Viewpoint: Girls and Boys, Math and Reading

By Sue Pascoe

When my three children attended public schools in Pacific Palisades, there were two subjects I felt needed to be emphasized: math and reading. If kids read well, they can read directions and are able to figure out any other subject, including history social studies, English, science and the subject du jour.

Kids also need to do well in math. There’s an order and a system. Math is a game, the rules are straightforward, even though the way to get to the answer can be creative.

In college, I particularly liked math. Unlike classes where written essays were always scored higher if your words aligned with the professor’s beliefs, math was different. The right answer was not open to interpretation.

I learned in newspaper stories in 1993 that I was a statistical anomaly, that girls didn’t do well in math. On every level, the push was to help girls close the gender gap in math and science.

According to a March L.A. Daily News article, girls now constitute about half the enrollment in high school science and math classes. They are scoring almost identically to their male classmates on standardized tests, according to data compiled by the National Girls Collaborative Project, a nonprofit funded in part by the National Science Foundation that aims to increase girls’ participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

The article goes on to say that girls still lag behind in employment in STEM careers, because they hesitate pursuing those subjects in college. At Cal State universities, women make up 55 percent of all undergraduates, and at UC schools, they are 52 percent of the enrollment.

And boys? According to a story in the Washington Times last October, a survey by the Center for Education Policy found that “in every state and in every grade, boys are trailing behind girls in reading, [and it’s] the most pressing gender gap facing our schools.

“Over the past quarter-century graduation rates have steadily increased among young women, but not for young men. Barely 40 percent of the college graduates in one recent year in the United States were male, according to the Center for Education Policy. Many teachers and administrators think this is directly related to the habits of reading that boys develop in the early grades, and continue through high school.

“Since the National Assessment of Education Progress began measuring this gap in the late 1960s, with measurements taken at ages 9, 13 and 17, the gap has fluctuated. In 2004, the gap in the fourth grade narrowed to 5 points, but had expanded by 3 points four years later. The gap in high school was a stunning 11 points.”

In a 2016 Finnish psychological study, “Less Physical Activity Tied to Lagging Reading in Boys,” published in the Journal of Science and Medicine and Sport, “Researchers discovered high levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and low levels of sedentary time in first grade were related to better reading skills in grades one to three among boys.

“‘Conversely, boys who had a combination of low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary time had the poorest reading skills through grades one to three,’ said researcher Eero Haapala, Ph.D.”

Interestingly, girls did not show the same association between physical activity and performance skills. Do girls still need special help with math/science? Do boys need special help with reading? Do they need recess?

The 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a survey done every three years with 15-year-olds, focuses on science, reading and math. In the last study, 72 countries participated from around the world. When one looks at the math rankings, Asian countries outperform all other countries, with Singapore leading the pack. In some countries, boys outperform girls by eight points, except in Asian countries, where there is no difference. In nine countries, girls outperformed boys. The United States was 40th overall, with no statistical gender differences between boys and girls.

Singapore also outscored every country in science, followed by Japan, Estonia, Finland and Canada. In the United States, the gender difference was not statistically significant and we ranked 25th.

Reading and boys? Another story. In the 2012 PISA, when 65 countries were tested, girls outperformed boys by an average of 32 points and in the United States, we were slightly better, with girls outscoring boys by about 25 points.

Three years later, the survey found that across all countries and economies, girls outperformed boys in reading by an average of 27 points. Of 71 countries tested, 15-year-old boys in the United States ranked 56th and the gender gap was not statistically different than the one observed in 2009.

The top-scoring country in reading was Singapore, followed by Canada, Finland and Hong Kong. Next were Estonia, Ireland, Japan, Korea and Norway. They were followed by 13 other countries and finally the United States tied with China, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and Vietnam.

Two education questions to ponder as this school year starts. What is Singapore doing in education that our country could replicate? Why isn’t there an outcry about boys lagging so far behind in reading?

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