Sexism In The Schoolhouse

The girls in Jill Gugisberg Wall's science class at Farnsworth Elementary School in St. Paul, Minn., get angry when they think about the bad old days. At the schools they attended before coming to Farnsworth, "the boys got all the attention," says Carrie Paladie, 12. "Every time we asked a question, the teacher would just ignore us." Her classmate, 11-year-old Jennie Montour, agrees: "The boys got to participate in everything." Jennie says the teachers made her feel "that I was stupid." Their new science teacher's mission is to change all that. "In my classroom," she says, "I encourage everyone to be involved."

Unfortunately, there are too few teachers like Wall. Sexism may be the most widespread and damaging form of bias in the classroom, according to a report released last week by the American Association of University Women. The report, which summarized 1,331 studies of girls in school, describes a pattern of downward intellectual mobility for girls. The AAUW found that girls enter first grade with the same or better skills and ambitions as boys. But, all too often, by the time they finish high school, "their doubts have crowded out their dreams."

In elementary school, the researchers say, teachers call on boys much more often and give them more encouragement. Boys frequently need help with reading, so remedial reading classes are an integral part of many schools. But girls, who just as often need help with math, rarely get a similar chance to sharpen their skills. Boys get praised for the intellectual content of their work while girls are more likely to be praised for neatness. Boys tend not to be penalized for calling out answers and taking risks; girls who do the same are reprimanded for being rude. Research indicates that girls learn better in cooperative settings, where students work together, while boys learn better in competitive settings. Yet most schools are based on a competitive model. The report also indicates that schools are becoming more tolerant of male students sexually harassing female students.

Despite these problems, girls get better grades and are more likely to go on to college , according to the report. But even these successful girls have less confidence in their abilities than boys, have higher expectations of failure and more modest aspirations. The result, the report concludes, is that girls are less likely to reach their potential than boys.

The differences between the sexes are greatest in science. Between 1978 and 1986, the gap between the national science achievement test scores of 9- and 13-year-old boys and girls widened-because girls did worse and boys did better. Girls and boys take about the same number of science courses, but girls are more likely to take advanced biology and boys are more likely to take physics and advanced chemistry. Even girls who take the same courses as boys and perform equally well on tests are less likely than boys to choose technical careers. A Rhode Island study found that 64 percent of the boys who had taken physics and calculus in high school were planning to major in science or engineering, compared with only 18.6 percent of the girls who had taken those courses.

More than two thirds of the nation's teachers are women. Presumably, their gender bias is unintentional but no less apparent. American University researchers Myra and David Sadker have taped hundreds of hours of class sessions in schools around the country and have studied how teachers react to boys and girls. "When researchers have asked teachers to remember their favorite students, it always ends up being kids who conformed to gender stereotypes," says David Sadker. "The ones they like best are assertive males and the ones they like least are assertive females."

Critics of the report's conclusions point out that girls have come a long way in the last 20 years. "If you're talking equity," says Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education, "you have to acknowledge that there are more women enrolled in college today than men. Women have the edge." Rather than sexism in education, she says, the problem is sexist attitudes encouraged by TV, advertising and the movies: the researchers "picked the wrong target." Ravitch thinks much of the educational gap could be closed by simply telling girls to take more science and advanced math.

Other education experts say the remedy is much more complicated. Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, advocates incorporating gender awareness into teacher training and classroom reviews. Also, he says, as schools upgrade their math and science standards, they should encourage more participation by girls. A more controversial solution might be single-sex schools or sex segregation at crucial points in a girl's development. "For most girls it's a very affirming experience," says Agnes Underwood, headmistress of the all-girls National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. "You get a level of support you absolutely do not get in a coed classroom."

In Jill Wall's class, girls get a lot of support from their teacher. Wall learned more about teaching girls after receiving an AAUW fellowship in 1990 during which she studied elementary science education. Last year she ran a science program for inner-city girls. At Farnsworth, her students give her straight A's. "She treats us all the same," says Tamika Aubert, 11. Equity in the classroom won't turn all girls-or boys-into physicists. But maybe we'll get a generation of teachers who can delight in assertive girls and shy boys with a talent for the arts.