Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Spring 2016

David Figlio

“We discovered that the gender gap is particularly pronounced for more disadvantaged families, regardless of race or ethnicity."

Jon Guryan

“Even though the tutoring was in math, we found that students did better in math and were less likely to fail their other classes,”

Understanding the ‘Boy Problem’ in Educational Achievement

By Rebekah Snyder
Understanding the ‘Boy Problem’ in Educational Achievement

Crossing boundaries as economists, two SESP professors are taking a multidimensional approach to help narrow the education achievement gap between boys and girls. Their research on the “boy problem” is pointing to improving family dynamics and innovative classroom strategies.

As income inequality rises across the United States, boys are falling behind girls in academic achievement. “Boys are much less likely than girls to graduate from high school, to enroll in and succeed in college. When they are in school, they don’t do as well, and they are more likely to get into trouble,” according to David Figlio, the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics and director of the Institute for Policy Research. The “gender gap” is evident across all socioeconomic levels, but it is particularly strong among racial and ethnic minorities, especially Latinos and African Americans.


Figlio collaborated with Northwestern postdoctoral fellow Krzysztof Karbownik and researchers at MIT and the University of Florida to understand the root causes of this gender inequity. “We discovered that the gender gap is particularly pronounced for more disadvantaged families, regardless of race or ethnicity,” remarks Figlio. The researchers then turned to the question of whether disadvantaged families somehow have inherently weaker boys. To do so, they studied birth outcomes across a wide range of socioeconomic, racial and ethnic lines. They found little evidence that boys from disadvantaged families were less viable or had poorer health at birth than their sisters.

“If the gap is not due to inherent differences,” observes Figlio, “then environmental factors must be at play,” such as school quality and the local neighborhood. Although disadvantaged families often live in neighborhoods with more crime and violence, Figlio’s research has found that the neighborhood effect is minimal. The quality of the school, though, does matter. A recent study found that poorer performing schools actually make the gender gap worse. By comparing brothers and sisters who attended the same school and controlling for the effects of family disadvantage, Figlio and his colleagues determined that better schools are more important to boys’ achievement than girls. “Within the same school and same neighborhood dynamics, boys of disadvantaged families fell further behind their sisters than less disadvantaged boys.”

With these results, Figlio is confident that it’s about the families. “What we don’t know is, are boys differentially sensitive to family disadvantage, or do disadvantaged families treat their boys differently than their girls?” In the coming year, his research will explore this question in greater detail.


While Figlio’s work addresses the family dimension of the “boy problem,” Jonathan Guryan focuses on the classroom dimension. The associate professor of human development and social policy is finding that new and innovative in-school programs can improve learning and achievement, even among older adolescents. In part, his research is a response to the notion that it can be too late to help older children and teens improve in school.

The co-director of the Urban Education Lab recently completed a study for Chicago Public Schools on an intensive mathematics tutoring program called Match Tutoring. Through the program, a tutor— typically a recent graduate or retiree—works with two students for one hour during the school day, every day of the year. The results have been impressive.

“Even though the tutoring was in math, we found that students did better in math and were less likely to fail their other classes,” says Guryan. Although the dynamics are not yet clear, “it could be that intensive tutoring in math may be changing their mindset about school or their perception about what they are able to accomplish.”

With math in particular, there can be significant variation in skills and knowledge among students in the same classroom. “Teaching to an entire class is already difficult, and then it is often the case that some students in a ninth-grade classroom are working at a fifth-grade level,” notes Dr. Guryan. “If you teach at the ninth-grade level, those working at a fifth-grade level are overwhelmed and want to give up, but if you teach at a fifth-grade level, the other students are bored.” By contrast, in a daily, year-round tutoring program, the tutor can deliver the content to exactly where the students are in their skills and knowledge.

Guryan believes this to be one of the major innovations of Match Tutoring and similar intensive tutoring programs. Schools can significantly improve learning outcomes while simplifying the job of instruction. Tutors can be trained for the specific subject to complement the teacher’s lesson plan, but “they do not have to be skilled in classroom management, and they don’t have to do a lesson plan or be trained in new pedagogy.” The structure increases the number of people who can do the job and makes for a more cost-effective program. “We are finding that you can have people come in with little or no classroom experience, and yet they can be really effective.”

Although learning among boys has been a focus of his work, Guryan’s team has expanded the study to include girls, and the results are encouraging. The program will continue to be studied in Chicago and New York City public schools. The primary question is, can a program like this be delivered at a larger scale? “We studied Match Tutoring at 15 high schools in Chicago, serving 1,000 students, but if you want to improve achievement in all urban school districts, a program like this would have to be implemented more broadly,” he notes. “And just because a program works for 1,000 kids, it doesn’t mean it will work for 10,000 or 100,000.”


Figlio notes that Northwestern’s culture of embracing collaboration across diverse fields of study has enabled both researchers to advance our understanding of the “boy problem” and identify strategies to improve educational achievement among disadvantaged boys. “This work is squarely in the realm of economics, but it is strongly affected by other disciplines. In Jon’s work, there is a behavioral psychology aspect, while my work is informed by sociology and development psychology.”

“We are able to do this kind of work because at SESP and at the Institute for Policy Research, the boundaries are very low across disciplines,” says Figlio. “We are able to spend time engaging with people from different disciplinary backgrounds, who have considerably different experiences and theoretical frames for the work they do. This is a different kind of economics.”