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Elementary School Bias Against Boys Sets Them Up For Failure: Study

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Academics from the University of Georgia and Columbia University think they have more insight into why girls earn higher grades on report cards than boys do, despite the fact that girls do not necessarily outperform boys on achievement or IQ tests.

Christopher Cornwell, head of economics at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business, UGA's David Mustard and Columbia's Jessica Van Parys have published a study that they say shows "gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls."

The researchers analyzed data from 5,800 elementary school students and found that boys performed better on standardized exams in math, reading and science than their course grades reflected. The authors suggest that girls are truly only outperforming boys in "non-cognitive approaches to learning" -- defined as attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization -- leading to better grades from teachers. The study is published in the latest issue of The Journal of Human Resources.

Cornwell said in a statement Wednesday that worse grades place boys at a disadvantage for future opportunities, adding that the divide is further worsened by increased competition for jobs as women increasingly enter the workforce.

"The trajectory at which kids move through school is often influenced by a teacher's assessment of their performance, their grades. This affects their ability to enter into advanced classes and other kinds of academic opportunities, even post-secondary opportunities," Cornwell said. "It's also typically the grades you earn in school that are weighted the most heavily in college admissions. So if grade disparities emerge this early on, it's not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned."

The study falls short of calling teachers sexist, but points to the fact that the majority of elementary educators are female, for the first time suggesting that a gender gap persists as a function of educators' behavioral perception of their students.

A study similar to Cornwell, et al.'s concluded in August 2011 that girls tended to earn higher GPAs, despite earning similar scores to boys on standardized exams, in part because they show more self-discipline.

Other findings contradict some of Cornwell's points. Women are proving to score higher on IQ tests than men, and a spring study out of the University of Texas at Austin argues that teachers do tend to show gender bias, but in favor of boys, specifically in math.

Researchers from the University of Missouri found in July that boys' classroom behavior can actually work in their favor by the time they enter middle school: Their impulsive approach -- calling out answers in class, for example -- eventually proved to yield more correct answers.

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