PISA and Girls’ Education

Tests Don't Grow in Trees You Know...Okay, enough naval gazing.  Let’s get back to work.

A few weeks before the break, the 2015 PISA results were announced.  This is one of those assessments where the US comes out way behind other countries and everyone wrings their hands for a while.  My interest in results like these is to assess pedagogical approaches that seem to be working and, for where I am in particular right now, to examine the gender gap and think about ways we’re addressing that.

The PISA report, of course, has nothing specific to say about whether girls’ education is more effective than co-ed education, but it does have some interesting things to say about the gender gap and what seems to be causing it.  First, some data about the science gender gap.  Boys outperform girls in science by a small percentage, in fact by the smallest percentage between math and science.  Where the gap in STEM seems to be occurring is in expectations and efficacy.

On average across the OECD, a similar proportion of 15-year-old boys and girls expects to work in a science-related occupation at age 30 (25% of boys vs. 24% of girls) (Table I.3.10b). However, a different pattern is observed in the United States, where 43% of girls but only 33% of boys expect to work in a science-related occupation at age 30. This difference exists despite the fact that boys in the United States perform significantly better than girls on the PISA 2015 science assessment (Table I.2.8a). Expectations of a career in health account for the difference between genders. In the United States, only 9% of boys expect this career path but 35% of girls do so, compared to 2% of boys and 7% of girls on average across the OECD. Boys were more likely than girls to expect to become science and engineering professionals (20% of boys vs. 6% of girls) and ICT professionals (4% of boys vs. 0.5% of girls), a gap that is also observed in many other OECD countries. (“Key Findings from PISA 2015 for the United States” 24)

Some people might take that first US stat about 43% of girls expecting to work in a science-related field and feel pretty good about the gender gap, but if you continue reading, you see that the stat comes primarily from the expectation to work in a health-related field, which runs the gamut from nurse to medical researcher.  And we know how nursing (and other health-support areas) skew in terms of gender.  And then you see that only 6% of girls expect to be science or engineering professionals and that’s where the gender gap widens.

Efficacy is the measure of how confident you feel about your performance.  If asked, for example, are you good at math, what would you say?  The questions asked by PISA are more complex than that, but that’s the idea.  More often than not, boys will say they’re good at something and girls won’t.  Their actual performance skews in the opposite direction. Boys perform worse than they think they will and girls perform better  If the student is in the US, then they’re likely to be very confident that they’re good at something, but their performance is actually average, on average.

What this suggests is that if we create environments where girls will expect to enter a STEM field and we give them the confidence to do so, we might go a long way toward shrinking the gap.  Lots of other research points this idea out, including the PISA report itself:

Gender-related differences in science engagement and career expectations appear more related to disparities in what boys and girls think they are good at and is good for them, than to differences in what they actually can do.

Stereotypes about scientists and about work in science-related occupations (computer science is a “masculine” field and biology a “feminine” field; scientists achieve success due to brilliance rather than hard work; scientists are “mad”) can discourage some students from engaging further with science. In addition to challenging gender stereotypes, parents and teachers can help support students’ engagement with science by helping students become more aware of the range of career opportunities that are made available with training in science and technology (“Results in Focus”, 6).

What does this have to do with girls’ education?  What I’d suggest is that when you’re teaching girls, you’re often more keenly aware of these issues, of the way girls lower expectations for themselves and lack confidence.  Therefore, what we do at girls’ schools is work hard to support girls in raising those expectations and building their confidence in their abilities.  We can do that, I think, more effectively than we could if we were in a co-ed situation. We just have to fight internal dialogue and some external pressures.  We don’t also have to fight off the boys feeding them the same message.  We’re engaged in a single battle, not two.  I personally spend a lot of time reading research of teaching methods that are equitable and that will impact girls specifically, and I share that research with my faculty.  I shared the PISA report with the department chairs and program leaders, and someone responded, “To me, this is an argument for girls’ education.” And I agreed with them.  The report provides no hard and fast evidence, of course, but certainly, it dovetails with the approach many girls’ schools take in providing education geared toward women.