Boys left behind

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Article Highlights

  • New study shows how parents spend time differently with boys vs girls

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  • Achievement gap between boys and girls may start before school even begins

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  • Parents spend more time reading, going to the library, and singing with girls than boys

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This article appears in the April 22, 2013, issue of National Review.

The Democratic National Convention last September was unreserved in its insistence that discrimination against women is a large and troubling problem in the U.S. today, with speaker after speaker noting that, in the words of Nancy Pelosi, “women still make just 77 cents for every dollar men earn.” Multiple scholars, however, have demonstrated that pay differences can be explained by factors other than discrimination.

Still, there is a large and troubling gender gap in America. As liberals fret over aggregate pay differences, a gulf has emerged over the past two decades between the academic performance of girls and that of boys. Girls outscore boys in most measures of scholastic aptitude, and this outperformance is reshaping the academic landscape. Since 1982, women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men; they earned 56.9 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in 2012, along with 59.6 percent of master’s degrees and 52.1 percent of doctorates. And it’s not just in college and graduate school that girls are beating boys: Female students took 56 percent of all Advanced Placement tests in high schools in 2011.

While is it easy to see the gains that women have made over men in education over the past few decades, it is harder  to pinpoint a definite cause. Different theories have been offered, ranging from the hypothesis that organized classrooms are better suited for the learning of girls to bias on the part of parents and teachers against young boys. A fascinating new paper by Michael Baker and Kevin Milligan for the National Bureau of Economic Research provides new clues about the root of achievement differences between boys and girls. Their evidence suggests that parents spend a bit more time engaging in activities that promote cognition with young girls.



The nearby chart illustrates their key findings. Baker and Milligan analyzed data about the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey–Birth Cohort, who were born in 2001 in the U.S.The chart compares boys with girls according to the number of books that parents reported the children as having, and also according to the percentage of parents who accompanied their child to the library or to a story hour within the past month. Comparisons are shown for both for two-year-olds and four-year-olds. For both ages and all of the criteria, girls were better off than boys. For example, while 29.5 percent of two-year-old girls had visited a library in the past month, only 23.4 percent of two-year-old boys had done so. Two-year-old boys owned an average of 39.9 books, compared with 44.5 for two-year-old girls. Baker and Milligan examined other activities that are not represented in the chart, such as reading stories to children, telling stories to them, and singing songs with them. At both ages, parents spent more days per week on average doing these activities with girls than with boys.

Baker and Milligan studied whether these differences influence academic performance and found evidence that strongly suggested a link. The gap between girls’ and boys’ home activities corresponded with significant gaps in their performance on cognitive tests at ages four to five, with girls outperforming boys in both reading and math. Boys, then, are now starting school with a significant handicap, one that may lead to persistent differences.

The academic performance of boys has dropped significantly over the past two decades, and this may be in part the result of increased female labor-force participation. Parenting time has become scarcer. The authors found little evidence of overall bias—parents spent about the same amount of time with boys as with girls—but they favor different activities with different sexes, and cognitive development time with boys has suffered. If my own parenting experience is any guide, perhaps this is because it’s harder to get boys to stop wiggling, a gender difference that is too politically incorrect ever to be the topic of a Democratic-convention speech.

-Kevin Hassett is the John G. Searle Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies at AEI

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