• U.S.

Is School Unfair to Girls?

4 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

Athletic budgets. Reading lists. Pronouns in textbooks. All sorts of things have changed since 1972, when Congress outlawed sex discrimination in federally aided schools. But so far, charges the American Association of University Women (A.A.U.W.), reforms have only tinkered with the gender gap. The organization issued a cry of alarm last week, citing “compelling evidence that girls are not receiving the same quality, or even quantity, of education as their brothers.” That conclusion was contained in a report compiled by specialists at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women that synthesized hundreds of studies of girl students from preschool age through Grade 12.

The findings showed that in some ways the American public school classroom is a feminine domain. Nearly three-quarters of teachers are women. Though the sexes do equally well in math and science grades, girls outperform boys overall. In verbal skills, girls move into the lead around Grade 5 or 6 and thereafter do better than boys in writing and, by most measures, reading. Females constitute less than a third of students identified as emotionally disturbed or learning disabled. Despite teen pregnancies, girls are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to attend college.

So, what’s the problem? For one thing, there is a gap in scores on standardized tests, especially in math and science, which the report blames partly on lingering bias in both testing and curriculum. On Advanced Placement tests, which enable students to earn college credit during high school, boys outperform girls in math, physics and biology. On the SAT test, that ubiquitous measure of alleged merit, in 1991 boys beat girls by 8 points in the verbal score and 44 points in math.

Susan Bailey, the report’s chief author, says differences persist in math because “girls are still not participating in equal proportion to boys in advanced-level courses.” Specifically, 7.6% of boys choose calculus, compared with 4.7% of girls. As for science performance, Bailey says, “the gap may be getting wider.” A fourth of high school boys take physics, but only 15% of girls do.

Even girls who take the same math and science courses and do just as well on standardized tests are far less likely to consider technological careers. A study of Rhode Island high school seniors, for instance, found that 64% of boys but only 19% of girls taking physics and calculus planned to pursue science or engineering in college. Last week’s report contends that girls’ aversion to these fields limits their career options and future income.

Seeking to explain these patterns, the report states that school gradually undermines girls’ self-esteem. In a 1990 survey, 3,000 youngsters were asked such questions as whether they were “happy the way I am.” Predictably, everyone’s self-confidence declined during adolescence, but the self-esteem of girls suffered deeper wounds. The pivotal factor in low self-esteem and performance, and the most intriguing aspect of the research, is what actually occurs in the classroom.

Bluntly stated, boys do well by being bad. They are the troublemakers who intimidate girls into silence, monopolize discussions and steal an inordinate amount of teachers’ attention. One sixth-grader observed by researchers in Montgomery County, Md., said, “I’m afraid, when I get something wrong, the boys in the classroom might make fun of me because they usually laugh at some people if they get something wrong.”

Obviously then, enhancing girls’ self-confidence is not simply a matter of including more stories about heroic women in history textbooks. Judy Logan, a teacher at San Francisco’s Everett Middle School, is convinced that girls “learn better in noncompetitive, nonhierarchical ways,” so she divides her students into small groups. At Pattonville Holman Middle School in suburban St. Louis, computer teacher Jayne Kasten runs a no-boys F.E.M. (Female Electronic Marvels) Club, in which girls work with new software and demonstrate their know-how in classrooms.

The 40 A.A.U.W. proposals offered last week lean toward such predictable remedies as improved teacher training or further studies and avoid bold proposals suggested by the research, such as sex-segregated math and science classes. Diane Ravitch, an Assistant Secretary of Education, complains that much of the report “is just special pleading and, frankly, whining.” Opportunities are opening up, she says, and girls should be urged to take advanced courses, not told that they are victims. Chester Finn, director of Vanderbilt University’s Educational Excellence Network, thinks disparities simply show that students have different interests and abilities. He considers gender complaints a diversion from the overall weakness of U.S. education: “It stinks. It’s dreadful.” Ravitch adds that America is indeed biased, not against girls but “against academic achievement.” If so, that is still one lesson that girls understand better than boys.

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