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education memo

Boys are lagging girls in educational achievement, and not because they are widely considered more rambunctious in class.Library of Congress

While men still out earn women overall – with a pay gap of 32 per cent in Canada – the gap is reversed when it comes to education, with 55 per cent of women enrolling in undergraduate degrees. The numbers for postsecondary enrolment are similar in the United States. In The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools, sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann argue that the educational achievement gap is a result of differences in how men and women have responded to changes in the wider economy. Why? It partly comes down to fathers.

You write that unlike women, men have failed to respond to market incentives that showed that blue-collar jobs were disappearing and the only way to keep up economically was to get an undergraduate degree. Women listened: By 2010, 57 per cent of all college students were women, a reversal of the gender balance in 1970.

In a world where women did not have opportunities to make use of college earnings, there weren't labour market incentives to get more education. When the risk of divorce was rising, education became more important as insurance. And birth control made it easier to plan careers and education.

Do individuals really behave like this, making decisions based on what the labour market is signalling?

Buchmann: Young people are not acting rationally on complete information, no. Most adolescents say they want to go to college and want to be rich. Boys lack an understanding of the trajectory to a degree, but even with incomplete information, girls do better in school and so have an advantage when they apply for college.

Let's talk about the role of the father. You find that a father who is present and who is educated has a big impact on boys' learning. And yet study after study has shown that a mother's education level is the key determinant of her children's achievement. Can we actually separate each parent's role?

It is difficult to isolate the roles of mothers and fathers because of education homogamy, well-educated people marry each other. We know that having a highly-educated father has an impact on boys. In the case of low-educated fathers, working in blue-collar jobs, we believe that part of the challenge is that boys who grow up with low-educated fathers believe that a college degree was not part of the success for dads. They have notions that to do well in school is for girls. It's an outmoded way of thinking ...when we have a great decline in the parts of the economy where men can do well in blue-collar work or unions.

Boys of blue-collar fathers don't understand how much practice they have to do in academics, because a blue-collar father is not someone who can explain that to you because he does not have experience.

One of the saddest statements I found in the book was that regardless of gender, neither boys or girls come close to achieving what they dreamt they could as teens. In order for that to happen, rates of college graduation would have to double. What happens between adolescence and adulthood?

A large fraction of kids go to postsecondary. In the United States, 70 per cent of high-school graduates go to college but don't graduate and don't get a degree. For kids who get Bs and Cs in high-school, the probability of finishing college is much lower. Kids who get As, that is predictive of whether they are going to finish: They will. ... Just as adolescents overpredict their academic success, they overpredict their chances of being rich – 58 per cent of men think they'll be rich.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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