MotherJones JF93: Schooling girls

Our girls and boys go off to the same schools every day, sit in the same classrooms with the same teachers, and emerge at the end of twelve years with different educations.

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Dear President-elect Clinton:

One of the same polling groups that helped strategize your victory has revealed a gap in our education system that can’t be ignored. A nationwide study of three thousand students commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that girls receive less of their teachers? attention than boys. They are called on for answers less frequently and rewarded more often for compliance than for critical thinking, especially in math and science classes. When they shout out a response, girls tend to be reprimanded, while boys unsolicited ideas are likely to be expanded on by their teachers. These patterns continue right up through graduate school.

Classroom structures that play to the quickest response time and the loudest voice, combined with curricula that still make women an afterthought, teach students a persistent subtext. Boys learn that they are central in our culture, that they can ignore and belittle girls. Girls learn to defer, to pull back, to feel less important. By age thirteen, girls’ academic achievement begins to drop relative to boys’.

Your predecessors didn’t much care. During the Reagan-Bush years, no agency searched out violators of Title IX, which was supposed to stop discrimination against girls in education. Meanwhile, funding for the Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEEA), the catalyst for programs that put women into curricula and sports and that provide continuing education for teen mothers, was chopped by 80 percent. In his final budget proposal to Congress, President Bush tried to eliminate the WEEA altogether.

Mr. Clinton, we are talking about 50 percent of our students – roughly twenty-three million girls in grades K – 12. If you want to make good on your promise to be the Education President, you must demand change in the way we educate girls.

To refute the importance of reform, it’s often argued that boys drop out of high school at a greater rate than girls do. True, but boys are also more likely to drop back in. Forty-three percent of urban boys who drop out return to complete their high-school education (or its equivalent), compared to about 25 percent of girls. Girls who drop out drop further than boys, too. An African-American girl, when she leaves high school early, instantly doubles her chances – from 31 to 62 percent – of living in poverty; for boys the difference is minimal.

Girls were initially (and somewhat grudgingly) permitted in our public schools because of their critical future role as mothers to sons; our forefathers didn’t want their progeny raised by illiterates. One hundred and forty years later, we should see equality in education as a just goal in itself, but it happens there’s still a proven ripple effect: Studies conducted as far back as 1977 and as recently as 1991 have shown that the most direct predictor of children’s educational attainment is the level of education their mother achieved.

As governor of Arkansas, you endorsed President Bush’s six Educational Goals, which hang in principals? offices throughout the country. Goal four decrees that by century’s end, U.S. students will lead the world in science and math achievement. But according to the AAUW report, the number of girls who say they like math plunges 20 percent between elementary school and high school. This adds up to disaster: The only group of women to bring home the same salaries as men (or higher ones) consists of those who took two or more math classes during college.

As a nation, we ignore at our peril the dearth of women choosing to study physics, chemistry, engineering, and computer science. When the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 1999, and our Educational Goals come due, 66 percent of the entrants to our work force will be women. Can we afford to let these girls grow up in a culture that still believes they simply don’t like math? Just last fall, when Mattel broke Barbie’s thirty-year silence by introducing a microchip-driven Talking Barbie, one of her long-awaited messages was “Gee, math class is tough.” Luckily, this was the much-ballyhooed year of the woman; under pressure froth the AAUW, Mattel agreed to withdraw the quip from future models.

Shortly after your arrival in Washington, Congress will take up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which affects schools nationwide. It includes provisions for teacher training that should mandate instruction in gender-fair teaching and explore better classroom models for girls. It funds the National Center for Education Statistics, which has been financially unable to amass data on the interplay of gender, race, and class in education. It provides another round of funding for the WEEA and for grants for innovative math and science programs. it also funds programs to help students stay in school; more of that money must be allocated to understanding the unique reasons, besides pregnancy, that girls drop out.

During your campaign, you promised to improve our economy and education system, support equal rights, and reduce the number of families living in poverty. You want smart weapons in those battles? You’ve got twenty-three million right here.

Peggy Orenstein is working on a book about teenage girls’ attitudes toward themselves, their education, and their future.


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