Theses Doctoral

School Context, Peers and the Educational Achievement of Girls and Boys

Legewie, Joscha

Today, boys dominate among high school dropouts, special education students, and literally any failed or special needs category throughout adolescence pinpointing boys as the troublemaker in modern educational systems. The notorious under-performance of boys in school and their tendency to disrupt the learning process in the class room has sparked intense academic as well as public debates about the causes of what many now call the "problem with boys". Yet, historically, the lower performance of boys in school is not a new phenomenon. In fact, researchers overwhelmingly agree that girls and boys have similar levels of mental ability and generally observe relatively small changes in academic performance over the last decades. What is new is the striking reversal of the gender gap in educational attainment, which has changed from a male to a female advantage. At the same time, girls continue to lag behind in terms of science, engineering, and technology degrees.

These persisting gender differences are not only relevant for gender equality but also for the supply of qualified labor-a linchpin for the future of the U.S. economy in an increasingly competitive global environment. A widespread argument among parents, teachers, and policy makers alike has been that boys resistance to school is part of their masculinity: Boys are simply more active and disobedient to authority. Others blame schools for what they see as a de-masculinized learning environment and a tendency to negatively evaluate boys for fitting into this environment less well than girls. Yet, the role of the school context and the connection between school resources and the gender gap remains controversial.

Research on the effect of schools dates back to the 1966 Coleman report and developed out of the concern for equality of educational opportunity by social class and race. This original focus and much subsequent work condemned the unequal access to high quality schools for black and white kids and called for the desegregation of schools. Now that a growing gender gap in educational attainment has emerged, it is natural to extend this line of research and ask whether schools affect gender inequality as well, and if so, what are the mechanisms by which this occurs. The goal of this dissertation is to address this question and examine the role of the school context for gender differences in education and thereby challenge the view of boys as universally disengaged from school and opposed to authority. For this purpose, the three papers in this dissertation each examine different aspects of this broader question.

Together, these three articles make important contributions to our understanding of gender differences in educational outcomes, and suggest concrete policy implications about the educational shortcomings of boys, and the persisting gender gap in STEM degrees. They show that peer effects are larger for boys than girls and that this gender difference can be explained by differences in the social support for academic work in the male and female peer culture. These findings shift the focus from masculinity as inherently based on resistance to school towards the importance of the local school environment for the construction of gender identities as well as school-related attitudes, behavior, and the performance of boys and girls. My findings also point to the high school years as the life course period that should be targeted to increase the number of women with STEM BAs, and provide evidence that high school interventions might be effective to achieve that goal.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Legewie_columbia_0054D_11297.pdf Legewie_columbia_0054D_11297.pdf application/pdf 4.29 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
DiPrete, Thomas A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2013