Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research has published a study entitled Family Disadvantage and the Gender Gap in Behavioral and Educational Outcomes that found US women graduate from high school at higher rates than US men. However, the female-male educational advantage is larger and has increased by more among black students of low socioeconomic status than among white and high socioeconomic students.
Lead author David Autor, a professor of Economics and Associate Department Head at MIT, writes that in the last forty years the gender gap in educational attainment in the US and much of the developed world has reversed. Between 1970 and 2010, graduation rates for US women rose six percentage points. US male high school graduation rates during this time were stable.
At the same time, women surpassed men in college attainment, especially among children of minority families. Autor and his team believe that family disadvantage may affect boys in a different way than it affects girls. Perhaps, behavioral and educational outcomes are more “elastic” to family circumstances among boys than girls, or that parental investment may vary between males and females in disadvantaged households.
The study used matched birth certificates, health, disciplinary, academic, and high school graduation records for more than 1 million children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002. The team recognized that Florida is well-suited to study the role of socioeconomic status because of the state’s large, demographically diverse and socioeconomically heterogeneous population.
This data was measured by contrasting outcomes of opposite-sex siblings linked to birth mothers by using administrative records. Previous studies observed that boys raised in single-parent families had twice the rate of behavioral and disciplinary issues as boys raised in two-parent homes. They were also twice as likely to be suspended by the eighth grade.
In the Florida study, boys born to a low-education and unmarried mother, living in low-income neighborhoods, and enrolled in poor-quality public schools had a higher incidence of absenteeism and behavioral problems throughout their elementary and middle school years. They showed higher rates of behavioral and cognitive disability and performed worse on standardized tests.
They were less likely to graduate and were more apt to commit serious crimes at an early age. Overall, boys’ outcomes vary more across areas than girls, and boys’ outcomes are more affected by neighborhood exposure than are girls.
The researchers argue that the impact of family disadvantage on gender gap is a causal effect of the environment after birth, not before. As evidence, the scientists measured birth weight, APGAR scores (a postnatal assessment to measure a baby’s overall health), the quality of prenatal care, congenital anomalies, maternal health, and labor and delivery complications.
One of the conclusions made by the team was that family disadvantage makes a substantial direct contribution to the gender gap and also an indirect contribution because of its influence on schools and neighborhoods. They also believe that early differences in behavioral and educational outcomes continue into adulthood as young boys and girls leave the school system, begin their employment, pursue higher education, and potentially become parents themselves.