The New York Times dubiously blamed girlish stereotypes and traditionalism in affluent districts for girls’ (relative) lack of representation among high-achievers in math in “Where Boys Outperform Girls in Math: Rich, White and Suburban Districts,” featured prominently in the news section of Sunday’s paper. As scholar and author Christine Sommers noted, “This New York Times article documents a large reading gap favoring girls and a small math gap that sometimes favors boys. Guess which gap is presented as a big problem?”
In much of the country, the stereotype that boys do better than girls at math isn’t true -- on average, they perform about the same, at least through eighth grade. But there’s a notable exception.
In school districts that are mostly rich, white and suburban, boys are much more likely to outperform girls in math, according to a new study from Stanford researchers, one of the most comprehensive looks at the gender gap in test scores at the school district level.
On English tests, girls test better than boys regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic status.
Reporters Claire Cain Miller and Kevin Quealy quickly skipped over that inconvenient data point, for the Times-approved take on things: Blame latent sexism for any gap where girls do worse.
But on math tests, boys from richer districts tend to test better than girls from richer districts.
The research, based on 260 million standardized test scores for third through eighth graders in nearly every district in the country, suggests that local norms influence how children perform in school from early ages -- and that boys are much more influenced than girls.
The Times again skipped past a pretty stark finding:
The study included test scores from the 2008 to 2014 school years for 10,000 of the roughly 12,000 school districts in the United States. In no district do boys, on average, do as well or better than girls in English and language arts. In the average district, girls perform about three-quarters of a grade level ahead of boys.
But in math, there is nearly no gender gap, on average. Girls perform slightly better than boys in about a quarter of districts -- particularly those that are predominantly African-American and low-income. Boys do slightly better in the rest -- and much better in high-income and mostly white or Asian-American districts.
The reporters jumped to a feminist conclusion.
The gender achievement gap in math reflects a paradox of high-earning parents. They are more likely to say they hold egalitarian views about gender roles. But they are also more likely to act in traditional ways -- father as breadwinner, mother as caregiver.
The gap was largest in school districts in which men earned a lot, had high levels of education, and were likely to work in business or science. Women in such districts earned significantly less. Children might absorb the message that sons should grow up to work in high-earning, math-based jobs.
High-income parents spend more time and money on their children, and invest in more stereotypical activities, researchers said, enrolling their daughters in ballet and their sons in engineering.
Although well-off districts encourage boys in math, they don’t seem to encourage girls in the same way. Researchers say it probably has to do with deeply ingrained stereotypes that boys are better at math.
Even liberal Times readers weren’t convinced. Many of the commenters excoriate the story’s emphasis:
“Drawing conclusions from data is the scientific method, ignoring data to fit a pre-determined conclusion is dogma.”
“This is troubling to be sure. But why isn't the arguably more troubling gap in reading outcomes for boys the headline? Is it because we simply do not value language, literacy, and the humanities in the face of the all holy STEM?”