Where Boys Outperform Girls in Math: Rich, White and Suburban Districts

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

In much of the country, the stereotype that boys do better than girls at math isn’t true – on average, they perform about the same, at least through eighth grade. But there’s a notable exception.

In school districts that are mostly rich, white and suburban, boys are much more likely to outperform girls in math, according to a new study from Stanford researchers, one of the most comprehensive looks at the gender gap in test scores at the school district level.The research, based on 260 million standardized test scores for third through eighth graders in nearly every district in the country, suggests that local norms influence how children perform in school from early ages – and that boys are much more influenced than girls.

“It could be about some set of expectations, it could be messages kids get early on or it could be how they’re treated in school,” said Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford, who conducted the study with Erin Fahle, a doctoral candidate in education policy there, and colleagues. “Something operates to help boys more than girls in some places and help girls more than boys in other places.”

The study included test scores from the 2008 to 2014 school years for 10,000 of the roughly 12,000 school districts in the United States. In no district do boys, on average, do as well or better than girls in English and language arts. In the average district, girls perform about three-quarters of a grade level ahead of boys.

But in math, there is nearly no gender gap, on average. Girls perform slightly better than boys in about a quarter of districts – particularly those that are predominantly African-American and low-income. Boys do slightly better in the rest – and much better in high-income and mostly white or Asian-American districts.

In the Montgomery Township district in New Jersey, for example, the median household income is $180,000 and the students are about 60 percent white and 30 percent Asian-American. Boys and girls both perform well, but boys score almost half a grade level ahead of girls in math. Compare that with Detroit, where the median household earns $27,000 and students are about 85 percent black. It’s one of the districts in which girls outperform boys in math.

In Montgomery Township, the interest in academic achievement is high. “The students are very, very interested in their progress,” said Christopher Herte, the district’s math and science supervisor for Grades 5 to 8. “The biggest thing is family expectations and parents as role models. They don’t have to look far to see somebody who went to college or who’s doing extremely well.”

Boys are much more likely than girls to sign up for math clubs and competitions, he said, to the point that the district started a girls-only math competition this year, the Sally Ride Contest.

The gender achievement gap in math reflects a paradox of high-earning parents. They are more likely to say they hold egalitarian views about gender roles. But they are also more likely to act in traditional ways – father as breadwinner, mother as caregiver.

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