Girls, Boys, and Schooling: Sex Equity and Excellence

April 04, 1984 11 min read

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last month in a case involving the federal law barring sex bias in educational programs, the Mid-Atlantic Center for Sex Equity at The American University in Washington, D.C., has fielded many phone calls from school officials seeking help in interpreting the decision.

The center, established at The American University in 1978 with federal funds appropriated under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is one of 11 regional centers nationwide that supply educators and parents with information, training, and materials about sex equity and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. With its annual allocation from the U.S. Education Department, $285,000 for this year, the center is expected to serve 805 school districts in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

The center’s director, David Sadker, has been studying aspects of sex equity in education for the past 11 years as a member of the education faculty at the university. His colleague in that research has been his wife, Myra Sadker, who is also dean of The American University School of Education.

The Sadkers recently talked with Staff Writer Anne Bridgman about their work.

QHow would you define sex equity?

ADavid Sadker: Basically, I think it’s treating students according to their individual needs in a school setting, and not according to extraneous or noneducational needs such as race, sex, religion. It’s educators treating each student according to his or her individual needs or talents.

Myra Sadker: It’s not letting sex bias interfere with the best possible education you can give kids.

QWhat evidence is there of discrimination against girls in the classroom?

AMS: Years after the passage of Title IX, sex bias and discrimination still permeate school life. We see everything from the most blatant to some very subtle evidence of discrimination. When we were developing our observation instrument, we went into classes and we heard a lot of teachers talk. The blatant bias is not all that common, but I can remember one science teacher who was talking about outstanding inventors. Inventor after inventor was male, until finally one little girl raised her hand and asked, ‘Weren’t there ever any women inventors?’ and he said, ‘Oh, come on, honey, we’re not going to get into that,’ which represented a dismissal of a very real need she had to know about people of her own sex who had made achievements. We would consider that kind of bias pretty blatant.

Usually, however, it is subtle and it very often deals with girls getting less teaching attention than their male counterparts. Research shows that those students who get teacher attention and get to participate and talk in class are likely to achieve more and to have more positive attitudes toward school.

QWhat about bias involving boys?

AMS: What we find is that boys get their own short end of the stick, or, in this case, perhaps long end of the stick, because they seem to be treated a little bit unfairly in terms of discipline and classroom management. The studies say that boys are likely to receive anywhere from three times to 10 times as many behavior reprimands as girls do. And sometimes it’s because boys deserve it, because they are misbehaving more. In other cases, however, even when boys and girls are misbehaving equally, the boys are more likely to get harsher reprimands.

QIs there a difference between the ways male and female teachers interact with their students?

AMS: We find that the patterns are the same, that the greater likelihood of girl students being invisible is the same whether the teacher is male or female.

QWhen the bias is more subtle, is it more difficult for a teacher to recognize?

AMS: Obviously, these kinds of subtle bias are not things teachers want to do. Teachers don’t want to leave girls out of discussions, they don’t want to discriminate, they want to be fair, but they’re unaware that this discrimination is going on.

QHow do you make teachers aware of the bias in their classrooms?

AMS: Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of giving them some of the research, talking about issues like spelling bees that are arranged by boys against girls, or common patterns that females use to answer questions with a self-putdown, like ‘I don’t know if this could possibly be right, but do you think maybe ...’ and then they come up with a wonderful answer. When you talk about some of these patterns, teachers become aware and they want to change.

But sometimes they say, ‘Oh, yes, that’s that other teacher, that’s not me. I’m glad you’re talking to those other teachers about this issue.’ And for those teachers, we find it very helpful to videotape a class, sit down, take a look at the videotape with the teacher, and count to see who the teacher is talking to. Very often, the pattern is confirmed. When teachers see that, they say, ‘Oh, I don’t believe I did that. What do I do, how do I change?’ And that’s how you begin to work.

QWhat have you learned from observing teachers?

ADS: We learned that 20 percent of the students, both boys and girls, were not participating. We learned that a single student is getting about 20 to 25 percent of the teacher’s total attention. We found that when teachers began thinking about equity and trying to involve boys and girls equally in the classroom, not only did they do that, but the quality of their interaction increased, the level of intellectual interaction in the classroom increased, and their answers and responses to students’ comments were much more precise and much more helpful. In short, they became better teachers.

QWhat role do education schools play in preparing future teachers to interact fairly with students?

ADS: In a study that was funded by the Women’s Educational Equity Act, we looked at the 24 best-selling teacher-education textbooks. We found that books were tremendously biased, that we’re training tomorrow’s teachers with yesterday’s ideas, which is just going to slow down change and improvement in this area.

For example, when we reviewed six books designed to help teachers teach math and science, we found that only one of the books mentioned the significantly lower achievement scores females receive in math and science, and that was in a very short and poor paragraph that included comments like, ‘Girls are more superstitious than boys.’

On the other hand, when we looked at the reading-methods textbooks, we found sections explaining how teachers could help boys overcome their reading problems. Some of the suggestions were discriminatory in themselves, suggesting, in one case, that teachers purchase three times as many books about male characters as about female characters to entice boys to read.

QYou seem to be suggesting that education schools are not really addressing the problem. How do you communicate your message to their students?

AMS: We’re finding it in many ways harder to reach schools of education than to actually reach teachers who are out there in the field. In the schools, there may be a standardized day in which all teachers are expected to attend a teacher workshop or conference. If sex equity is on the agenda, then everyone learns about sex equity. And even those people who may have started out feeling that this is not for them, because they were required to be there, may find that it’s very interesting and pertinent.

In colleges, however, a professor may attend a conference or maybe he or she doesn’t attend it. It’s much more individualistic. And the same with book adoptions--at the elementary and secondary level, there are often adoption committees that look at texts to make sure they are fair to all students and that they are not sexist or racist. In higher education, however, the selection of books is a very individual matter, so there is no way to monitor or keep track of whether the books are dealing with the issues or not.

QBesides teachers, what factors play a role in eliminating bias in the classroom?

ADS: We work with administrators to help them see how they can organize school programs that are not biased. We work with counselors to help them in offering students nonbiased career choices. We work with all school personnel because they all play a role in this. In addition, we work with personnel beyond the classroom, with the community, with parents, because, although teachers are an important wedge in changing what happens in society, they can’t bear the entire burden of this problem. It’s going to take a concerted effort to make sure we overcome this rather widespread problem.

QResearch has shown that students spend 90 to 95 percent of their time working with instructional materials, including textbooks. How do these instructional materials affect the classroom in terms of sex equity?

ADS: There’s a lot of bias in textbooks. Although there has been some progress in the last decade, recent studies show the bias persists in a variety of forms. One way is through omission. For example, in the leading social-studies textbook at the high-school level a decade ago, there were two or three pages on women in a book that had about 700 pages. A recent study of the revised edition shows that women now are covered in 14 pages of this still more-than-700-page textbook. That’s progress, but it’s not progress to where we’d like to see it.

QHow have the center’s services changed in the last six years?

ADS: There’s more need now than there was before the Administration’s block-grants program for technical assistance and training to respond to the larger educational responsibility that’s moved to the local level. Because of that new responsibility, local and state educators are calling us and requesting information and support and training to help them carry out their role. Because there are now so few other organizations available to provide this service, local school districts really depend on us to a greater extent than they have before.

QWhat kinds of calls do you receive at the center?

ADS: We respond to 750 to 1,000 requests for assistance a year, mostly phone requests for materials. And we do about one workshop or conference per week. In some areas, we’re receiving more calls, and in some, less. We’re receiving fewer calls in the area of athletics; we used to receive quite a number. We are receiving more calls from school people who want to understand the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Grove City College--specifically, what areas of Title IX might still affect them, what areas of Title IX might not be pertinent at this point. Unless they have a lawyer on call, we’re one of the few places they can go to ask those kinds of questions.

QHow do you think the Supreme Court decision in Grove City affects the scope of Title IX?

ADS: The Supreme Court made a decision based on its interpretation of the intent of Congress. At this point, the ball is in Congress’ court. It will be up to Congress to say, ‘Yes, that was our intention’ or ‘No, that wasn’t our intention.’ I suspect we will hear shortly as to Congressional reaction.

QWhat authority does the center have in terms of Title IX compliance?

ADS: We are in a wonderfully advantageous position because we are designed to assist rather than to enforce. It’s our purpose to help school districts comply with Title IX and to promote equitable and effective educational programs. We work only at the invitation of the superintendent. We do not deal with compliance or enforcement; that is the responsibility of the Education Department’s office for civil rights. Our unique place is as a ready resource to help local and state school districts do their work. It’s a nice position to be in.

QAre there times when you see areas of noncompliance and are powerless to report them as violations?

ADS: Yes, there are times when we see Title IX violated. It puts us in a difficult position.

QWould you like to have more power in the area of compliance?

ADS: There are times when we think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could cite this as a violation of Title IX’ and say, ‘You’d better change it.’ But that really would be perverting our role, and that’s why we never do that. When we see a violation of Title IX, we point it out to district officials and ask them if they are interested in remedying the problem, but we have to have the complete confidence of the people we work for. For school districts that are cited by the office for civil rights as being in violation of Title IX, we provide a resource, someone they can turn to.

QHow would you gauge the progress of your work in the field of sex equity?

AMS: In terms of teachers, I think there’s been tremendous progress. We’re really at a very advanced level dealing with this interaction. Ten years ago, we didn’t even have a term for sexism and when we talked to people, they thought we were talking about sex education. Then, people seemed to become obsessed with athletics, as if that were the only issue. We’ve come so far since then.

This teacher-student interaction issue that we’re dealing with now is really the heart of teaching. It deals with excellence as well as equity. You can’t even conceptualize excellence in education without the inclusion of equity. If a teacher is not adequately talking to and instructing half the students, how can that teacher be considered excellent? Teachers are responding very enthusiastically to the research and training in interaction for both excellence and equity.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 1984 edition of Education Week as Girls, Boys, and Schooling: Sex Equity and Excellence