Politics & Policy

The Boys Left Behind

The gender graduation gap.

The educational achievement differences between white and minority students are well documented and universally understood. Less appreciated, however, is the gap in educational performance between the sexes. In a new Manhattan Institute study we find that females graduate high school at substantially higher rates than males. Importantly, while the gender gap is relatively small for white and Asian students, it is particularly large for blacks and Hispanics.

#ad#It is no longer a secret that alarmingly high numbers of students drop out of high school. Several independent calculations of the high-school graduation rate, including ours, confirm that around 30 percent of all students drop out. The figures are even more staggering when evaluated by race. While 78 percent of white students and 72 percent of Asian students graduated in the class of 2003, only 55 percent of black and 53 percent of Hispanic students earned a diploma.

In our latest calculations we discover that within the racial graduation gap there is a hidden gender gap as well. We estimate that while an already low 72 percent of female students graduate from high school, only 65 percent of male students earned a diploma. These figures are consistent with other evidence. On the latest administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a highly respected standardized test given to a nationally representative group of students by the U.S. Department of Education, 34 percent of public-school eighth-grade females could read at the “proficient” level or above compared to only 24 percent of males.

Notably, while females of all racial groups graduate at higher rates than their male counterparts, the size of this gap differs substantially by race. The difference in graduation rates between females and males was about five-percentage points for white students and only 3 percentage points for Asian students. Among Hispanic and black female students the graduation rates are 58 percent and 59 percent, respectively, compared to 49 percent for Hispanic males and 48 percent for black males. Thus, the gender gap is twice as large for minority students as for white students.

Future research is necessary to provide a full explanation for why the gender graduation gap exists and why this disparity is particularly large for minority students. Until such time there are a few hypotheses that deserve attention.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers argues that, contrary to popular belief, public schools have focused their instruction on female students to the detriment of males. Such neglect could help explain the gender graduation gap.

Explaining the disparity between male and female graduation rates by race is an even more interesting problem. We suspect that for minority students the substantially larger gender gap could be explained by a “push-pull” phenomenon that is particularly strong for minority males.

Black and Hispanic males might feel a “pull” out of high school because they are disproportionably attracted to short-term opportunities in the employment market. Jobs in construction, for example, might pay what appear to be relatively high salaries for a low-income minority student. Further, it is possible that the underground economy, including the drug trade, attracts a disproportionate number of minority male students.

Minority males might also be “pushed” from the graduation roles by their schools. While we suspect this does not describe most teachers, it is possible that some educators find black and Hispanic males particularly threatening relative to other students and are thus more likely to give up on them more quickly.

The gender gap in graduation is but one of the many problems facing American education. Even when we account for the disparity in graduation rates between males and females, overall graduation rates are far too low and the difference in graduation rates by race is simply horrific. While most agree that public education needs to improve across the board, it appears that minority male students have it the worst. Understanding both the racial and gender gaps in graduation rates should allow us to focus our reform efforts where the problems are most severe.

Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas as well as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where Marcus A. Winters is a senior research associate. They are authors of Education Myths.

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