September 10, 2012

Academics and Girls Achievement

The academic year is now in full swing, and we begin again to hear about the challenges of producing well-educated students.  Often there is reference to the location of the school site – low-income areas are typically called “schools at risk” based on educational achievement of the student population.

But a new report by the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that the school location may not as often be the challenge, and that high-achieving students come from all types of schools in both affluent and at-risk communities.  Using data from the American Mathematics Competition (an annual contest involving more than 100,000 high school students), researchers counted numbers of high scoring student from over 2,000 public, co-ed, non-magnet, and private high schools and noted significant variations even among schools with similar demographics.

What they found was remarkable – a small number of public schools (4%) had rates of high-scoring students 3 times the average for all schools, and sometimes as high as 10%.  The difference was even greater for girls, with many affluent schools reported to be “extremely unlikely” to produce top-achieving females in math while a small group of public schools were “off the charts” with their high female scores.

Why the variation?  What the study shows, say researchers, is that the school’s expectations and environment make the difference, even for students with every advantage.  If the school focuses only on basic competence, the achievement levels are much lower than the schools that encourage high achievement.

“So much of the education debate is around bringing up the struggling students,” notes Glenn Ellison, an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of the study.  “But high-achieving students are important when we talk about success in scientific and technical fields…these are future medical researchers and leading business people – these students matter to our economy.”  Nurturing students who are, or have the potential to become high achievers – wherever they attend school – is vital, he concludes.

In addition, the communities created around learning in the school make a tremendous difference.  Match and science clubs taking place outside the classroom provide an important opportunity for students to excel – especially for girls.  While boys scoring highly in math competitions came from a broader ranges of schools, the majority of high-achieving girls in the mathematics competition came from only about 20 schools.  Support and encouragement in these 20 schools played a significant role in the female students’ success, research notes, as girls continue to push against stereotypes.

The researchers conclude:

The fact that the highest achieving girls in the U.S. are concentrated in a very small set of schools indicates “that almost all girls with the ability to reach high math achievement levels are not doing so.  Our results suggest that the high-achieving math students we see today in U.S. high schools may be just a small fraction of the number of students who have the potential to reach such levels.”

Over the past few years, Chrysalis After-School programs have incorporated research-based models for expanded education in areas including science, math, health, and nutrition.  What we’re finding is that for many girls, learning in this environment – with hands-on experience and in the presence of other girls – has steered them toward interest areas including medicine, environment, and technology.  They have the potential and the aptitude for higher educational achievement in these area and are much more likely to improve school performance and, potentially, explore these careers.

This year, Chrysalis After-School programs operate in 30 school sites (grades 5 through 8) and involve over 600 girls and 70 women.  That’s a lot of impact.