When your elementary school-aged son gets in trouble for acting up in class or playing too rough with another student, you might not be surprised if the teacher keeps him in from recess. But what if acting up was hurting his math grade?
It’s a topic of concern to some moms who worry that their sons’ “boys-will-be-boys” sensibilities make them less successful in a rigid, traditional classroom setting. Now a new study finds that boys in elementary school earned lower grades than they would have based on test scores, mostly because their teachers held their classroom behavior against them.
"Boys get lower grades than what their test scores would suggest and girls get higher grades than what their test scores would suggest,” said Jessica Van Parys, a co-author of the study published this month in The Journal of Human Resources and doctoral economics student at Columbia University.
“It shows that the gender differences in education emerge very early and it points to one potential explanation for why girls are outperforming boys in years of schooling and academic achievement,” Van Parys said. "It’s a piece to a very big puzzle.”
The findings don’t surprise Stacey Sypko, a 48-year-old stay-at-home mom from New York, who wonders if her 8-year-old son’s “wiggle worm” behavior may be impacting his grades.
“He’s very social,” she said of her oldest, now in third grade. “He can’t sit long without having to lean over to a friend. He’s very chatty and wants to have a good time. We’ve been hearing about that since he was in pre-K.”
Does the new study concern Sypko?
“It does worry me,” she said. “I know some of his teachers have less patience for his behavior. He’ll be graded lower in their classes than in his home room. Maybe because they have him for less time than the other teachers, so they’re more aware of the kids that are disrupting everything.”
According to the study, disruptive behavior may indeed be working against the wiggle worms of the world.
Van Parys and co-researchers analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics involving about 6,000 mostly white, black and Hispanic students from around the country who were followed from kindergarten through fifth grade, starting in the 1998-1999 school year.
Students were given tests in reading, math and science, while teachers also rated students’ abilities in all three areas, as well as rated them on classroom behaviors. The study found that when assessing kids’ academic abilities, the teachers factored in their classroom behaviors.
This ultimately helped the girls and hurt boys. The girls scored about 15 percent higher in behavior (also called ”non-cognitive skills”), which meant they earned better grades than boys, even though they didn’t score as high on the tests.
“Our point is that teachers take into account other factors, either consciously or unconsciously, when they rate the child’s ability on all kinds of subject areas,” Van Parys said. “It’s hard for teachers to be completely objective when they’re giving an assessment.”
Some education experts say that such a bias against boys is possible because of such long-held stereotypes that “boys will be boys” - fidgety, unfocused and unruly at school - while girls should sit quietly, pay attention and act ladylike.
“It is possible and also likely, given that teachers enter schools and classrooms with particular expectations and gender stereotypes, that they very likely play themselves out in evaluating student work and discipline and the ways a teacher interacts with students,” said Shaun Harper, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and expert in gender and education.
He recommended improved training for future and current teachers that allows them "to reflect deeply on the stereotypes and the ways they’ve been socialized to think about gender.”
The study, he said, “calls attention for the need for deeper conversations, more conscious-raising among teachers, parents and others about the stereotypes and gender expectations that follow girls and boys through all levels of schools.”
Lisa Fiore, dean of faculty at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., agreed that teachers could potentially be biased against boys, but also said standardized tests have inherent biases that could be unfair to kids who lacked expected behaviors.
“My instinct is to say that maybe the test isn’t accurate,” she said. “Test scores are a lovely example of children’s knowledge and skills but they’re absolutely not the end-all, be-all. For me, a grade students would receive would take into account more than a single test score. ... I’m wondering if a teacher’s grade is more accurate.”
Heidi Sykes, a kindergarten teacher in Susquehanna Township, Pa., who has also taught first grade, said in her experience, the students who act up in her classroom are about evenly split down gender lines. And she didn’t think that - she really hoped that - students' behavior influenced her grades.
“I want to know what they know,” Sykes said. “I don’t care if they’re acting out. It’s two different things. There’s behavior and there’s aptitude. It can’t mix.”