Do Girls Perform Better in School?

Research explores gender differences in the classroom.

Posted Aug 23, 2018

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Kids across the nation are getting ready to go back to school. For boys and girls, that means the excitement of seeing friends and learning new subjects. But does gender make a difference?

A meta-analysis published by the American Psychological Association examines gender differences in schools across 300 countries and over nearly one hundred years. The findings may surprise you.

It turns out girls have been getting better grades than boys for decades. Girls not only do markedly better in language classes, but they also outperform boys in math and science. (The female advantage in school performance in math and science does not appear until the adolescent years.)

The review includes 300 studies involving more than one million participants from across the globe, from elementary school through graduate school. The majority of the participants were from the United States, but there are also children from Europe, Australia and Asia.

While girls received better grades, the evidence shows that boys typically score better on one-time tests, such as the SAT Reasoning Tests, which are used by many colleges in the U.S.

The authors cite a myriad of reasons why girls may be performing better in school, and call for further investigation. It may be that parents encourage girls more than boys because they assume they need more help. Or, schools may be structured in favor of learning styles typically preferred by girls, the authors said.

"One of the big questions this analysis raises is what happens to these gains once individuals enter the professional world, where adult males are more likely than women to hold the highest ranked positions regardless of professional focus or discipline," said Janis Whitlock, a research analyst at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research. “This question, of course, is not novel; shifts in early and later achievement trends by gender have garnered an increasing amount of academic and public attention. Regardless of the reasons for these trends over time, meta-analyses such as this suggest that socialization and gender expectations play a significantly larger role than biologically-based capacity in determining individual academic and professional trajectories over time.”

The take away: The fact that girls perform better in school compared to boys is nothing new. The real question lies in how these gender issues change over time, and what they mean for men and women in the workforce.

Please visit Cornell University's Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.