Boys, especially African-American boys, are falling behind — both behaviorally and educationally — according to new Northwestern University research.

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.

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.

They found the effects of family instability are worse for boys than for girls, in particular African-American boys.

Relative to their sisters, boys born to poorly educated, unmarried mothers show a higher incidence of truancy and behavioral problems throughout elementary and middle school, perform worse on standard tests, are less likely to graduate high school and are more likely to commit series crimes as juveniles.

A surprising implication of these findings is that, when compared with white siblings, black boys fare worse than their sisters in significant part because black children — both boys and girls — are raised in more disadvantaged environments,” the researchers wrote in the working paper, which was recently presented at an Education Writers Association conference in Chicago.

“Family disadvantage is responsible for a large chunk of the gender gap,” Figlio said. “We don’t know precisely how disadvantage affects the gap, or if some elements of disadvantage matter more than others, but if we want to improve the outcomes of African-American boys, reducing disadvantage would be a good place to start.”

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. Karbownik is a visiting scholar at IPR.

Related document

Working paper reporting on the research

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