Why Girls Are Better


Christina Hoff Sommers and other “conservatives” have been arguing for awhile that public education in America discriminates against boys, because feminists run education and they are mean. And no wonder girls do better in school, they say, because passive little girls are better able to sit still at a desk and learn stuff, while boys need to be allowed to burn off their male energy by terrorizing the first graders and trashing the library, or something.

Admittedly, since the 1960s there has been a lot of focus on how to boost the self-esteem of girls, both in and out of schools. But building self-esteem isn’t zero-sum; there’s no logical reason to think that encouraging girls to do better would cause boys to shrink into the wallpaper. And, anyway, boys have gone through school sitting at desks and learning stuff from women teachers for many generations, and it seems odd that this has only recently become oppressive.

Also, there’s no clear-cut evidence that boys do better in all-male schools than in co-ed schools. You can find a lot of arguments that boys do better in all-male academies, but the data is ambiguous; there are no effects that can’t be accounted for by other factors, such as family affluence. See also “Single-Sex Education Is Assailed in Report.”

I found one study that says that, in absolute terms, boys are actually learning more than they used to. The difference is that girls are learning way more than they used to. I don’t personally think this is a problem that needs to be fixed.

I bring this up because of an article at Salon that women tend to be more cautious and rational at playing odds, while men are more likely to take crazy risks. This is hardly news, of course. Men tend to be overconfident, often foolishly so, and will rush in where angels fear to tread. Women are more likely to hold back until they see they have a strong chance of succeeding.

How does this relate to school? The Salon article says there is a lot of data showing that boys excel at finite games, or competitions that have a clear beginning, middle, end, winners, losers. But school is an infinite game. It goes on for years, and there is no clearly marked ending where the prizes are handed out. For this reason, in a very competitive academic environment, boys are more likely than girls to burn out, especially if they aren’t at the top of the class.

Put another way, girls are more satisfied with approval, from their peers and from adults. They don’t have to “win.” But boys who are consistently not winning, even though they are doing well, are more likely to get discouraged and quit. Data show that, all other things being equal, smart girls thrive in a competitive academic environment, but smart boys learn more in an academic environment that is less competitive.

There is something to be said for risk-taking, of course, and sometimes the damnfool things men do actually pay off. As far as school is concerned, the data suggests the boys may benefit from smaller classes more than girls do.

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  1. Bill Bush  •  Feb 18, 2013 @12:27 pm

    The false dichotomy is such a waste of time. Different kids learn in different ways and prefer different methods of learning. I have only 36 years in the classroom to back that up, so take it for what it is worth. One-size-fits-all usually means lots of sags and wrinkles, accompanied by stretches, torn seams and general poor fit.

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Feb 18, 2013 @1:31 pm

    “As far as school is concerned, the data suggests the boys may benefit from smaller classes more than girls do.”

    If that’s true, then maybe the way to pitch this to the politicians, is to tell them that further budget cuts to school districts will only help their daughters and granddaughters, and hurt their sons and grandsons.

    And this play on misogyny will probably work better on the Conservatives.

    I was a substitute teach in JHS and HS, an Adjunct Professor in a college for 7 years, and a corporate trainer for almost 20 years, and I agree with what Bill Bush wrote, which is to basically remember not to use too broad a brush when you’re painting, lest the windows end up with as much paint as the walls.
    Different people learn different things, at different rates, by a variety of differing methods.
    The key to being a good teacher/instructor/trainer, is to identify what a learner’s strengths are, and how (or by what method) they learn best, and maximize their learning experience.
    The best teachers are open-minded, not the ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ types, which is why the field of education is commonly thought to be Liberal – it is.

  3. Swami  •  Feb 18, 2013 @2:30 pm

    I agree with both Bill Bushand Gulag…My theory is we all have a given level of intelligence or ability to learn, but the teacher is instrumental in cultivating that intelligence..I know in my case I had subjects where I excelled and subjects I did very poorly in…and looking back I can see that the teacher was critical to the learning process…If I couldn’t see how something would apply in real life or spark an interest in a subject..I would just do the minimum to get by…I had certain teachers, for whatever reason,I would seek their approval and perform accordingly..

    When I think of Bush’s( Dubya )no child left behind I could almost scream..It’s on par with that wall they’re building between the US and Mexico, or the global war on Terra. They should trust that teachers choose their profession based on a personal satifaction and it’s that love for what they do that will give the most benefit to American education.
    The reug’s want to paint them as bottom rung people who can’t make it in the business community. They can’t apprieciate the value of American educators.

  4. c u n d gulag  •  Feb 18, 2013 @2:35 pm

    Here’s the exception to the rule, if the rational for “why girls are better” is really true:


    Sarah’s going to leave some of her diarrhetic word-turds at the CPAC this year, where she’s one of the whiners… er… uhm… speakers!

  5. Swami  •  Feb 18, 2013 @3:00 pm

    Don’t forget to give testosterone its fair share of the blame.. It inhibits the thinking process. Believe me..I know! If I didn’t sit next to Janet Anderson in 7th grade math..I’d probably be working for NASA right now.

  6. Swami  •  Feb 18, 2013 @3:16 pm

    The only reason Sarah is going to be at CPAC this year is to make Rubio look like a gem in comparison. The Repugs are putting a lot of stock into pumping Rubio up into something that he isn’t. The Repugs farm team doesn’t look so good to anybody with a brain…..And… I don’t think Sarah did too well on Geography class.

  7. c u n d gulag  •  Feb 18, 2013 @3:22 pm

    There’s no evidence that Sister Sarah of Sitka did well in ANY class!!!

  8. joanr16  •  Feb 18, 2013 @4:49 pm

    When I think of Bush’s( Dubya )no child left behind I could almost scream….

    I know a lot of teachers in both the public and parochial systems, whose classes range from first grade through high school English. I don’t know if NCLB only applies to public schools, but all the teachers are aware of it, and they all believe it to be garbage.

    If I didn’t sit next to Janet Anderson in 7th grade math..I’d probably be working for NASA right now.

    Heh… with me (10th grade) it was Algebra, sitting next to an 11th grade boy named Chris who read those Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars novels that make really crappy movies. I don’t think this is an argument for segregated classrooms, although it may be an argument not to use the wrestling coach to teach Algebra. Chris probably looked even better to me because the teacher made the class subject as interesting as plywood.

  9. Doug  •  Feb 18, 2013 @5:48 pm

    The best History teacher I ever had was Coach Costa, who was the football coach. He knew the material and outlined it like he was diagramming a football play. Which is not to say he taught battles – he saw History as a dynamic thing – a process – rather than a series of static events. He was excited by the interaction and it was contagious.

    Teachers make ALL the difference – the one drawback of unionized schools is that they protect teachers who should be bricklayers. I’m not against unions – they protect teachers from idiot parents and narrow-minded school administrators. NCLB does some things right – standardized national testing compares apples to apples nationwide, but it should not be used as a bludgeon against teachers who may be dealing with language barriers or handicapped students. But supporters of public schools – and I am one – are slow to face the real problem of poor teachers.

  10. Amanda  •  Feb 18, 2013 @7:35 pm

    I feel like boys don’t do as well in school because they don’t think they have to. At least when I was in school, even the smart guys did the bare minimum and it was partly because they “knew” it didn’t matter how well they did, they were going to be fine. There was an entitled attitude to them that all their dreams were going to come true because they were special and it didn’t matter how hard they worked. While the girls felt that if they weren’t first in their class, they were never going to amount to anything.

  11. Paraquat  •  Feb 18, 2013 @9:54 pm

    ‘m surprised that no one has mentioned home schooling yet. It’s real big with the Christian fundies because they don’t want their kids exposed to atheistic “lies” like evolution, sex education and the global warming hoax. Nope, just The Truth as it appears in the Bible.

    I know that my own parents (who weren’t religious fundamentalists by any means) could never have taught me algebra or chemistry. Fortunately, they didn’t try to. Ludicrous to imagine that most parents are well-versed in these subjects and could teach their children. Imagine Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann teaching physics. Right – no wonder the Fox News audience “knows” that global warming is a hoax.

  12. justme277  •  Feb 19, 2013 @3:00 am

    I cannot help but thinking about how this ties into the gun violence situation we face in this country. Perhaps the notion of winning carries over. Something about clear winners and losers struck me.Could it be the way we are conditioning boys thru education that contributes to their competitive drive? And could that carry over into the good guy bad guy world so many men seem to believe they live in?

    For many years I have been thinking this violent pattern we have seen , mostly in men , was related to their up bringing. I have watched with great interest over my life time , families, because I did not have one of my own. I loved to observe my friends when I was young, with their parents. And I noticed a great difference I could never put to words between how the boys were raised and how the girls were raised. Still I see this difference in grown adult men and women in my circles and beyond. Now I am not a parent, so I tread here with the greatest of care and respsect for parents and I am certainly not saying this is always the case with ALL men – this is just my observation: Although I have never understood what I believed the differences some how where what contributed to men /violence connection.. (mean translation I wondered how the parents screwed up their kid)..but what if it is the way we educated boys ? What if it is a combo of how we condition boys as a society , both thru education, and parenting?

    I heard a interesting thing on the radio the other day: A great younger lady , a single mom told of how she got a career in nursing so she could support her child and make him proud and show him the value of having things and working hard. It was a great story and I was proud of her as she painted the picture of her life, but like it or not that kid has a father. Now I am not suggesting they should be married and be a family unit, but it wasn’t all up to her either to be the only one stepping up. As a society, in her story it struck me that yes she needs to be everything she can be for her son..but we/ she doesn’t think a thing of expecting NOTHING of that childs father. So what does that teach her SON about being a man?

    IF the things we see happening with men could be a result of how boys are being conditioned it could be worth asking where it stems from? And where we could make changes? Not only with idea of making changes to curb violence, but to better educate?
    While I certainly don’t see it as a bad thing girls are excelling and I cheer them on!, on the other hand I see something going wrong with men(nothing personal guys I love you!) and I think we better get to the bottom of it pretty damn quick…anyway… worth a thought

  13. erinyes  •  Feb 19, 2013 @9:10 am

    Damn, those mean feminists!
    I always did better in class with teachers who were kind and friendly.
    Even back at Saint Patrick’s elementary when I was subjected to the wrath of the Sisters of Mercy ( they really were nice women, never mean or bitchy)
    The teachers that screwed me up were the football coach who taught algebra, the former Army woman who tried to teach me algebra, and my 6th grade redheaded bitch from hell teacher who LOVED to get her students up at the black board for a humiliation session.( the common thread was the humiliation at the black board, I might as well have been sent to a firing squad, and didn’t learn anything from it anyway)
    It seems my daughter inherited some of my personality; she is a straight “A” college student (she got the math gene from her Mom), and does better with friendly, kind instructors.
    As far as “girls” doing better as students goes, when they reach the age that hormones kick in, ALL bets are off. I remember several straight “A” little girls I went to Catholic school with who turned into raging sex machines in H.S., no longer caring about “grades”.

  14. Cristina  •  Feb 19, 2013 @9:36 am

    I am interested in the link to the article that says there is no benefit of single sex education. I myself went to Wellesley college, a single sex institution and felt that it was an incredibly empowering experience. I was able to concentrate on my studies while dating/having male friends on weekends. I loved it. The article on women and how they perceive/cope with competition was right on; we thrive on it and we use our competitors to bring ourselves up. Could I have had the same empowering experience at a coed school? I doubt it. Freed from worrying about what men students were doing, “better,” in we absolutely spanked in the sciences. This morning I went to tumor board at the hospital where I work; the surgeon, the oncologist, and the pathologist (me) all were at Wellesley together.
    OK I was educated back in the 80s; now maybe this is not such an issue but my understanding is that most female astrophysicists graduate from single sex institutions. Where is the data about how well females do in single sex academic environments? Or perhaps is it just boys do not do well with single sex academics because the are mentally worn down by not consistently not winning.

  15. Bill Bush  •  Feb 19, 2013 @10:16 am

    Re: single sex educational experiences
    I have only one thing I can add to this, and it was told to a graduate class by a professor who was at a UNC branch when it was all-female and after it “went bisexual” as we used to joke. She said that soon after men were on campus, most elected leadership positions became male, elected by the women. In her opinion, it did not just remove a valuable leadership incubator for women, but indicated a problematic lack of self-assertion among the women and an effort to please men at a cost to themselves. Discuss among yourselves.

  16. maha  •  Feb 19, 2013 @11:52 am

    BB, re the all-female school that “went bisexual” — I do not doubt that at all. It’s good for young women to be in situations where they can take charge or draw on their own strengths without guys around, because nine times out of ten the guys will take over and run things while the girls are still putting on their socks, so to speak.

    I remember years ago when I was a Girl Scout camp counselor. Some of the girls (they were 12-year-olds, I think) were crossing the camp lake in a canoe when there was a sudden heavy thunderstorm, and they were caught in the middle of the lake. The canoe capsized. There were no adults with them. But the girls didn’t panic. The canoe was flipped over, bottom up, and they grabbed hands across it and stayed afloat. When a boat reached them to rescue them, they were singing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” I was so proud of them. This is the kind of experience girls only get to have when there are no boys around, because the boys would have been bossing the girls and telling them what to do.