New research, by Dr Julie Moschion, from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research and Deborah Cobb-Clark, from the University of Sydney, has dispelled the myth that “boys are just better at school than girls or vice versa”.
Together, Cobb-Clark and Moschion interrogated the source of the gender gap using data on third-grade numeracy and reading in Australia.
“Exploiting data from the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Children, in which information on child development reported by parents and teachers is linked to each child’s NAPLAN results, we evaluated the contribution of a large number of individual, family and school factors to these gender gaps,” Moschion explained.
“In particular, information on parents’ expectations for and investments in their children, as well as each child’s school readiness, allowed us to distinguish between gender gaps that exist before children start school from those that emerge after.”
Moschion said that, consistent with international evidence, Australian girls in low and middle-SES families score better in reading, while boys in high-SES families score better in numeracy.
“This supports the notion that skill advantages are not naturally gendered but are the result of complex human capital formation processes. And what creates these differences varies between boys and girls,” she said.
Moschion pointed to research that shows girls’ advantage in reading originates even before starting school.
“They score better on school readiness tests at four years old, and have better teacher-assessed literacy skills than boys in kindergarten. In contrast, boys’ advantage in numeracy develops later and appears more complex,” she said.
“Before school, high-SES boys do not have more of the characteristics that are associated with higher numeracy test scores than their female peers.”
For example, high-SES boys are less ready for school than girls at four years-old and score the same as girls on a cognitive development test at six years-old.
“In essence, boys are able to produce better outputs with lower inputs,” Moschion explained.
“Overall, the complex pattern of gender gaps across subject areas and family circumstances makes it unlikely that a single overarching process drives the relationship between gender and educational achievement.”
As a result, says Moschion, different approaches are needed to address gaps in numeracy and in reading.
Victorian Principals Association (VPA) president, Anne-Maree Kliman, told the Herald Sun that children who weren’t read to at home were “behind the Eight ball” in the classroom.
“Because of their low socio-economic background there may not be the tools in their home, like books and puzzles, that develop pre-reading and pre-literacy skills,” she said.
“There is also some truth to the fact that girls develop language skills quicker than boys. Girls tend to be more inclined to listen to stories than boys. But boys tend to be more hands on and fiddling with counters or objects to learn counting that way.”