September 23, 2017

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School gender gap grows

Girls are outperforming boys in classrooms in Manitoba and across the globe

<p>Forest Park Elementary School grade 1-2 students take in a presentation about bugs. Girls outperforming boys in the classroom has been a growing trend throughout the province.</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Forest Park Elementary School grade 1-2 students take in a presentation about bugs. Girls outperforming boys in the classroom has been a growing trend throughout the province. Purchase Photo Print

As Manitoba students return to the classroom today, the question that should be asked of the school system is: will this be another year where graduating classes will see boys academically outperformed by girls?

Provincial Grade 12 exam results obtained by the Free Press show, across the board, male students lag behind their female peers.

This persistent gender gap is one the school system has yet to solve, according to records from the 2008-09 to 2015-16 school years. And the problem is not unique to Manitoba.

“Girls performing better than boys has been a growing trend happening internationally,” said Daniel Ansari, a Canada Research Chair in developmental cognitive neuroscience at Western University in Ontario. “It’s tough to know why that persists.”

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As Manitoba students return to the classroom today, the question that should be asked of the school system is: will this be another year where graduating classes will see boys academically outperformed by girls?

Provincial Grade 12 exam results obtained by the Free Press show, across the board, male students lag behind their female peers.

This persistent gender gap is one the school system has yet to solve, according to records from the 2008-09 to 2015-16 school years. And the problem is not unique to Manitoba.

"Girls performing better than boys has been a growing trend happening internationally," said Daniel Ansari, a Canada Research Chair in developmental cognitive neuroscience at Western University in Ontario. "It’s tough to know why that persists."

From English-language arts to all three levels of math during that time span, girls had the higher average mark and higher pass rate, with only a couple of exceptions. The trend continued for French classes in both French-immersion and French-as-a-first-language streams.

Ansari and other education experts say cultural expectations are likely a key factor.

Matthew McKean, head of education research for the Conference Board of Canada, said data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicate more 15-year-old boys cut class and show up late for school in Canada, while girls spend more time doing homework.

"It’s a rubric of issues that needs to be addressed," he said. "The problem persists into post-secondary."

Gilles Fournier, who consulted for the OECD, said boys often want to see a concrete use for what they’re learning.

"They’re more lackadaisical. They learn differently," he said.

He noted American schools are experimenting with later start times, after studies suggested teenage boys need more sleep to learn than girls do.

"The school culture is not as conducive to learning for boys as it is for girls," Fournier said.

Denis Mildon, a long-time educational consultant focused on literature, said the problem is a result of misguided tweaks to elementary curriculum.

'It's a rubric of issues that needs to be addressed. The problem persists into post-secondary' — Matthew McKean, head of education research for the Conference Board of Canada

He said schools have noticed studies that show girls read recreationally more than boys. In response, Mildon said Canadian schools have taken up books about stereotypically masculine topics. But Manitoba boys haven’t closed their six per cent gender gap in literature scores.

"The assumption that boys want to learn about cars is a dangerous one," Mildon said. Instead, schools should recognize boys take up video games, which surround complex storylines akin to fantasy books, he said.

Girls are getting ahead because they’re more willing to complete the tasks assigned to them by authority figures, whereas boys are raised to feel entitled to push back, he added.

"We know (young) women aren’t submissive, but they’ve learned to handle the politics of the classroom better... that you have to do what the professor wants. The fault lies with the profession, not the students."

Anna Stokke of the University of Winnipeg’s mathematics and statistics department says while the gender gap is much less pronounced in math, Manitobans should be alarmed by the overall drop in math scores.

Around 2003, the province took up "discovery-based" or "experiential" learning, which mostly replaced worksheets and timetables with blocks and paper strips. The province reverted to a focus on calculations in 2013, but by then, girls were outpacing boys in math scores. Stokke suspects that’s because girls perform better with story-based tasks.

Stokke says it’s hard to know when the problem starts because Manitoba only tests Grade 12 students and releases limited data. Other provinces have mandatory Grade 6 and 9 testing, and publish their results by school.

"The problem in Manitoba is we don’t actually have these kinds of tests, and transparency to the public. So we don’t know how students are doing; we don’t find out as frequently as in other provinces, where they actually publish data by school," she said.

Manitoba Education Minister Ian Wishart says his government’s trying to bridge the gap, particularly in literacy.

He gave the example of the the Early Years Enhancement Grant, a new fund which lets school divisions target their unique needs, such as smaller class sizes or improved teacher training. The four-year fund’s projects will be independently studied to assess possible changes to how Manitobans are taught.

"Teachers are encouraged to consider the learning needs and interests of each child at the classroom level, to help them succeed," Wishart wrote.

Last May, the province introduced a Framework for Continuous Improvement, which this year asks school divisions to "set realistic and measurable targets for increasing student achievement in literacy and numeracy."

University of Winnipeg education professor Laura Sokal hopes that means Canadians will take the gender gap seriously. It’s an issue she researched from 1998 to 2010, and since then she’s seen limited data come out from Canadian researchers, despite a continued interest in other countries.

"There was a lot more attention to it when I was studying it, and I find there is less attention now," she said. "It seems like it is just accepted as the way things are."

— with files from Nick Martin

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Dylan Robertson.

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History

Updated on Wednesday, September 6, 2017 at 12:07 PM CDT: Corrects reference to French-language instruction.

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