Veronica - Chicago Mom's Blog

Are girls really out pacing boys in education?

I spend at least eight hours a day promoting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers to young women. My office puts on programs and workshops to help college students understand what they can do with their biology degree besides teach high school or go into medical school. Our office works with K-12 schools, Girl Scouts, and community organizations repeating the same mantra, “Do well in math and the world is yours.”

Yet I can’t get through a few weeks before someone calls me out on the so-called “boys crisis” and how women are now almost 60% of college students. Last week the Chicago Tribune presented me with quite the treat, a story headlined “Girls outpace boys on tests -Some cite gender gap; others point to revised exam.” Reading the headline one might think, “A-ha! More proof that girls are fine, let’s focus on the boys.” Considering that most people merely skim the headlines (as I often do), I’m scared that more people think this way. If one were to read the article they would find that the story focuses more on whether the exam was gender-biased towards girls.

Cathy Wendler, senior research director at Educational Testing Service, which creates standardized tests including the SAT, said boys and girls respond quite differently to the same test question. “When we phrased a math question in terms of batting averages, for example, boys did better,” she said. “It might be because girls don’t know enough about batting averages, or it might be that they convince themselves that they don’t know how to respond to it.”

Girls also do not do as well on questions that deal with war and suffering, she said.

Boys, on the other hand, are less likely to perform well on questions that center on social interaction. So, test creators might shy away from a reading passage about a friend coming to someone’s rescue, Wendler said.


It ends with a discussion of how some school districts are combating the unproven “boys crisis” by focusing on hiring more men as teachers. As someone who promotes the need for more women in STEM fields as role models, I buy that theory. EXCEPT that throughout the last 50-60 years women have always been the vast majority of school teachers. Quick – How many men did you have in K-12? K-8? K-6? Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Mack were all I had in K-6 including art, music, and gym teachers. Most people I ask can remember the name of the lone male teacher from grade school too.

The National Women’s Law Center released a report last week about high school drop out rates and what should/could be done to address the problem.

It has been widely reported that one in three boys, and nearly 50 percent or more of some racial and ethnic groups of boys, will fail to graduate from high school with a diploma in four years. This is an alarming finding that demands prompt remedial action. What has been generally overlooked, however, is that girls, too, are dropping out of high school at dangerously high rates. In fact, one in four girls overall do not finish high school, and the numbers are worse for girls of color. One in two Native American female students, four in ten Black female students, and nearly four in ten Hispanic female students fail to graduate with a diploma each year.


The problem with pitting girls against boys in our overall education crisis is that it sends the message that someone has to lose. If the best our great country can do is get 2/3 of boys and 3/4 of girls out of high school, we have a problem – all of us. It spirals downward when we look at racial & socioeconomic factors.

By focusing on women in STEM careers this is addressing the fact that women are the majority in our population, are the majority in the national college population, and yet are underrepresented in STEM majors and careers – vastly so in computer science and many engineering fields. I don’t work to keep men out of STEM fields. While the main impetus behind a lot of the government’s interest in increasing the number of American STEM professionals does have a streak of xenophobia, I work with a very diverse pool of students including a large population of international students. Thus I have no personal interest in seeing someone from small town Illinois earn her degree over someone who decided to come to Chicago for her degree instead of her hometown of Madrid. My impetus is that I firmly believe that diverse groups create better solutions.

If a group of people gathered to solve a problem and only saw the elephant’s trunk (as in the three blind men), the problem most likely won’t fit all possibilities. I want our STEM problem solvers to see every angle of the elephant as a group. It was only until 1994 that NIH issued guidelines on the inclusion of women in clinical trials – yes even in breast cancer trials! – and many believe this is why we are so far behind in understanding how heart attacks appear in women.

Back to high school drop out rates. Another reason why I am much more concerned about girls is pure economics. As shown in the NWLC report:

  • In 2006, 77% of adult male dropouts were employed, compared to only 53% of their female peers… White and Hispanic male high school dropouts…are more than 1.5 times more likely to be employed than White and Hispanic female dropouts, respectively.
  • In 2006, adult women without a high school diploma earned on average only a little more than $15,500 for the year—over $6,000 less annually than women with a high school diploma.
  • Moreover, experts suggest that families need incomes of approximately two times the federal poverty measure to meet their basic needs.18 Measured against this “basic needs” standard, female dropouts fare even worse, earning an average salary almost $18,000—or about 52%—below a basic needs standard for a family of three ($33,200). Indeed, it is not until the average woman earns a Bachelor’s degree that she receives wages that put her above this standard.
  • Males at every level of education make more than females with similar educational backgrounds, but the wage gap between men and women is the highest among high school dropouts.

Yes men who drop out of high school aren’t rolling in the dough, but compared to women drop-outs, they might be.

By earning a high school diploma, women and men can increase their earnings to such a level that might mean the difference between poverty and just getting by.

So are girls out pacing boys? I guess it all depends on which girls, where the boys live, and which ones you think matter.