Private Schools Column
Only by actively confronting sexism in the classroom can single-sex and coeducational independent schools achieve gender equity, Valerie Lee, an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan, has concluded.
Speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools in New York City this month, Ms. Lee gave a report of her ongoing research into the effectiveness of single-sex education in independent schools. The focus of her most recent effort was a comparison of gender equity in all-boys, all-girls, and coeducational classrooms.
Ms. Lee and her associates visited classrooms in 21 independent schools to record incidents of both sexism and gender equity. The visits were divided evenly among all-boys, all-girls, and coed schools, with a total of 86 full class periods visited.
Ms. Lee used a broad definition of sexist incidents, including sex-role reinforcement, sexual stereotyping, and active discrimination against female students. She then devised a scale to rate the severity of such incidents.
"We found some troubling forms of gender discrimination in more than half the classrooms," she said.
Some examples of what they found:
In chemistry classes in a girls' school, the observers found teachers who explained chemistry to the girls in terms of baking. Beakers were likened to measuring cups, she said.
In an English class in a boys' school, a male teacher suggested to his students that a girl's measurements were a good example of a descriptive characteristic they could use in writing their assigned papers.
In a science class in a coeducational school, male students were allowed to dominate discussions, even to the point of interrupting girls who were speaking.
On the scale developed by the researchers, both all-boys and coeducational classrooms tied for having the most sexist incidents, with 66 "severity points" each, Ms. Lee said. All-girls classrooms chalked up only 54 points on this scale, she said.
The researchers found that in coed classrooms there tended to be more sex-role reinforcement and gender stereotyping in addition to male domination.
Displays of sexism were milder in all-girls classrooms, but there were many incidences of teachers treating students in a childlike manner, Ms. Lee found.
All-boys classrooms seemed to foster the most egregious examples of serious sexist incidents, Ms. Lee said, including the most examples of explicitly sexual incidents.
She concluded that schools can make a big difference in students' attitudes on sexism and equity.
If they have strong policies aimed at eliminating sexism and fostering equity, teachers and students will tend to behave better, she said.
All-girls schools have done more to "set the tone" on equity issues, she said.
"Girls' schools have suffused equity into their curricula in a way that should be an example to boys' and coed schools," Ms. Lee said.
She hopes that the results of the research will be published within the next few months.
John C. Esty Jr., the outgoing president of the nais, said at the group's annual conference this month that the future of independent education in the United States depends on how well independent schools perform in areas where they remain apart from the public schools.
These areas, Mr. Esty stressed in both formal and informal remarks, include greater attention to students' learning styles, nurturing a sense of community service among students, and teaching in a moral and ethical context.
Mr. Esty, who will retire this summer, will be succeeded by Peter D. Relic, the former superintendent of the public schools in Charlotte, N.C.
In an essay in the latest edition of the Teachers College Record, the journal of Teachers College at Columbia University, Mr. Esty writes that in thinking about the future, "independent schools need to be clear that their health is ultimately connected with the health of public schools."
When strong public high schools developed in America's suburbs following World War II, threatening the "college-prep monopoly" of private schools, those schools "responded by broadening their purpose. So independent schools need the stimulation of creative public schools and vice versa," he adds.
The special section of Teachers College Record devoted to independent education in the 1990's also includes essays by Pearl Kane, an assistant professor at Teachers College, on the state of independent schools; Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, on "The Role of Nonpublic Schools in America Today"; E.M. Swift, a writer at Sports Illustrated magazine, on the role of sports in independent schools; and Michael S. Cary, dean of admissions and financial aid at Deerfield Academy, on that school's recent transformation into a coeducational institution.
The Spring 1991 issue of Teachers College Record is available for $10 from Teachers College, Columbia University, 525 West 120th St., Box 103, New York, N.Y. 10027.--mw