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Why Are Boys Falling Behind?

Northwestern-led research suggests boys more sensitive than girls to disadvantage

  • Boys extra sensitive to disadvantage
  • Effects of family instability worst for African-American boys
  • Research picked up by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post

EVANSTON, Ill.  --- Boys, especially African-American boys, are falling behind -- both behaviorally and educationally -- according to new Northwestern research covered in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Young males, it appears, are extra sensitive to disadvantage, perhaps because poor families are more likely to be led by single mothers, and young boys lack male role models, wrote New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller.

The research team, which included David Figlio and Krzysztof Karbownik of Northwestern, David Autor and Melanie Wasserman of M.I.T. and Jeffrey Roth of the University of Florida, analyzed birth, health and education records for more than 1 million Florida children to figure out why boys are falling behind.

The researchers found that “relative to their sisters, boys born to poorly educated, unmarried mothers have higher levels of truancy and behavioral problems throughout elementary and middle school, are less likely to graduate from high school and are more likely as juveniles to commit serious crimes,” columnist William A. Galston wrote in an article in The Wall Street Journal, titled, "The Poverty Cure: Get Married."

“It’s something about family disadvantage itself,” Figlio told The New York Times. “Black people in America are more disadvantaged than white people in America, and if we were to reduce the disadvantage, we may see a reduction in the relative gender gap as well.”

The study's findings are far-reaching. Both disadvantage and gender should be considered when devising ways to help poor children, said Figlio, the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics and the director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern. Research also supports early interventions for boys, like high-quality preschool and mentoring. Simply spending time with children can also be beneficial.

In addition to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post has picked up the story.

Karbownik is a visiting scholar at IPR.

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