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Bias Against Girls Found in Both Coed, One-Sex Schools

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Sexist behavior in private secondary-school classrooms can be found not only in coeducational environments but in boys' and girls' schools as well, a University of Michigan study has found.

Bias against girls took different forms depending on the type of school, with the "most severe'' form occurring in all-boys schools, the report says.

But incidents occurred in roughly equal numbers in each kind of school, according to the study, which reflects researchers' observations from 86 classrooms in 21 independent schools during the 1988-89 school year.

Not one of the 21 schools--7 each from among coeducational, girls', and boys' institutions--visited by the female researchers was free of sexism, according to the report, "Sexism in Single-Sex and Coeducational Secondary School Classrooms,'' released late last month.

Even in girls' schools, in which the researchers noted more incidents of gender equity, there was also evidence of a "pernicious'' form of sexism, "with academic dependence and non-rigorous instruction not uncommon,'' the study says.

Coeducational chemistry classes were found to be the most likely location over all for incidents that were biased against girls. Teachers--regardless of school type or subject--initiated most sexist incidents, the study says.

The schools least likely to have incidents of classroom sexism, the researchers found, were those that had active policies favoring gender equity in enrollment and the treatment of faculty and students as well as gender balance on the faculty.

Valerie E. Lee, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan and the lead researcher on the report, called the study the first to look at sexism in single-sex schools and to shed light on the degree of gender equity in, for example, an all-girls school.

"Just removing boys from the classroom or from the school is not going to miraculously evaporate sexism,'' Ms. Lee said last week.

For example, one girls'-school calculus class stereotyped students in attempting to make the subject "palatable'' to girls by "trivializing formulas, mathematical language, and procedures,'' the study says.

In another incident, a history teacher in a girls' school offered to be "available for major handholding for term-paper stuff,'' before students requested any help.

Boys' Schools Worst

But the most severe examples of sexism--the only ones to involve explicitly sexual incidents--occurred at boys' schools, the study found.

In an English class, for example, a boy read aloud his essay interpreting a Shakespeare sonnet, describing the poem's persona: "He wanted sex with this chick, this 'skanky' chick, and he didn't even like her.'' The teacher did not rebuke the student.

The same classroom was decorated with photos of male groups, as well as a cartoon of a bare-breasted woman, the report says.

In coeducational schools, chemistry classes generated 66 percent of all sexist incidents--or 21 out of 32 events--even though those classes made up just 20 percent of those observed, Ms. Lee said.

A chemistry-class incident in one coed school represented probably the most overtly sexist incident observed because it came as a personal attack, according to Ms. Lee.

In a class of nine boys and five girls, a male teacher addressed only the boys in describing an experiment to be done by students.

A girl in the front row asked for clarification, was ignored, and repeated her question. The teacher, clearly exasperated, tossed water from a graduated cylinder onto the girl and her desk. The entire class laughed, and was not controlled by the teacher.

In an after-class discussion between the observer and the teacher, the teacher revealed he thought "girls weren't suited to 'do' science.''

Margaret Goldsborough, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Schools, said such schools have been leaders in focusing on sex equity, and as more become coeducational, they have been "trying very hard to make classrooms a healthy place'' for all students.

But, she said, "Our schools, like all schools and all societal institutions, are dealing with some [attitudes that are] ages-old.''

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