Commentary Magazine


Are Girls Shortchanged in School?

In America today, more girls graduate from high school than boys and more of them go on to college, where they make up 55 percent of the total enrollment. Yet according to a report recently released by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “girls are invisible” in classrooms which “day in, day out, deliver the message that women’s lives count for less than men’s.”

This report, How Schools Shortchange Girls, has been enthusiastically greeted by the media. With almost no attempt to evaluate the evidence on which it purports to be based, front-page articles in most of the nation’s leading newspapers have simply passed on the report’s conclusions: that standardized tests are biased against girls; that curricula and textbooks ignore or stereotype women; that teachers demonstrate bias by paying less attention to girls; and that because of discrimination girls lag behind boys in math and science and tend not to pursue careers in those fields.

All these charges are either false or misleading. And no wonder, since How Schools Shortchange Girls is based on a body of research some of which is outdated, much of which is trivial (unpublished doctoral dissertations and obscure publications), and some of which was done under the auspices of the organization issuing the report—a little like quoting yourself as an authority for your own opinions. The report ignores any published evidence—of which there is quite a bit—that does not support its conclusions and overlooks any inconvenient facts that contradict or even tend to modify those conclusions or suggest explanations other than bias for any statistical discrepancy in favor of boys (though not when the numbers favor girls).

Take, for example, the charge that the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is biased against girls. True, girls do somewhat less well than boys on the SAT, which is used to help determine admission to college; it is also true that girls get higher grades in college than boys. Since the SAT thus “underpredicts” the performance of girls in college, it must, says the AAUW report, be biased against them. But this could just as well be turned around and used as evidence that boys are the victims of grading bias. After all, scholars not quoted in the report have pointed out that girls tend to take more courses in which grading is easier (art, music, literature), and which involve the verbal skills in which girls do better, than the tougher math and science courses more boys tend to take.

The charge that textbooks are biased against women is even more bizarre. Thus, a quantitative analysis of the content of three leading high-school texts in American history carried out at the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change at Smith College (and not cited by the AAUW report) found that women are portrayed more favorably than men; that there are proportionately more pictures of women, largely in untraditional roles; that even minor achievements by women are given extensive treatment compared to the achievements of men; that women are never represented unflatteringly, although men may be; that most accounts of historical events such as wars are considered primarily in terms of the contributions made by women (and minorities).

Students who read nothing but these textbooks (and that means most students in American high schools) wind up knowing more about minor female characters in the American past than about men who have had a significant influence on world and national affairs. The 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress test of history and literature found that more high-school students could identify Harriet Tubman than Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin and more knew that the Seneca Falls Declaration concerned women’s rights than when Lincoln was President. In American Voices, a new Scott, Foresman entry into the lucrative textbook market, the index entries under “Women” and “Women’s” are more than twice as long as those under World War I and World War II together.

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As for the observation that teachers pay more attention to boys, this is one of those ambiguous findings that the authors of the AAUW report automatically ascribe to bias. It has long been common knowledge that boys are more aggressive and harder to control in the traditional classroom. Calling on them more frequently may be a strategy for keeping them in line, focusing them on the academic task at hand. But even so, there is no evidence to indicate that this kind of attention translates into their learning more, earning better grades, or getting into college more easily (which, as we have seen, they do not).

Nor is there any evidence that, as the AAUW report charges, girls “are systematically discouraged from” and “are being steered away from” science, mathematics, and technology. The report—ignoring the possibility that biological, developmental, or cultural factors may well have something to do with the relative disinclination of girls to study these subjects—once again simply assumes that bias is at work. Accordingly, it suggests special programs for girls in math and science.

But encouraging girls to go into previously avoided fields, and then to work hard at excelling in them, is not exactly what the authors of the AAUW report have in mind here. We get some notion of what they do have in mind from a talk given by one of them, Dr. Peggy Mcintosh, an associate director at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, to teachers in Brookline, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1990.

McIntosh begins by describing a little girl who is unable to solve the problems on a worksheet that asks her to add a series of three numbers such as 1+3+5. Mcintosh objects to the assignment as an example of “the right/wrong, win/ lose/kill or be killed system” that defines learning as mastery—“vertical thinking,” as she calls it.

Vertical thinking involves “competition, exact thinking, decisiveness, being able to make an argument that will persuade others or to turn in the perfect paper.” To avoid such evils, Mcintosh recommends revising the assignment in terms of “lateral thinking,” which instead of asking, “How am I doing?” asks, “What is it to be alive?” One way of doing this is just to give the child the answers. Another is to let the children solve all problems in a group. (Incidentally, Mcintosh’s program for curricular innovation involves putting “not just math, but biology and chemistry off the right/wrong axis.”)

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The AAUW report, then, reflects the increasingly widespread attitude in American life that sees everything in terms of bias and group entitlements and ignores all the subtle and complex aspects of human nature that differentiate individuals—including women—from one another. As usual, the bottom line is a call for remedial legislation—in this case for a reactivation of the Women’s Educational Equity Act Program (WEEAP).

It was under WEEAP that federal funding was made available in 1974 for the development of “non-sexist” textbooks and other curricular materials. But since the Department of Education’s publication in 1983 of the report of the National Committee on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, programs for school reform have concentrated on issues other than gender bias—most notably on why American children of both sexes do so poorly on all measures of academic ability compared to children in other countries, whom they manage to outdo only on measures of self-esteem. Under the present Secretary, Lamar Alexander, the focus of the Department of Education is on raising academic standards throughout the system from kindergarten to college. Along the way, requests for continued funding for WEEAP have been dropped.

It is this process that the AAUW seeks to reverse by persuading us that the problem with our schools is gender bias rather than a bias against academic achievement. But sharing this latter bias to the full, the AAUW report could not be expected to fight it. And indeed, accepting its shoddy analysis and carrying out the predictably anti-intellectual recommendations that follow from it would only make our schools worse—for girls and boys alike.

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