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How Mixed-Gender Classes Might Help Boys Read Better

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 28, 2017 4 min read
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Girls often outperform boys in reading, but a new international study suggests having more girls as classmates may give high school boys an achievement boost, too.

Using data from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, a benchmarking test of 15-year-olds in 33 countries, researchers led by Margriet van Hek, a sociologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, looked at how school characteristics affected boys’ and girls’ reading performance. They found girls scored nearly 30 points higher than boys on a 600-point reading scale, and all students scored better when girls made up at least 60 percent of students in the school.

In the study, published in the Journal of School Effectiveness and School Improvement, the researchers analyzed the concentration of poverty, the percentage of teachers with a college degree, and the proportion of girls to boys, in each school. On average across more than 281,000 students in more than 10,000 schools, students had higher reading scores in low-poverty schools and schools where a majority of teachers had a college degree. But van Hek also found that, while students in the lowest-poverty schools had higher reading performance overall than those in the highest-poverty schools, girls’ reading was affected more strongly by a school’s resources, while climate was slightly more associated with boys’ achievement.

“Boys’ poorer reading performance really is a widespread but unfortunately also understudied problem,” van Hek said. “Our study shows that the issue is reinforced when boys attend schools with a predominantly male student population.”

The study, however, did not include boys-only international schools. Leonard Sax, an advocate for single-gender schools and author of Why Gender Matters, argued, “this study is more evidence in support of an already-robust empirical finding, namely: If you are going to offer a co-ed classroom, try to have a majority of girls in the classroom.”

‘Distinct Opportunities’

The findings are likely to add to ongoing debate about when and whether boys and girls should learn together, as enrollment in single-gender schools surges nationwide and several of the country’s biggest districts, including Dallas and Washington, experiment with the model.

An Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data found there were 283 single-gender, traditional public schools nationwide, including charter schools, as of the most recent data in 2014-15. That’s a 67 percent jump in the last five years, and the number of students enrolled in those schools has more than doubled in that time. Education Week found students in single-gender schools in the United States are more likely to be poor and of black or Hispanic backgrounds—and more girls than boys are enrolled.

Erin Pahlke, an assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College in Washington, was not part of the Netherlands study but said its results didn’t surprise her. Prior research, she said, has suggested boys are more likely to be focused and better behaved in classes where they are outnumbered by girls. “One argument is it changes the classroom behavior, and so impacts the amount of on-task time in the classroom,” Pahlke said. “That’s powerful and important.”

But Bradford Giola, the headmaster of the 775-boy Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tenn., argued a single-gender class can buoy boys’ interest in reading. “I don’t believe boys’ schools, girls’ schools, public or private schools are better by the nature of what they are; I believe culture decides what is a great school. However, there are elements of being a boys’ school that can provide distinct differences and opportunities,” said Giola, who also teaches a senior English class at the 7-12 school. He added, “Girls are typically much better readers, but in a boys’ school you can teach a love of reading, you can help them get beyond the stereotypes ... and help the boys understand the interior world of the written world and how it connects to their own interior world.”

Van Hek and her colleagues also compared reading performance in schools whose principals reported high or low levels of student absenteeism, bullying, disrespect of teachers, and other markers of a school’s overall climate. Both boys and girls performed better in reading in schools rated in the best quarter for school climate, versus those with the worst climate—but the benefit for boys was 9 points greater on the PISA scale than the benefit for girls. Yet, a good school climate alone did not account for the difference in boys’ performance, she found.

Pahlke noted that the findings might be less about gender than about high achievement; if girls on average outperform boys in reading, then boys in a class of mostly girls may be surrounded by high-achieving students, changing the tenor of the classroom.

“Part of the answer could be around how we socialize kids in terms of gender stereotypes,” she said. “We should be making sure that boys see models like male teachers and we are consistently giving the message that thinking critically and focusing is something for both boys and girls.”

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Research Analyst Alex Harwin conducted the data analysis for this report.
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as How Mixed-Gender Classes Might Help Boys Improve Reading Skills

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