Magazine article USA TODAY

Reversing Underachievement in the Classroom

Magazine article USA TODAY

Reversing Underachievement in the Classroom

Article excerpt

A $375,000,000 ad campaign by the Women's College Coalition and the Advertising Council is designed to boost girls' self-esteem and put them on equal footing with boys in school.

THE ADVERTISING council has a memorable way of reminding Americans of their shortcomings. It created "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" and "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste." Now it has targeted parents and educators with a new slogan: "Expect the Best from a Girl. That's What You'll Get." Joining with the Women's College Coalition, this national public service campaign takes aim at the persistence of underachievement in girls, a condition often manifested throughout their lives.

American girls are privileged when compared with their peers in developing countries, and much progress has been made in providing equal opportunity for women. Yet, while India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Israel, Turkey, Canada, Ireland, and Great Britain all have elected women as president or prime minister, the U.S. has failed to elect a female president and only one woman has run for vice president. Is the American dream only for sons? What are the expectations for daughters?

Americans are beginning to understand that something happens during adolescence that sets many girls back. Their life expectations falter and their performance drops. We all know girls who fit this pattern and we've read articles, editorials, and books on the subject. Titles of some tell the story, such as Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls and How Schools Shortchange Girls. Academic debate questions some of the methodology of these studies, but the supporting data is increasing and most of it is convincing.

Girls score higher than boys on standardized tests in elementary school, but lower during junior and senior high. Early aptitude in math often disappears, and interest in science appears to be discouraged. Teachers recognize boys more frequently in class than girls, even when the girls' hands are raised. The put-downs, subtle and unintended, begin in grade school and continue through college and graduate training. Too often overlooked in the classroom, girls are expected just to look good and behave nicely. As a result, their self-esteem falls. The results have implications for society as well as women's lives, including poverty, job segregation in lower-paying positions, and limited participation by women in such important fields as science, politics, international relations, the trades, and corporate leadership. The underachievement of girls can be helped by changing the expectations of those who are most influential--parents and educators.

The "Expect the Best from a Girl" ads hit these issues hard. Featuring real-life role models from the ranks of women's college graduates, they are aimed to show that choices made about education affect the future. Designed by a woman-led, New York-based advertising agency, Messner, Vetere, Berger, McNamee and Schmetterer, each ad is catchy and provocative. For instance, in a 30-second radio ad, Julie Willey announces to the scream of sirens that: "I help catch murderers, rapists, and thieves with a microscope. I'm Julie Willey, and I'm director of the Delaware State Police Crime Lab because, in high school, I didn't think it was uncool to take chemistry." Her pitch is to parents: "Do you have a daughter? Instead of a tea set, get her a chemistry set. Look at the boring job I got from being a science nerd. Expect the best from a girl. That's what you'll get."

In addition to emphasizing science and math, the campaign urges parents to recognize their daughter's leadership potential. A second ad features the soundtrack of a Jaguar, starting, driving, shifting gears. The voice-over states: "I'm Bibi Boerio, senior finance officer for Jaguar Cars here in Coventry, England. This beautiful car we're riding in came with the job. I'm also the first woman ever on Jaguar's board of directors. If you're good, you get noticed. …

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