Two researchers at the University of California, Davis, are proposing that differences in sleep cycles between boys and girls help explain the gender performance gap.
That’s the interesting theory behind a new paper that was released this summer by the Institute for the Study of Labor, a private, independent research institute based in Germany. It’s believed to be the first study to find a connection between later school start times and improved academic performance by boys relative to girls.
Lester Lusher is one of the co-authors of the paper titled, “Gender Performance Gaps: Quasi-Experimental Evidence on the Role of Gender Differences in Sleep Cycles”, and a Ph.D. student in economics.
Lusher and fellow UC Davis doctoral candidate Vasil Yasenov studied data from a group of middle and high schools in Eastern Europe where students alternate school start times each month. So, for example, one month middle school students would start class at 7:30 a.m. and high school classes would begin at 1:30 p.m. Then the following month they would switch with high school students starting class earlier and middle school students beginning later. This went on for the entire school year.
“That’s pretty popular in less developed countries,” said Lusher. “They did this for a variety of reasons. They wanted to be as fair as possible.”
The researchers looked at all of the students’ grades from month-to-month and compared their performance in the afternoon versus the morning from 2008-2014. During each rotation, students had the same teachers and took their courses in the same order.
“We find that girls outperform boys overall, but when we look at the gender gap in the afternoon class assignments versus the morning class assignments. the gender gap is narrowed,” said Lusher. “In the afternoon, the boys catch up to the girls—not entirely—but the gender gap is closed partially.”
Role of Sleep Cycles
He and Yasenov theorize this could be due to gender differences when it comes to sleep. Their work builds upon previous studies, which found that girls deal with sleep deprivation more successfully than boys and are more likely to be early risers, while boys’ circadian rhythms make them more likely to stay up later and wake later in the morning.
“We find that the effects are especially strong for first period classes as opposed to later period classes,” said Lusher. “The gap is narrowed the most in these classes.”
Lusher acknowledges that there could be other forces at play here, and his paper is still going through the peer review process. But his findings do give schools something else to consider when it comes to start times. In recent years, we’ve seen several school districts implement later start times in response to a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that school not start earlier than 8:30 a.m. in order to better align with the natural body rhythms of adolescents.
“What this suggests directly, if the mechanism is sleep and a gender differential response to lack of sleep, policies like those would maybe differentially benefit boys,” said Lusher.
But Lusher’s paper doesn’t make policy recommendations in this regard, and he notes that more research is needed.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Hey, we should do afternoon schooling, or hey, we should split boys from girls,’ but it is a data point potentially in that direction,” said Lusher.
Photo: Research has shown that boys struggle more to catch up after sleep deprivation than girls. (Getty)
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.