Student Performance: Males versus Females

By Kleinfeld, Judith | The Public Interest, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Student Performance: Males versus Females


Kleinfeld, Judith, The Public Interest


Women's advocacy groups have waged an intense media campaign to promote the idea that "schools shortchange girls." Their goal has been to convince the public that women are "victims" of an unfair educational system and that they deserve special treatment, extra funding, and heightened policy attention. Their sophisticated public-relations campaign has succeeded. The idea that girls are shortchanged by schools has become the common wisdom - what people take for granted, without a thought concerning whether or not it is true.

This idea that girls are not well served by our schools - that gender differences in performance result from institutional unfairness - received its greatest boost from a highly publicized report, How Schools Shortchange Girls: A Study of Major Findings on Girls and Education. Published in 1992 by the respected organization, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), along with a survey of self-esteem and aspirations among boys and girls, the AAUW report quickly became the basis for countless newspaper articles, magazine features, books, and university courses on gender and education. While a few voices challenged the report's findings - notably Christina Hoff Sommers, in Who Stole Feminism? - the mainstream media for the most part ignored dissenting views.

The AAUW report makes three principal claims: First, girls fall behind boys in science and mathematics; second, girls participate less than boys in class or, as it is said, are "silenced" in the classroom; and third, girls suffer a major decline in self-esteem at adolescence while adolescent boys gain in self-esteem. As the AAUW Executive Summary declares:

The educational system is not meeting girls' needs. Girls and boys enter school roughly equal in measured ability. Twelve years later, girls have fallen behind their male classmates in key areas such as higher-level mathematics and measures of self-esteem.

And, in the 1998 study Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children, the AAUW claimed that a gender gap was opening up in the field of computer science. "The failure to include girls in advanced-level computer science courses threatens to make women bystanders in the technological 21st century." Again, the accusation received great attention while dissenting opinions were ignored.

Certainly, the AAUW has done women and the nation a service in drawing attention to the gender gap in science and mathematics and in encouraging an array of policies and programs designed to boost female performance in these fields. But most of the other findings of the AAUW are either misleading or false, and even its findings on the math and science gap need to be put into perspective, Indeed, the fact is that policy makers should be as concerned about the educational progress of boys as girls. For it is boys, not girls, who lag behind in verbal skills, who are falling behind in college attendance, and who believe that schools are hostile to them. As the eminent researcher Jere Brophy reminds us, in a chapter written for the classic study Gender Influences in Classroom Interaction, neither boys nor girls have a lock on school success (or failure):

Claims that one sex or the other is not being taught effectively in our schools have been frequent and often impassioned. From early in the century, criticism was usually focused on the treatment of boys, especially at the elementary level. Critics noted that boys received lower grades in all subjects and lower achievement test scores in reading and language arts. They insisted that these sex differences occurred because the schools were "too feminine" or the "overwhelmingly female" teachers were unable to meet boys' learning needs effectively.

Not so long ago, it was boys who were viewed as victims of the school system; today, it is the girls. The remedy proposed then was to encourage adult males to go into elementary school teaching; the remedy proposed today is a plethora of special policies and programs designed to help girls succeed. …

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