Idea of 'Gender Gap' in Schools Under Attack

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As Congress moves to step up federal efforts to address inequities facing girls in schools, some scholars have stirred dissent by arguing that the problem of a "gender gap" in education has been greatly overstated.

Under attack, in particular, are three reports issued by the American Association of University Women over the past 3 years that have done much to raise the public profile of gender-equity issues in K-12 education. The reports garnered headlines and helped propel the pending federal legislation. They have also helped spur new philanthropic initiatives and changes in teacher training and state and local policy.

Last week, having earlier noted some of the questions being raised about the studies, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, asked a House-Senate conference committee to remove certain gender-equity provisions from legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

She proposed striking provisions--included in the House E.S.E.A. bill--establishing a requirement that Chapter 1 programs for teachers' professional development include instruction on how to eliminate gender and racial bias in curriculum and instruction. Such provisions, she argued, appear to move the remedial-education program away from its intended focus.

Ms. Kassebaum conceded she did not have the votes to prevail, and the provisions were retained.

In July, during Senate debate on a separate gender-equity measure, Ms. Kassebaum directly questioned one A.A.U.W. study and "the presumption that girls are 'shortchanged' in school"--which, she argued, "is supported only by a small body of research which has questionable findings."

Another conferee raised similar reservations last week about research findings that girls are disadvantaged in coeducation. The issue came up as the House-Senate panel discussed a proposal that would have allowed some school districts to set up single-sex schools. (See related story, page 23.)

As of late last week, the House and Senate E.S.E.A. proposals called for authorizing only $3 million in new money for gender-equity activities. The measures continued, however, to include proposals requiring schools and districts to demonstrate attention to gender equity and elevating concern for it in the distribution of various federal education funds.

Diane S. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University who headed the U.S. Education Department's research branch during the Bush Administration, said the legislation "takes as findings of Congress that all these flawed research claims were true."

But Jo Sanders, the director of the Teacher Education Equity Project, an effort involving 20 teacher education groups that is based at the Center for Advanced Study in Education in New York City, said, "The general feeling of those in the field is that the studies were reputable and carefully done."

Are Girls 'Victims'?

Criticism of the A.A.U.W. reports has received wide media attention in recent months with the publication of the book Who Stole Feminism? by Christina Hoff Sommers, an associate professor of philosophy at Clark University.

Ms. Sommers, a self-described feminist who has devoted much of her career to criticizing elements of the women's movement, condemns the studies as biased "advocacy research" designed to persuade educators to embrace a view that women and girls are "victims."

Although Ms. Sommers' book has helped give new currency to the debate, others have also questioned whether girls face pervasive inequities in school.

Many of her methodological criticisms of an A.A.U.W.-sponsored survey on self-esteem, for example, were also made in the March 23, 1991, issue of Science News.

In addition, Ms. Ravitch has long charged that the A.A.U.W. has seemed to disregard the strides girls and women have made in K-12 and higher education, as well as the areas of education where they fare as well as or better than males.

Joseph Adelson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and the editor of the Handbook on Adolescent Psychology, called the A.A.U.W.-sponsored studies "a propaganda machine that does not seem to respond to any contrary evidence."

And Phyllis McClure, an educational consultant and former director of policy and information for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she does not view as valid "the generalized proposition that girls are somehow shortchanged on outcomes."

"Yes, there are huge gaps--between poor girls and rich girls, or black girls and white girls," she said.

Ms. McClure, a founding member of the foundation-backed Independent Commission on Chapter 1, also predicted that the proposed Chapter 1 gender-equity provisions would have the effect of pressuring schools to channel girls into classes below their ability to insure their proportionate representation.

Other critics say that, over all, boys face more serious problems than girls do. They cite, for example, boys' higher suicide rates and their disproportionate presence in special education.

Studies Defended

Many educators and social scientists support the validity of the A.A.U.W. reports on girls.

David H. Johnson, the executive director of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, an umbrella group based in Washington, said some of the main conclusions--including findings that boys and girls are treated differently in schools--are "pretty well established" by more than a decade of research.

Pauline B. Gough, the editor of the education journal Phi Delta Kappan, said she has little reason to question the studies because their key conclusions square with her own experience as a teacher.

Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the A.A.U.W., said last week that her organization has "done extremely credible and authoritative research using outside experts from a variety of universities and academic research centers."

Measuring Self-Esteem

The A.A.U.W. decided in the late 1980's to start putting a big emphasis on K-12 education. (See related story.)

By the fall of 1990, it had already published two "issue briefs" cataloguing gender inequities in schools and noting that it was "exerting every effort" to put concern for women and girls at the center of the education-reform debate.

According to an A.A.U.W. brochure, the group commissioned its first study of schoolgirls specifically for this purpose. Conducted by the polling firm Greenberg-Lake, that study, "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," was released in January 1991. The survey of 3,000 girls and boys documented a dramatic and disproportionate loss of self-esteem among adolescent girls and linked it to the way they were treated by schools. (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1991.)

The poll has since been criticized for relying on students' self-reports. Mr. Adelson has argued that "girls are more expressive" than boys--making girls more likely to give an answer at either end of a poll-taker's continuum, such as "always" or "never"--and that the researchers failed to fully account for that tendency.

Others have faulted the study for concluding that girls have less self-esteem than boys do because far fewer girls answer "always" when asked how often they feel happy about themselves. The critics argue that, taking into account less absolute answers that are still positive and may be psychologically healthier, the response rates of boys and girls are much closer.

Ms. Bryant countered that the researchers worked extensively with pre-study focus groups to take into account differences in how the two sexes tend to respond to questions. She also defended the way responses were tabulated, saying that polls of children often exclude the "mushy middle" on such scales. She added that each of the overall conclusions was consistent with the responses to several questions.

Classroom Bias, Harassment

The association issued a second study, "The A.A.U.W. Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls," in February 1992. Commissioned by the A.A.U.W. Educational Foundation and conducted under contract by the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, it was a compilation of 1,331 separate studies. It concluded that women were underrepresented in school curricula, that teaching behavior and tests tended to heavily favor boys, and that girls lagged behind boys in mathematics and sciences. (See Education Week, Feb. 12, 1992.)

Susan McGee Bailey, the executive director of the Wellesley center and the project director for the study, said much of the research involved simply examined progress toward achieving the goals of Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in federally financed education programs.

"Advocating for girls and women's rights is important, but our business is not advocacy, our business is research," Ms. Bailey said.

Critics, though, have charged that the report greatly overstated the problems it documents. Ms. Sommers, for one, has taken the A.A.U.W. to task for highlighting in its executive summary a finding that boys call out in class eight times more often than girls.

That figure probably "has gotten too much currency," David Sadker, a professor of education at American University who co-authored the study that produced the figure, said last week. He said later studies have found much smaller disparities, with boys calling out from twice to four times as often as girls.

But, he said, "whether it is two to one, or eight to one, or 10 to one, is less critical than the finding that when a boy calls out, the teacher listens, and when a girl calls out, the teacher remediates."

The third of the A.A.U.W. reports, "Hostile Hallways," issued in June of last year, found that 85 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys had reported being sexually harassed in school and that students of both sexes were frequent culprits. Based on a 1,630-student survey, the study was commissioned by the organization's educational fund and conducted by Louis Harris & Associates. (See Education Week, June 9, 1993.)

The study has been criticized by, among others, Jerry M. Wiener, the president of the American Psychiatric Association, and Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, for what they see as defining sexual harassment too broadly and thus trivializing it.

But, the study's defenders note, the same behaviors it counted as harassment are those considered by courts and government agencies.

Provisions of Legislation

The A.A.U.W. last week continued its push for the passage of the gender-equity provisions in the E.S.E.A. reauthorization. In a newsletter dated this month, the group noted that it had urged some local chapters to move to deter their members of Congress from calling for postponement of action on certain equity measures pending verification of A.A.U.W.-commissioned research.

The legislation being considered includes provisions to create a special assistant for gender equity in the Education Department; require the department to break down, by gender, a substantial amount of the data it gathers; and pay for efforts to prevent sexual harassment as part of programs to combat school violence.

Thomas W. Payzant, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, was unable last week to estimate the costs of the additional breakdowns of data by sex. But he voiced concern that these and other new data-breakdown requirements could lead to some statistically unreliable results and complicate efforts to give states more flexibility in gathering student-assessment data.

Vol. 14, Issue 04

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