Girls Outperform Boys: 3 Reasons to Worry

We all know the stereotype: girls outperform boys in reading and boys outperform girls in math and science. It’s what I grew up believing and definitely bought into hook, line, and sinker. So did all my male math and science teachers. In my math classes they told me not to worry that I didn’t understand, and in physics, I was called the "dumb brunette." Need I say more.


The boys around me also bought into their role and didn’t read, except for the “nerds.” My high school boyfriend nearly failed out of school because he couldn’t stand what he was expected to read in his classes, but at home, he read comic books all the time. His home reading saved him, and today he is a college professor.

STEM Mindset Shift

Today, with the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiative about 10 years old, the former stereotype for girls no longer holds true like it once did. If I were in middle school right now, not back in the early 1980s, I’d most likely read books AND do STEM too.

It’s amazing the mindset shift that has opened up the doors for girls to break free from the “Girls don’t do STEM!” shackles.The most recent test administered to 8th graders by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) called the Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) Assessment, confirms the shift. It focused solely on the “T” and “E” in STEM using interactive, multi-stepped and scenario-based tasks, and guess what?

8th grade girls outperformed the 8th grade boys on every part of the assessment.

Great News for Girls

This is great news! And being female, I’m definitely excited to see both the attitude towards girls and aptitude of girls’ blossom and change.However, as an educator, citizen and human being, I can’t help worrying and wondering what’s happening to our boys and why we haven’t stepped up for boys and reading the way we did with girls and the STEM areas?

Worried about Boys

In my book, Boys and Books, I share my 20+ years of being concerned and what I did to reverse the reading stereotype of boys. I also go in-depth about the history and recent trends regarding boys’ alarming results on reading assessments, making the results from this recent NAEP assessment critical to digest for three reasons.

Reason 1: Boys are losing even more academic ground

Not only did 8th grade girls outperform boys on the TEL, but they are also closing the math achievement gap. Yet, the huge reading achievement gap between boys and girls continues to persist. This means 8th grade boys are falling behind in all areas of their academics. Just because they want to be engineers and enjoy playing video games, no longer is enough for boys to succeed as adults in the ‘real world.’ They need our help today!

Reason 2: Focusing only on girls is short-sighted

Two MIT economists, David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, share in their article, “Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education,” that just because men still overwhelmingly hold the top positions and have political and societal power today, it’s critical to go deeper than the surface. “When we move to the realm of more ordinary people we see… ‘a tectonic shift. Over the last three decades, the labor market trajectory of males in the U.S. has turned downward along four dimensions: skill acquisition; employment rates; occupational stature; and real wage levels.’…Women’s success has come about, in part, because of failure on the part of men.

Boys are not gaining what they need from their education, and the more we keep only focusing on girls and their learning, we will continue to lose more males in the process. It’s not what was set out to do, but between boys not reading and now being outperformed in content they love, it’s an unintended consequence.

Reason 3: Boys and girls are interdependent

Dr. Michael Gurian, co-founder of The Gurian Institute and the Helping Boys Thrive Summit states, “Our genders are utterly interdependent and the disturbing loss of our males is beginning to significantly harm our females as well.

”As a female educator, I always wondered, “What kind of men will become our girls’ husbands and work colleagues if we don’t nurture boys’ learning and education along with their learning?

In my literacy classroom, I intentionally created and deliberately designed an environment where both genders could be more successful by working together. Boys and girls learned how to appreciate and utilize what each brought to the table, and I made sure as the adult in the room, everyone was encouraged to become the best version of themselves. No matter their gender.

Even though my teaching was what I call, “boy-responsive,” girls also thrived in this environment because it focused on choice, movement and social interaction. Both boys and girls learned to trust and understand each other in a significant way that allowed them to re-imagine their future possibilities.

It’s time we change the stereotypes surrounding gender and academics. We need to want both boys and girls to read and boys and girls to do STEM. Until boys are reading, both our boys’ and our girls’ futures are at risk.

Let’s work together to bust these academic stereotypes!

Your turn: How are you busting academic stereotypes?

Hillary Tubin

Hi, I’m Hillary Tubin, the straight-talking Boy-Responsive Literacy Consultant for parents ready for a different approach so that their 9-14-year-old sons WILL read books: no gimmicks, quick fixes or one size fits all.