Education Letter to the Editor

Gender Equity: Pitting Boys Against Girls

August 07, 1996 6 min read
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To the Editor:

No one benefits from a dialogue that pits boys against girls. In her Commentary “Where the Boys Are” (June 12, 1996), Christina Hoff Sommers does just that by maligning and discounting gender equity and self-esteem, issues that more than 20 years of scientific research prove impact girls and their futures. As a principal of a high school in the Chicago area, I agree that research is needed on boys’ academic progress and on the high number of boys classified as “special education students.” But you don’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul. Research focusing on girls can and does tell us a lot about boys.

“Growing Smart: What’s Working for Girls in School,” the first in a series of studies on school climate and gender equity commissioned by the American Association of University Women, concludes that innovative teaching strategies such as cooperative learning, greater hands-on access to computers and tools, and single-sex classes increase girls’ engagement and achievement in public education. The study found that what works for girls also benefits boys. While some boys excel in a competitive learning environment, others thrive in a cooperative one. As educators, we cannot force-fit girls and boys into model programs in a one-size-fits-all approach. We must examine the needs of all students in the context of their gender, race, culture, socioeconomic status, and physical ability if we expect education reform to succeed.

Underscoring this customized approach to school reform is “The Influence of School Climate and Gender Differences on the Achievement and Engagement of Young Adolescents.” The second study in the AAUW’s school-climate series, it challenges the assumption that common-sense approaches to school reform such as safe and orderly environments translate into stronger achievement for girls. Positive changes in school climate may raise average achievement and engagement while widening the gender gap.

The study also confirmed what the AAUW already knGirls are well-behaved and compliant. But despite better grades, they get less preparation for higher learning. Longitudinal research is needed, however, as this study provides a snapshot of school climate’s effect on gender equity, achievement, and engagement and raises many more questions than it answers.

In September, the AAUW will release “Girls in the Middle: Working to Succeed in School,” the final study in its school-climate series. Through qualitative methodology, it looks at strategies that adolescent girls use to cope with the challenges of middle school, how teachers, parents, communities, and peers react to these strategies, and how school-reform efforts that incorporate gender equity help girls succeed. Together these reports provide new insights about girls from three different perspectives.

In a tradition that began 115 years ago, the AAUW’s research significantly contributes to the national dialogue on education reform, offering real recommendations to solve real problems. Pontificating from an ivory tower simply does not do that. We need research, not rhetoric, as we as educators, administrators, policymakers, and parents prepare our children for the future.

Jackie DeFazio
American Association of University Women
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

I would like to respond to reference that Christina Hoff Sommers made about my work in her Commentary “Where the Boys Are.” There are two issues I would like to address.

The first issue concerns the research I have done that was sponsored by the American Association of University Women. The study, entitled “The Influence of School Climate on Gender Differences in the Achievement and Engagement of Young Adolescents,” was sponsored by the AAUW. That organization awarded me a grant to support research that Iproposed to them. Although the work fell within their ongoing research agenda on gender and school climate (which is why they supported the study), the topic, format, research methods, and conclusions were entirely those of myself and my two co-authors. (Ms. Sommers failed to mention that the paper had three authors: Xianglei Chen, Becky A. Smerdon, and myself.) While I am glad that Ms. Sommers found the study “responsible and objective,” words of high praise in my profession, those words were couched in a setting that provided fuel for Ms. Sommers’ continuing attack on the AAUW. I am not happy to have my work used for this purpose, even indirectly.

The reason the report was “released without the fanfare the AAUW usually lavishes on such announcements” had nothing at all to do with the AAUW trying to downplay the results, as Ms. Sommers suggests. Rather, this format was in response to my insistence (with support from the University of Michigan) that the authors of the study held the copyright to the work, rather than the AAUW. Typically, when the AAUW supports research they “own” it, and it is published under their cover. The reports “How Schools Shortchange Girls” and “Hostile Hallways” were of this type. Therefore, the AAUW was unable to produce one of their usual reports with the usual fanfare, although they had hoped to do this. Quite simply, the report belonged to us, and not to the AAUW. We retained the copyright so that we could later publish it in a scholarly journal.

Thus, the invited session at the AAUW offices in Washington, D.C., at which the paper was presented included only researchers and policymakers with some familiarity with the data I used for the study, drawn from the U.S. Department of Education’s newest study, NELS:88. Ms. Sommers asked to attend this meeting, but the AAUW staffer with whom I spoke felt that her presence would detract from the focus of the meeting.

Ms. Sommers seems to have a vendetta against the AAUW, and so she chooses to report anything they do in the worst possible light. In this case, her comments were off base. My dealings with AAUW personnel have been courteous and pleasant. They never in any way tried to influence my findings or conclusions. The fact that “the dearth of news coverage was total"is unimportant to me as a researcher. I am less interested in the public eye than Ms. Sommers obviously is. The audience for my work is usually found in readers of scholarly journals or with my research colleagues.

The second misconception in Ms. Sommers’ article surrounds my opinions about the work of David and Myra Sadker and about their 1994 book Failing at Fairness. I am quite familiar with the Sadkers’ work and have cited it on several occasions, including in the study to which Ms. Sommers refers. Iconsider that the Sadkers’ work has important statements to make about the circumstances surrounding girls in U.S. classrooms. The intended audience for their book is quite different from the audience to whom I typically direct my work. Their book is meant to appeal to a lay audience that does not demand the same level of evidence as does the readership--and definitely the editorial staff and reviewers--of academic journals. The book does not report new empirical work in a form research studies typically take. Rather, it contains reports of the Sadkers’ work in a form intended for a popular audience, and it reviews others’ research, including my own.

Most of my own research is quantitative, multivariate, and much of it uses sophisticated statistical methodology. The Sadkers’ book isn’t of that sort. Nor does it purport to be. Ms. Sommers suggests that Ifind the book without value, and that is not the case. If it were, I would not cite it.

In fact, there are issues in Ms. Sommers’ article that I find valid. It is unfortunate that she makes her case in a strident fashion that is intended to injure others. It is important to me that I set the record straight about the uses she is making of my work.

I recognize that a letter to the editor has much less impact than a Commentary that that fills two pages of Education Week. But I hope that you will print this letter. I feel Christina Hoff Sommers has used my name to try and damage the American Association of University Women and American University professor of education David Sadker. This I object to.

Valerie E. Lee
Associate Professor
School of Education
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 1996 edition of Education Week as Gender Equity: Pitting Boys Against Girls


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