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Pay Attention to Girls in Middle School, AAUW Says

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Middle school educators would do well to take their cues about the direction of school reform from the behaviors and needs of their female students, a new report says.

School programs and efforts to support the success of girls are the same as many of the techniques advocated by the school-reform movement, says the report by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. Breaking down schools into smaller learning communities, such as teams or "houses," is one such strategy that allows students and adults to more readily get to know and care about each other. The report also endorses cooperative learning and an interdisciplinary, theme-based curriculum.

"Girls in the Middle: Working To Succeed in School" was scheduled for release this week in Washington. It is based on researchers' observations made during lengthy visits in 1994 and 1995 to six middle schools nationwide, as well as on interviews and focus groups. Research for Action, a nonprofit educational research and evaluation group in Philadelphia, did the research and wrote the report.

The study describes what the researchers found about the successful strategies middle school girls use to negotiate their way through school. Regardless of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences, girls used similar strategies.

The researchers put the girls' behaviors into three categories: speaking out, doing school, and crossing borders. A girl who "speaks out" asserts herself and may be perceived as a maverick leader or a troublemaker, the study says. Those who "do school" conform to traditional expectations. Those who "cross borders" move easily between groupssuch as between adults and peers or racial groups, the report says.

Gender Issues

The study's authors say that the different ways girls cope with middle school suggest that the wider range of female behaviors and achievements a school recognizes and the more opportunities and role models it provides, the more likely girls are to flourish.

While some schools are helping both girls and boys through reformers' attempts to rethink and improve public middle schools, educators still need to make gender equity a prominent part of their reform strategies, the report argues.

But Phyllis McClure, an independent Washington-based consultant on education and equity issues, said national achievement and course-taking statistics do not support the report's sense of urgency about girls.

"What the data tell us is that girls, in achievement, are doing as well or better than boys," said Ms. McClure, a former director of policy and information at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"This whole notion about a gender-equity gap is totally misplaced," she added.

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