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Christina Hoff Sommers Responds to David Sadker

To the Editor:

My article ("Where the Boys Are," June 12, 1996) argued that, contrary to popular opinion, it is boys rather than girls who are on the weak side of the gender gap. If you look at most relevant data on gender differentials--grades, college attendance, engagement with school, self-destructive behavior, etc.--boys show up as the "gender at risk." David Sadker ("Where the Girls Are," Sept. 4, 1996,) who believes that our biased system has been "failing at fairness" to girls, counters by reciting poorer girls' scores on the SAT and the Graduate Record Examination. But SAT scores tell you about the higher end of the school population. Far more boys than girls are at the low end.

To get a balanced picture, you need to look at tests that measure all our children--not just the top two-fifths that take the SAT. One relevant inclusive test is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and it shows that girls are slightly behind boys in math and science, while boys are way behind girls in reading and writing. If anything, NAEP may be understating the deficit for boys: Boys are overrepresented in programs for the learning-disabled, and children in these programs are often excluded from the NAEP tests.

The American Association of University Women promoted the claim that girls are being drained of self-confidence and academically "shortchanged" by gender-biased schools. When I was writing Who Stole Feminism?, I was impressed by how much the AAUW reports relied on the claims of Myra and David Sadker. Page two of the executive summary of the AAUW's How Schools Shortchange Girls says: "In a study conducted by Myra and David Sadker, boys in elementary and middle school called out answers eight times more often than girls. When boys called out, teachers listened. But when girls called out, they were told to 'raise your hand if you want to speak.'"

This "factoid" soon became a favorite with journalists and politicians as knock-down evidence of pervasive gender bias in our nation's schools. It was dramatic evidence that schools are "failing at fairness." But the authenticity of the 8-to-1 call-out claim came into question when it became impossible to find any study presenting the evidence for it.

Amy Saltzman, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report, was intrigued by this and set out to locate the Sadker research herself. This is what she reported: "The findings, says Sadker, were presented in a unpublished paper at a symposium sponsored by the American Educational Research Association. ... The Sadkers no longer have a copy of the paper, and AERA could not track it down." According to Ms. Saltzman, David Sadker conceded that "the number ... may have been flawed." But there is a lot more in the Sadker oeuvre that may be flawed.

In my book, I pointed out that although the Sadkers are well-known for their claims on classroom dynamics, there do not appear to be any peer-reviewed publications in professional journals in which they lay out their original data and findings on classroom interactions. In his answer to my Commentary, Mr. Sadker had another opportunity to set the record straight by providing references to the research supporting his well-known claims. But he turns instead to attacking me personally.

Though he is well aware that it has been discredited, he makes the suggestion that I invented an interview with a teacher. This charge, which he has made before, was investigated by a Philadelphia Inquirer journalist, Cathy Young. Ms. Young conducted a taped interview with the teacher in question. The teacher said that while she could not really recall having spoken with me, that it was nevertheless "entirely possible" that she had spoken to me. When Ms. Young asked her directly whether it wasn't "likely" that I had interviewed her, since I seemed to know so many details about her class, the teacher replied, "I'm sure she must have, because where else could she have gotten that information?" Mr. Sadker knows about Ms. Young's interview with the teacher but feels free to repeat a charge he knows to be baseless.

To reinforce the impression that I'm in the habit of reporting interviews that never took place, Mr. Sadker adds that "a graduate student quoted by Ms. Sommers as saying some pretty terrible things about gender-equity research also never remembered being interviewed by Ms. Sommers." Mr. Sadker speaks of my quoting a student who has told him that she or he "does not remember" having been interviewed by me. But now which interview is that supposed to be? Where do I quote a student saying "terrible things" to me about gender-equity research? He seems to be confused; there is nothing in my writing about any interview by me of any of Mr. Sadker's graduate students.

My book did quote a colleague of Mr. Sadker who takes a dim view of his research methods and who described how one of Mr. Sadker's graduate students was conducting research on gender bias in his classroom. That colleague has never questioned the accuracy of my reporting, nor has he changed his mind about the Sadkers' methods.

Finally, Mr. Sadker speaks of my having misrepresented an interview I had with University of Michigan researcher Valerie Lee which was "quoted in Education Week." But no such interview was quoted in my Commentary. I cited a statement Ms. Lee made to the Harvard Education Letter about Mr. Sadker's Failing at Fairness which said of that book that it "does not contain an ounce of real research." That crisp statement is the simple truth. That Mr. Sadker cannot produce the evidence for his famous 8-to-1 "call out" claim is also true. Ms. Lee, whose own research was funded by the AAUW, now seems to find her admirable candor about the inadequacy of the Sadkers' research embarrassing. But that it is inadequate is the general judgment of many other responsible experts in the field of education.

David Sadker has spent lots of time on ad feminam attacks and very little time addressing the problem of boys' educational deficits that I raised in my Commentary. He states that after a painstaking survey into gender-related research, he never came across my name. "That was our first clue," he writes. "We soon discovered that she [Sommers] was neither an educator nor a researcher. She is a philosopher."

Why am I not surprised to find Mr. Sadker so disdainful of anyone trained in critical thinking?

Christina Hoff Sommers
Philosophy Department
Clark University
Worcester, Mass.

A Final Word on Gender: What Would Freud Say?

To the Editor:

I heard David Sadker ("Where the Girls Are," Sept. 4, 1996) speak a couple of years ago, and he offered the following evidence that our society favored boys over girls: He asked girls and boys how life would be different if they woke up the next morning and found themselves the other gender. Girls talked of a world of new possibilities; boys looked at the prospect with horror and didn't want to imagine the situation. Ergo, social prejudice.

Freud may be out of fashion, but it doesn't take much to figure out what was going through the boys' minds , and Mr. Sadker's lack of recognition of the different natures of the two genders indicates an ideological agenda rather than a desire to probe reality, precisely Christina Hoff Sommers' contention.

Joseph W. McPherson
Headmaster
The Heights School
Potomac, Md.

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