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Report finds bias against girls in school

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Girls and boys may sit in the same classrooms, but they aren't getting the same education or opportunities.

In fact, schools often perpetuate attitudes and practices that damage girls and women.

So concludes How Schools Shortchange Girls, an analysis of all the available research on the subject of girls in school.

The research shows "compelling evidence that girls are not receiving the same quality, or even quantity, of education as their brothers," says the report, commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation.

The report, to be released today in Washington, D.C., "puts to rest once and for all the illusion that girls and boys receive an equal education," said Alice McKee, president of the AAUW foundation. "The glass ceiling does not suddenly appear in the corporate suite; it begins to be built in kindergarten."

Among the report's findings:

Girls and boys enter school roughly equal in measured ability, with girls ahead of boys in some areas. Twelve years later, girls lag behind boys in such key areas as high-level math and science.

Boys get more attention from teachers than girls do. More important, they get the kind of precise attention that leads to greater achievement.

Scholarships based on test scores are twice as likely to go to boys, despite the fact girls are more apt to go to college and girls get higher grades in both high school and college.

Sexual harassment of girls by boys is on the increase, and school officials do not take it seriously.

Despite skyrocketing teen pregnancy rates, "adequate sex and health education is the exception rather than the rule."

Women hold 72 percent of all teaching jobs, but only 28 percent of principals are women (10 percent at the high school level), and less than 5 percent of school superintendents are women. Only nine of the 50 state education chiefs in the United States are women, and eight of those nine were elected. Among the eight is Betty Castor, Florida's Commissioner of Education.

Local figures are somewhat better. In Pinellas County, 75 percent of teachers are women, as are 38 percent of all principals and 26 percent of high school principals. The superintendent is a man. In Hillsborough, woman make up 72 percent of the teachers, 58 percent of all principals and 21 percent of high school principals. Again, the school superintendent is a man.

Twenty years after the federal government outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex, some school officials still tell researchers it is "stupid" or "frivolous" to worry about equal opportunities for both genders.

Educational opportunities start in the classroom. In preschool, research shows, boys receive more instructional time from teachers and more hugs. In lecture classes, teachers ask males academic questions 80 percent more often than they question females.

Pioneering work by David and Myra Sadker, education professors at American University, show boys are eight times more likely than girls to call out in class. When boys call out, teachers are most likely to listen and respond. When girls call out, teachers are most likely to tell them they must raise their hands if they wish to speak.

Sadker said that when teachers realize what they're doing, they are almost always surprised. "Most have no notion they're not being fair," Sadker said.

When it comes to making curriculum more reflective of women and ethnic groups, the report notes, resistance arises. One example is an attempt to reshape social studies in New York state:

"Critics have called Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies "political,' as if a curriculum that leaves women out altogether is not also "political.' Multicultural work has been termed "divisive' without recognizing that an exclusively white male curriculum is divisive when it ignores the contributions others make to society."

When girls themselves try to find new paths, the research shows, their efforts may be undermined.

Vocational education courses remain largely sex-segregated, and one study showed 65 percent of female students in non-traditional courses reported being sexually harassed.

Girls are not encouraged to take higher mathematics and science courses, even though their grades are good. They choose science and math careers in disproportionately low numbers.

Girls show less confidence than boys that they will be successful in these subjects, and one study shows that this drop in confidence in middle school precedes a decline in achievement. In another study, girls who went on to study engineering say they felt their teachers encouraged them, but school counselors were discouraging.

"We are looking at some real difficulties in education," said Education Commissioner Castor.

"What we are seeing is a lack of support for young girls in math and science, and in participation in sports and special education programs. There is a cultural pervasiveness about this that is going to take a long time to change."

Another area studied was sexual harassment. Emotional, psychological and physical abuse of girls by boys is increasing, the report says, and "rather than viewing sexual harassment as serious misconduct, school authorities too often treat it as a joke."

For example, boys finding it funny to embarrass girls to the point of tears is "often viewed by school personnel as harmless instances of "boys being boys.' "

Because of the tacit approval this attitude confers, "the clear message to both girls and boys is that girls are not worthy of respect and that appropriate behavior for boys includes exerting power over girls. Being accused of being in any way like a woman is one of the worst insults a boy can receive."

Research also shows that from the time they enter school to the time they leave, girls' self-esteem drops dramatically more than boys. Among elementary-age children, 69 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls say they are "happy the way I am." Among high school students, 46 percent of boys say that, but only 29 percent of girls.

The report quotes historian Linda Kerber, who suggests this is a result of boys and girls being fed a steady stream of academic lessons that say women's lives count for less than men's:

"Lowered self-esteem is a perfectly reasonable conclusion if one has been subtly instructed that what people like oneself have done in the world has not been important and is not worth studying."

The report notes repeatedly that more research needs to be done on the interaction of gender with race, ethnicity and socioeconomic class.

For example, black boys tend to have fewer interactions overall with teachers, but get four to 10 times the amount of qualified praise ("That's good, but . . .") as other students. "Black boys tend to be . . . seen as less able than other students."

Black girls, the report notes, attempt to interact with their teachers more often than any other group, to little avail. "Teachers may unconsciously rebuff these black girls," the report says.

Research also shows that despite public support for it, "sex education is neither widespread nor comprehensive." Only 10 percent of young people are estimated to receive more than minimal schooling on their own bodies and development, despite the fact they are at risk of eating disorders, substance abuse, early sexual activity, unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS), and suicide.

Further, the report notes, sex-education courses "treat menstruation as a hygienic crisis," which helps create "an association of shame rather than pride (in) this aspect of female development.

"The courses typically ignore female genital development and sexual response, often presenting the male body as the "norm.' "

Sex education in this country is also based on "an assumption of heterosexuality," the report notes, that is in itself "a form of discrimination that has an indelible impact on the roughly 10 percent of our youth who are homosexual or bisexual."

The few discussions of homosexuality that do occur, the report says, "tend to focus on gay men. Lesbian students _ like girls in general _ are more often invisible."