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Castor says school reform to address gender bias

Education Commissioner Betty Castor said Friday that gender bias in schools, which cheats girls out of the same education that boys get, will become a top priority of school reform in Florida.

"We cannot afford discrimination," Castor told dozens of business, education and community leaders gathered at the Department of Education headquarters. Their conference was to consider the results of a major research project that shows public schools perpetuate stereotypes that damage girls and women.

The study, released Wednesday by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation, shows that boys get the lion's share of teachers' time and constructive attention. Teachers tend to reward boys for calling out answers in class, the study shows, while they reprimand girls.

Using all available research on girls in school, the study also shows that while sexual harassment of girls by boys is on the increase, schools still treat it as a joke; that while girls enter school ahead of boys academically, after 12 years they lag behind; and that scholarships based on test scores are twice as likely to go to boys, even though girls get higher grades in both high school and college.

Although women make up 72 percent of the teacher corps nationwide, they hold fewer than 5 percent of school superintendent jobs. And when it comes to education reform, they aren't even part of the discussion. Of 35 reports produced in the past decade by task forces and commissions concerned with improving America's schools, only four made any significant reference to women or girls.

Florida's Commission on School Reform and Accountability, charged with developing a master plan for improving Florida schools, has not addressed gender bias in its work up to now.

"We cannot afford to not pay attention to our young women as a resource," Castor said. "We need to make gender bias a major focus. This report is going to put everybody on the spot.

"Right now it's a missing component of the commission's work. I'm going to ask them to incorporate it in the policy framework."

Although many of those present Friday could recount personal anecdotes about gender bias, some expressed surprise that the problem is still so widespread and intractable 20 years after sex discrimination became a violation of federal law.

Monsanto Chemical Co. executive Albert Gaudet told how his wife, Mary Gaudet, took tests that showed her ideally suited to architecture. She was steered into nursing.

Marsha Winegarner, a science teacher at Walton High School in DeFuniak Springs, said that while she has equal numbers of boys and girls in her chemistry class, "I'm in regular correspondence with the parents of seven of my male students, but I never hear from the parents of my female students."

Patricia Robinson, a wastewater expert working to find a substitute for chlorine in public water supplies, remembers that when she was at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, a male administrator told her class: " "As long as I'm head of this department, no woman will get a bachelor of science.' " That was in 1948, but the AAUW study shows girls are still being steered, overtly and subtly, away from math and science.

The fact that overlooking girls is bad business is not news to corporate America, the business people said. To be competitive in the global market, America desperately needs more students trained in math and science.

Yet in one recruiting trip to American colleges, said Elaine Prine of IBM, her company's recruiters found that 70 percent of the students who met the company's minimum entry standards were from foreign countries.

"This is not just an issue of simple justice," said Alice McKee, president of the AAUW foundation. "It is also an issue of economic survival."