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Helping Girls Succeed

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The recent introduction in Congress of initiatives to remedy gender inequities in the schools is an appropriate call to action. It confirms that the gender gap, which S.A.T. and A.C.T. scores have been reflecting, must be rectified. As we approach a new century in which it is projected that women and minorities will make up the majority of the workforce, our country can ill afford any lack of preparation in the critical fields of mathematics and science. Women and minorities have long been discouraged from pursuing these disciplines. Recent American College Testing Program scores, in which the gender gap between male and female students remains, demonstrate that this situation is not changing. (See Education Week, Sept. 22, 1993.)

While legislative action will help greatly, teachers and parents can themselves improve classroom learning. Certain new teaching stategies are key to improving learning for all students, regardless of gender or race.

Every educator should consider it a top priority to engage students in math and science, for too many students become alienated early on from these subjects. But parents and communities also must join in the fight against gender and racial bias. Perceptions must change at home. Studies have found, for instance, that Caucasian girls avoid math and science competitions and that their parents support this behavior; this type of overprotectiveness has not been found among Asian-American parents.

The culture of a school is critical in establishing new ground rules for participation and achievement. Math and science tend to be white male domains because they are frequently defined by the way men learn and practice these subjects. This need not imply, however, that this is how we should approach math and science.

The lessons learned in all-girls schools, and reflected in the research of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, have real value for the underrepresented in math and science. Here are some steps that we believe can help girls and minorities realize their potential:

  • Provide positive role models in the classroom who are inspirational teachers; and, when possible, employ more teachers of the same race or gender as the students. Research has shown that girls do not yet picture themselves as leaders in fields long dominated by males. For example, when asked to draw a scientist, girls most often draw men.
  • Use more small-group dialogues and hands-on learning experiences, which have proved to be more effective for all students in improving understanding, increasing curiosity, and promoting involvement and cooperation. There should be less lecturing, passive listening, and imitating.
  • Equalize interactions and expectations between the sexes, thereby providing the same opportunities for class participation. Studies by the journal Women in Science have shown, for example, that 9-year-old boys have more opportunities to use scientific equipment, to perform science experiments, and to take science-related field trips than girls of the same age.
  • Call on real-life examples and use gender-friendly metaphors that are meaningful to minorities and girls. Male metaphors should be balanced with female metaphors. Girls' perception of science discourages them from expressing an interest, performing well, and continuing in science studies.
  • Use longer waiting periods between asking a question and calling on students to answer, to give all students the chance to reflect before responding. Research shows that girls like to ponder questions longer than their male peers, so a waiting period of 30 seconds would equalize responses. "Target students''--those judged to be the brightest, who grab for and receive the most attention in a classroom--are four to one male to female in coed settings.
  • Encourage female and minority students by making it clear that they are expected to succeed.
  • Realize that the way females learn and interact can be different from males--not better or worse. A collaborative and cooperative teaching style, rather than a competitive one, will engage all students more. Teaching girls to learn like boys is not the answer.

Patterns at all-girls schools prove these strategies work: Compared with their counterparts at other schools, girls in all-girls schools take math and science courses at double the national average, do well in physics, and, according to a study by Hunter College, outperform girls in coed schools on the Advanced Placement calculus exam.

As girls and minorities benefit from these techniques, so can all students. The National Coalition of Girls' Schools' pioneering Math and Science for Girls Symposium and the resulting report of the same name detail findings on effective teaching methods that can be applied to all students.

A task force commissioned by the U.S. Education Department concurs that the environment and teaching methods at girls' schools help learning. "Single-Sex Schooling,'' a 1992 draft report, stated, "We conclude there is empirical support for the view that single-sex schools may accrue positive outcomes particularly for young women.''

Talent comes in both genders and in every race. To be the best, our country's math and science communities must represent the diversity of all our students. We can no longer afford to disregard half of our potential mathematicians and scientists and citizens of the next generation. It is our challenge and duty to tap the entire talent pool with teaching strategies that make a difference.

Meg Milne Moulton and Whitney Ransome are the executive directors of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools in Concord, Mass.

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