Achievement Gap Widening In Boston Schools — Along Gender Lines

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The news is mixed in a new report (PDF) on the rate at which Boston public school students go to college. On the one hand, a record number of the city's high-school graduates are attending college; on the other hand, the achievement gap appears to be widening, not along race lines, but along gender lines.

The report, by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, says 78 percent of Boston's Class of 2007 went on to either two- or four-year colleges. Yet the overall rate of young women going to college was 10 percentage points higher than young men.

Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies, joined us to talk about the disparity.

Bob Oakes: Tell us some of the reasons we're seeing this. Why is that disparity growing?
FULL REPORT: The Gender Gaps, College Enrollment Rates Of BPS Graduates (PDF)
Andrew Sum: I think there are three or four different reasons for this, Bob. On the one hand, if you look at college attendance in Boston, the exam high schools achieved the highest college-going rates by far across the city.

And as time has gone by, women have tended to become a dominant force in the number of graduates from the city's three exam schools. There are about 150 women who graduate from the exam schools for every 100 men.

Secondly, in high school, Bob, Boston has done a very good job of putting people into school-to-career programs that help prepare them for both the labor market and college. When we look at the gender composition of the school-to-career participants, we also find that women outnumber the number of men there by about 125 per 100.

And third, when they do participate in high school, women are more likely, starting from ninth grade on, to be enrolled in much more intellectually demanding and academically demanding classes, which prepare them to make that choice about entering college when they do graduate.

So if we're going to address this we've got to substantially improve the ability of males and, starting in the ninth grade, to be prepared for and gain access to those courses in high school that will put them on a track to enable them to succeed in getting in to college when they do graduate.

Are boys in elementary school and in middle schools in Boston less prepared for high school than girls?

I think the evidence on that on looking at MCAS test scores and looking at the number of students that take the academic exams to obtain access to the exam schools, Bob, suggest that that clearly is the case.

For boys in the big cities we've got to do a much better job, because underneath all this, Bob, there is an enormous gulf in the labor market and earnings outcomes for those young men who go on to complete college relative to their high-school peers.

Is taking some of the sexual tension out of high school possibly one of the answers? There's some data that suggests that if you educate boys separately from girls, and girls separately from boys, they each perform better because the boys aren't out to impress the girls, the girls aren't out to impress the boys.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has filed legislation that would allow single-gender schools. Could that be part of the answer?

I think it is part of the solution. There is evidence that shows that single-sex schools have performed more strongly for both boys and for girls. There's also a need to improve the social perceptions among boys that being smart is cool. And that it is unfortunately the case that in school that boys tend to find that if they achieve too strong in school they're often somewhat frowned upon by their peers and colleagues as acting too smart.

Bigger picture: The number of high-school graduates going to college out of Boston schools is growing at a faster rate than the national average. What's Boston doing right?

There have been, you know, a number of programs in the Boston schools, including these school-to-career programs and others on early preparation, to make sure that our students are better prepared for at least getting initially into college.

There's a second factor I think, Bob, and that is a number of schools in the area — from the Boston Colleges, the Boston Universities, the UMass Bostons, the Northeasterns and the like — that have also made what I consider to be some very good-faith efforts to try to attract, provide special scholarships and assistance for Boston kids. That has played a role in helping get them into four-year schools.

The four-year graduation rate for our Boston public school students is extremely high, Bob, equal to the best in the country everywhere there is, so I think that's a factor as well. Plus I think there's also been good-faith effort on the part of the schools convincing our students of the importance of going on to post-secondary ed.

Our next major challenge is making sure, that once in, that our students do a better job of getting out of school with degrees.

This program aired on July 31, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.