10. The gender gap in school engagement and retention

Francesca Borgonovi
Marta Cignetti
Mario Piacentini

Early school leaving, i.e. leaving formal education without having obtained an upper secondary degree, is one of the major risk factors for unemployment, poverty and social exclusion (Brunello and Paola, 2014[1]). In labour markets where routine tasks are increasingly taken over by artificial intelligence, early school leavers risk getting trapped in low-paying occupations or unemployment (OECD, 2016[2]). Students who enter the labour market without an upper-secondary qualification tend also to experience more health problems (Oreopoulos, 2007[3]), and miss opportunities to acquire the knowledge and skills they need for civic and social participation. Additionally, early school leaving contributes to magnifying pre-existing social inequalities, since students from disadvantaged background are more likely to drop out than their advantaged peers (OECD, 2021[4]).

Significant gender differences in the likelihood of early school leaving exist in OECD countries. On average, across OECD countries, around 16% of 25 to 34-year-old men and 12% of 25 to 34-year-old women left formal education without having completed an upper secondary degree. With the exception of a few countries (the Czech Republic, Korea, Mexico, the Slovak Republic and Switzerland), 25 to 34-year-old men are more likely to have left school without having obtained an upper secondary qualification than women. The share of men with lower-than-upper-secondary education is highest in Costa Rica (49%) and Mexico (44%), followed by Spain (33%), Colombia (28%) and Italy (26%) (Figure 10.1). Gender differences in the share of men and women who leave formal education without having completed an upper secondary degree are particularly pronounced in Iceland (12 percentage point difference), Spain (11 percentage point difference) and Colombia (7 percentage point difference) (OECD, 2021[4]).

Research on drivers of early school leaving points to a combination of pull and push factors. Pull factors, such as the need to earn an income or take care of family, tend to vary substantially across countries and mostly affect students from a low socio-economic status. Research conducted in the United States indicates that when boys and girls are asked about reasons for leaving school early, boys are more likely to report leaving schools because they wanted to get a job, while girls are more likely to be pulled out because of early pregnancy or other family obligations (Doll, Eslami and Walters, 2013[6]). Push-factors, such as dissatisfaction with school, lack of motivation and engagement, are also important drivers of early school leaving. During the school years, boys more frequently engage in behaviours that demonstrate a low sense of identification with school than girls. Lack of engagement and identification tends to persist across grades, and can, in the long run, lead to dropping out of education altogether (Finn and Zimmer, 2012[7]). According to data from OECD PISA 2018, on average across OECD countries, 51% of boys and 44% of girls reported arriving late for school at least once in the two weeks prior to when the OECD PISA test took place. Gender differences in lateness are particularly marked (above 12 percentage points) in Finland, Iceland and Lithuania. Similar gender differences are observed also in truancy: on average across OECD countries, 23% of boys and 20% of girls reported skipping a whole day of schooling in the weeks preceding the OECD PISA test (OECD, 2019[8]). Gender differences in the identification with school arise early. For example, boys in primary school are consistently more likely than girls to report disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that they like being in school, are less likely to agree or strongly agree that trying hard at school is important and are more likely to agree or strongly agree that school has been a waste of time (Borgonovi, Ferrara and Maghnouj, 2018[9]).

Expectancy value theory (Eccles and Wigfield, 2002[10]) argues that the level of a student’s motivation and engagement in an activity is a function of the value he or she attributes to the activity and of the performance he or she expects to have. Therefore, students who enjoy working on school assignments and perceive them as useful find more value in schooling and thus invest themselves more. At the same time, students generally do not spend much effort in an academic activity when they expect they will fail. Students’ beliefs about their own ability are, at least in part, shaped by their history of success or failure at school, and by the interactions they have with teachers and peers. Engagement and achievement at school are tied by a mutually reinforcing relationship, in that low achievement may lead to increasing disengagement and vice versa, up to the point of driving decisions to leave school.

Data from OECD PISA 2018 shed light on gender differences in engagement with academic work through information collected with dedicated questionnaires as well as participants’ response behaviour during the OECD PISA test and questionnaire. Measures that are derived from what the students report about themselves in the questionnaires (i.e. self-reported measures) include work mastery and the effort thermometer. “Work mastery” reflects the desire to work hard to master tasks and is assessed by asking students if statements such as “I find satisfaction in working as hard as I can”, “Once I start a task, I persist until it is finished” and “Part of the enjoyment I get from doing things is when I improve on my past performance” reflect their typical behaviour (OECD, 2019[8]). Girls report having higher work mastery than boys across all OECD countries, with the exception of Hungary, Iceland, the Netherlands, Korea and Sweden. At the end of the OECD PISA test, students are also asked how much effort they put in answering the questions correctly. This “Effort thermometer” shows results that are consistent with the more general reports on work mastery: in all OECD countries, with the exceptions of Korea and Slovenia, girls reported having invested more effort in the OECD PISA test than boys did. The gender gap in self-reported effort on the PISA test is particularly marked in Germany and in Portugal.

These self-reported data on engagement should be interpreted with some caution. Some students might report that they put effort because they believe this is what they are expected to say in a questionnaire. Other students might instead wish to present themselves as disengaged because caring too much about school work is not considered to be “cool” by their peer group (Jamison, Wilson and Ryan, 2015[11]). Data on how students engage with questions in a low-stakes setting can yield insights on how boys and girls engage in and approach academic work. OECD PISA has low-stakes for participating students: it does not affect their school grades, and students’ results are not communicated to the schools or to parents. Students who do not put effort in OECD PISA are likely to also disengage with similar academic work in their regular classes, whenever stakes are also low.

Another set of measures are obtained by observing and coding students’ behaviour on the test and on the questionnaire (i.e. behavioural measures). Two measures of effortful behaviour in OECD PISA are the share of missing responses in the questionnaires and the percentage of test items on which students spent less than five seconds before providing an answer (most likely trying to guess the response). Students who quickly scroll through the pages of the questionnaires without answering, or who randomly tick a box in a multiple-choice item without reading the prompt, reveal that it is not worthy for them to spend effort on the OECD PISA test and questionnaire.

Figure 10.2 shows that boys were more likely than girls to leave questionnaire items blank, as well as to engage in rapid-guessing on the test, across the overall majority of the countries participating in the computer-based version of OECD PISA in 2018. For example, in Israel, boys left almost 13% of the questionnaire items unanswered, while this was only around 6% for girls; boys also fast guessed 11% of the reading items, while girls only 4%. On average, across OECD countries, 5% of boys and 3% of girls left questions unanswered and similar percentages engaged in fast guessing behaviour.

Low effort on school assignments leads to low grades and insufficient mastery of essential knowledge and skills. Indeed, there is a strong relationship between disengaged behaviour (leaving questions blank, or fast-guessing) and performance on the OECD PISA test. Data from PISA 2018 suggest that, on average across OECD countries, the more questions are skipped and left blank when students complete the OECD PISA background questionnaire, the lower they score in the OECD PISA reading test. Performance in OECD PISA is also strongly related to the other measures of test engagement – for example, students who are more likely to engage in fast guessing of reading questions in the OECD PISA test perform less well than their more engaged peers (Buchholz, Cignetti and Piacentini, 2022[12]). A significant percentage of the gender gap in reading performance between boys and girls can thus be explained by gender differences in the effort they put in the OECD PISA session.

Does effort on assignment also predict the likelihood of students to disengage from school, starting from missing classes during compulsory grades and then leaving school when they can? Evidence from OECD PISA 2018 (Figure 10.3) suggests that students who skip more items in the questionnaires and engage in more fast guessing on the test were more likely to frequently skip three or more school days in the two weeks prior to sitting the PISA test. Similarly, they were also more likely to be frequently late for class (three or more times).

Nurturing students’ capacity to invest and sustain effort in academic tasks at school can impact what these students will be able to achieve as adults. Follow-ups of participants in the 2000 and 2003 OECD PISA surveys ten years later from Australia, Denmark and Switzerland show that students who exerted more effort in the PISA test were more likely to complete higher education. One-standard deviation difference in performance decline was associated with a 5-6 percentage point difference in the probability of obtaining tertiary-level qualifications among students of equal achievement potential and similar background characteristics (Borgonovi, Ferrara and Piacentini, 2021[13]). Measures of sustained effort in extended performance tasks such PISA can thus capture motivational traits and socio-emotional skills that matter also outside the context of a test and influence students’ life outcomes.

A large number of young people, and boys in particular, find it hard to put effort in completing academic tasks. Low engagement with school work leads to low academic achievement and can predict early drop outs, resulting in a waste of talent that hampers economic and social innovation. Yet, most academic and policy work examining gender gaps in education still focuses on the under-representation of girls and women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) (Chapter 9). Just as girls’ lack of mathematics self-efficacy and their interest in mathematics activities in school is examined because it is thought to influence later educational and career choice, so boys’ lack of engagement with school should be considered as the first early sign in a process leading to early school leaving.

Engagement with school work is malleable and can be stimulated with appropriate education interventions. There are multiple sources of disengagement, and this means that effective strategies need to be multi-layered and involve different actors.

Many students indicate that what they do in class is too disconnected from their reality and not useful for them. They easily get bored with lectures and assignments. Boredom is an important motivational driver. It corresponds to the aversive feeling of wanting but being unable to engage in a satisfying activity (Eastwood et al., 2012, p. 483[14]). When identified early, boredom can alert students and teachers to adapt teaching and learning to ensure that school classes become engaging and satisfying. However, if unaddressed, the prolonged experience of boredom can lead to disengagement with school and learning.

Data from nine countries in which students completed the OECD PISA Well-being questionnaires in 2018 (Bulgaria, Georgia, Hong Kong (China), Ireland, Mexico, Panama, Serbia, Spain and the United Arab Emirates) suggest that, on average, boys report getting more bored in language of instruction classes than girls, while no gender differences in boredom emerge in mathematics classes. On average across those nine countries, around 31% of boys and 30% of girls reported feeling either “Quite a bit bored” or “Extremely bored” during mathematics classes; as for language-of-instruction classes, around 29% for boys and 25% of girls report feeling quite or extremely bored. Research in learning sciences suggests that teachers can address boredom by anticipating for differences in interest and preparation, making the real-life relevance of the tasks more apparent and triggering engagement through novelty or challenge (Järvelä and Renninger K. Ann, 2014[15]). Students should also be provided with tasks that allow for autonomy and make them active participants in the process of knowledge-building (Skinner and Pitzer, 2012[16]). Education technology also has the potential to promote engagement by providing opportunities for exploration, interaction and autonomy. However, many of the current software used in school fall short of providing opportunities for deep and constructive learning, and only add game-like gimmicks to traditional learning activities (D’Mello, 2021[17]).

Some students become disengaged early-on in their school life because of negative feedbacks on their performance. When presented with a demanding task, these students expect they will fail and thus disengage. Teachers can address this problem by providing feedback that emphasises progress rather than incorrect responses, thus making it clear to students that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process (Skinner and Pitzer, 2012[16]). Another measure to reduce feelings of repeated failure consists in providing more personalised instruction and including scaffolds, so that assignments have different “entry points” to students with different abilities.

Socialisation problems at schools can also trigger academic disengagement. Students have to feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment in order to engage with the learning content (Goodenow and Grady, 1993[18]; OECD, 2017[19]). Evidence from PISA 2018 shows that students were more likely to have skipped a whole day of school at least once in the two weeks prior to the PISA test the more frequently they had been bullied (OECD, 2019[8]). Boys were more likely to report being bullied than girls. Children’s engagement in learning activities is also influenced by their perceptions of teachers and by teachers’ capacity to achieve the right balance between support and autonomy (Jang, Reeve and Deci, 2010[20]). Boys often report lower support from their teacher than girls (Lietaert et al., 2015[21]).

The gender gap in engagement presented in this chapter might also reflect different perceptions of teachers about boys as opposed to girls. Teachers often see the ideal student as “female” due to the perception that girls are more compliant, willing to please and better organised than boys (Younger et al., 2005[22]). More critical reflection on gender differences in education and raising teachers’ awareness concerning gender stereotypes could enhance boys’ engagement at school (Lietaert et al., 2015[21]).


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