Report: Behavior, Discipline Policies Contribute to Gender Gap in Ed

(Photo: Angela Rucker, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Angela Rucker, Creative Commons)

A new analysis published by the American Sociological Association explores the question of why men in the United States complete less schooling than women. The report is titled “Early Childhood Behavior Problems and the Gender Gap in Educational Attainment in the United States.”

Today, men are less likely than women to finish high school, enroll in college, and complete a four-year college degree. In 2014, men comprised 50% of high school students, but they received only 48% of high school diplomas, comprised 43% of college enrollees, and were awarded only 40% of bachelor’s degrees. Thus, the education gap widens over the levels of educational attainment.

A much-trafficked explanation for the current gender gap in education is that boys begin school with higher levels of behavioral problems than do girls, due to a combination of psychological, biological, and social differences. These differences cause boys to experience difficulties paying attention, socializing, and self-regulating. The author of the new report attributes these differences to a gap in education during elementary school, middle school, and high school, but these differences do not account for imbalances at the college level.

The researcher, Jayanti Owens, wants his report to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the current gender gap in education. To guide the research, he poses three questions: to what degree to gender-related differences in children’s early behavior problems explain the gender gap in overall years of schooling; through what pathways are men’s early behavior problems linked to their lower education attainment; and are early behavior problems more or less consequential in high school, college enrollment, or college completion?

Early behavior problems are linked to educational attainment moreso for boys than for girls. When these gendered behavioral norms are internalized, children and adults reinforce them in the development process and tend to find school environments ‘‘more compatible’’ with such behaviors. Naturally, the perpetuation and reinforcement of these kinds of behaviors influence children’s subsequent learning aspirations and abilities. In the home, too, parents structure the environment to respond to children’s early behavior, such as by providing developmentally appropriate rules, toys, and activities that can reinforce children’s emotional and cognitive abilities.

Additionally, behavior serves as a signal to educators that either open or close chances for additional learning opportunities. If a child’s gendered behavioral issues preclude him or her – most likely him – from more diverse and advanced academic opportunities, then the repercussions of their exclusion will be felt later in their academic careers.

Moreover, many schools enforce gendered behavioral norms. On average, boys receive harsher exclusionary discipline than girls for the same behaviors. Statistically, boys are more likely to be retained, suspended, and expelled than are their female peers. Consequently, educational communities systematically and unknowingly lay the conditions for a gender gap in education. The gender gap begins at a very young age and, over time, widens until girls are become 60% more likely to attain a four-year college degree than boys.

For interested readers, the American Sociological Association’s new report is available online.