The global gender gap in education

In the United Kingdom, where the boy-girl testing gap for low achievers is close to zero, single-sex schooling remains popular

By Chris Brueningsen

There’s been much written in recent years about the scholastic “gender gap” between boys and girls. Alarms have been sounded, calling for a solution to the challenges boys are facing in American schools. A recent study suggests that this phenomenon is global.

The report, published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), examines performance differences for boys and girls based on testing data from a half-million 15-year-old students from 65 developed countries. One major conclusion is that “young men are significantly more likely than young women to be less engaged with school and have low skills and poor academic achievement.”

The test measures achievement in reading, math and science. The most dramatic difference is in reading, where girls outperformed boys in all 65 countries. Around 75 percent of girls reported that they read for enjoyment versus 50 percent of boys.

Taking all three subject areas together, boys were dramatically more likely than girls to be classified as low achievers. In fact, 60 percent of the lowest achievers were boys.

The OECD examined an associated survey taken by the students who were tested in order to uncover some of the reasons boys are struggling. In almost every country, more boys than girls classified school as a waste of time. Boys were also more inclined to cut classes and skip school and they were more likely to repeat a grade.

Given this lower level of engagement, it’s no surprise that another finding is that boys do less homework than girls. For the countries in the OECD study, boys did an average of 4.5 hours of homework each week compared with girls, who did 5.5 hours.

For all 65 test-taking countries, boys far outpaced girls in the group of low achievers. What factors are influencing outcomes for countries where the male-female achievement gap is much lower?

In the United Kingdom, where the boy-girl testing gap for low achievers is close to zero, single-sex schooling remains popular. A 2012 study by the National Foundation for Educational Research of 370,000 students at public high schools in England concluded that the academic performance of girls and boys from single-sex schools was significantly better than that of students from coeducational schools. A ranking of U.K. schools based on nationally administered tests indicated that seven of the top 10 schools were single-sex and among the top 50 schools, 35 were single-sex.

In Australia, where the proportion of single-sex schools is slightly higher than in the U.K., the OECD gap is less than half what it is in the U.S.

Japan is another country where single-sex schooling is prevalent. For Japanese students taking the OECD test, the gender gap for low-achieving boys and girls was only 2 percent.

Recently, The Japan Times reported on secondary school rankings based on university entrance exam results. The top seven high schools in the number of graduates entering the University of Tokyo were all-boys schools. An all-girls school ranked eighth.

The OECD study makes clear that young men all over the world are experiencing scholastic challenges that can’t be ignored. The key is finding ways to help boys become more actively engaged in school. As we explore solutions to this global problem, single-sex education is a schooling model that deserves thoughtful consideration.

Chris Brueningsen is the headmaster of the Kiski School in Saltsburg.