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A failure by schools to be fair to girls

When Myra Sadker published her first book in 1973, she was invited to a convention of elementary school principals. Sexism in the schools was a new topic and a controversial one, so she was delighted to see a hundred principals, mostly men, crammed into the meeting room.

But when Sadker started to speak, the audience began to whisper. The whispers grew louder and louder. And finally, many just got up and left.

It turned out that they had come expecting to hear her lecture on sex education, not sexist education.

Today, few educators would confuse sex and sexism on a vocabulary test. The world has changed and so have schools.

Girls and boys are no longer tracked into homemaking and woodworking classes. Dick and Jane are no longer exclusively portrayed as doctor and nurse, boss and secretary, wage earner and homemaker. Now the same people who once denied that there was a problem in the schools are the ones likely to say that the problem has been fixed.

But Myra and David Sadker, spouses and longtime collaborators, have put together a new book that gets to the next layer, the more subtle but searing ways in which schools are, in the words of the title, Failing at Fairness.

By collecting studies and interviews and, by taking readers into the classroom, these two American University professors describe how girls who start out ahead academically, fall behind. They show school as a world in which boys demand and get the lion's share of attention.

On the short list of their findings are these: Teachers interact with boys eight times more frequently than with girls. Boys are called on more often. Girls are given less time to answer. Boys are rewarded for being smart. Girls are rewarded for being neat, pretty, compliant, nice. Teachers help girls by doing things for them. They help boys by teaching them how to do it themselves.

Some of the teachers the Sadkers observed display their bias overtly. But many more teach by gender as naturally as the one woman who chalked up her different expectations under these blackboard headings: "Brilliant Boys," "Good Girls."

In this small, closed society, boys rise to the top or drop to the bottom most dramatically, while girls often fall by the wayside. The most chilling pages in this book are those that simply relay dozens and dozens of real-life interactions in the classroom.

But I was equally struck by two tests the authors have given again and again. In one, hundreds of high school students were routinely unable to name 10 famous women in history. In another, students described what it would be like to wake up as the opposite sex. The authors' summarize the male essays saying, "Although we have read hundreds of boys' stories about waking up as a girl, we remain shocked at the degree of contempt expressed by so many."

The Sadkers do not pretend that schools exist in a vacuum or that schools can be the antidote to all our social problems. Nor are these educators engaged in teacher-bashing.

"In the whirlwind pace of classroom interaction, the good behavior of girls can be a lifesaver tossed to the teacher," they write. These very teachers were often dismayed at the evidence of their own bias and at how their "lifesaver" sank so many students.

Not surprisingly, the work of these authors who are also educators and parents of two daughters, has elicited two diverse reactions. "One group of parents and teachers have said "give us the resources, we care,'

" says Myra Sadker. The other group has waved off their analysis as another attack of political correctness.

The Sadkers' intent however is to bear witness to what happens in the hidden reaches of the classroom and to give teachers and parents simple tools for change _ methods that are not only fairer but better. "This isn't P.C.," says Myra Sadker "It's E.C. It's educationally correct."

It's been a whole generation since the day that the grade school principals walked out on Myra Sadker's "sex education" talk. The schools have changed since then. So has the world.

But too many of these inequities have lingered. They've just sat there, like a girl in the classroom, waiting patiently to be recognized. It's time we noticed.

Boston Globe