Education Opinion

Is Education a Girl Thing?

By Nancy Flanagan — June 07, 2012 3 min read
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I’m chatting with a well-known, prolific (male) education blogger, whose work I greatly admire--and whose name I’m not going to reveal. I love what he writes, because it’s deep--reaching past media flip-offs and who’s winning the policy wars and whether they’re Gates-funded. He writes about things like how children think, deconstructing the impact of competition on learning, and organic leadership that isn’t laid out in seven steps by a Famous Author. We’re talking about a mutual passion: how to get more teachers, beginning with bloggers, into rich professional conversation networks. He says:

How can we get the guy who works in urban schools, the guy who made his name on using tech tools in the classroom, the guy who teaches poor kids in a remote rural school, and the guy who teaches in the high-performing ‘burbs to talk together?

There’s a pause. That’s a lot of guys, I say. Can girls play, too?

Immediately, he’s self-conscious about the language that came without thinking. We talk about how the gender makeup of the teaching force impacts the profession’s willingness to stand up for itself. How this gender disproportion impacts all kinds of issues, from why teachers can’t get family insurance (the presumption there’s a husband whose job will provide it) to why Scott Walker stripped away teachers’ rights, rather than firefighters.’ We discuss iconic women (Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, Wendy Kopp) who are held up as “proof” that the national discourse on education reform is gender-diverse.

But it’s not. It’s a heavily male-dominated arena. Men are making the policy arguments and pronouncements, hosting the virtual communities and producing the media. Women are carrying out the policy orders, teaching kids to read using scripted programs and facing 36 students in their algebra classes. And when teachers are bold enough to mention this, they’re likely to be reminded that fixing public education is far more important than their “feelings” about being slighted--a depressingly familiar argument to women of a certain age who consider themselves feminists.

This is more than unsubstantiated blah-blah. There’s plenty of evidence that men are the loudest voices in the media around social issues like education. Here, here, here and here, for example. And when women are powerful, smart and respected, the negative pushback is especially vicious--on both sides of any ed-policy disagreement.

Makes me wonder: Has the “reform” movement (the one where public education is an untapped market, and testing the linchpin strategy) gotten as far as it has because those most motivated to mobilize resistance--K-12 teachers and parents--are predominantly female? If more women were writing and speaking powerfully about education policy, philosophy and practice, would public schools be perceived as America’s best, albeit neglected, hope for the future--rather than an opportunity for profit and control?

My friend David Loitz recently posted a call for educators to name their favorite female education heroes and influences--a blog that’s garnered 67 comments with nearly 100 nominees, from eminent figures to very personal inspirations. It’s been thrilling to see new names go up every day--and wonder why those names aren’t better known.

I posted a few suggestions of my own--but kept thinking there were names I was missing. There’s a bookcase in my office stocked with my go-to ed-library. I have boxes and boxes of books about education, but keep the ones I use most often in writing and workshops handy. Just for fun, I counted the titles by women (or groups of mostly women). Grand total: 192 books, 34 by female authors. An appalling 18%.

Who’s on your bookshelf? Who influences your practice and your thinking about policy?

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