Gathering Places


Thursday, August 23, 2001

U.S. schools should
leave no girl behind

During the last 30 years, rigorous research into questions of gender equity have enabled us to begin to use our hearts and heads to remove the paralysis that has traditionally characterized the approach to gender equity in education. Today, however, the energetic and confident voices of young girls are still often subdued and tentative, paralyzed, if you will, as they enter adolescence.

Girls fear speaking out in class because they think it will disrupt relationships, and this fear can have devastating effects on the mental and physical health and self-esteem of our daughters. Increasing preoccupation with one's appearance (and the reactions of boys to that appearance) prevents girls from competing aggressively and excelling in the classroom.

Society's expectations, expressed through advertising, play a major role in defining unrealistic physical standards against which girls measure themselves. Often, the inability of girls to meet these artificial standards causes them to lower personal expectations regarding intellectual achievement, especially in math and science and career goals.

Without question, adolescence is a tough time for both girls and boys. Each experiences a loss of self-esteem but the loss is more dramatic and has a longer lasting effect on girls. All-girls schools have the edge in addressing the learning styles of girls, but coed schools in Hawaii and across the country are making noble efforts to ensure that girls will not be overshadowed.

Many have established gender equity committees that consider everything from the boys-chase-the girls game at recess to who controls the mouse in the science lab.

Nevertheless, 30 years has not been long enough for our teaching craft to be well honed to achieve true gender equity within our schools. One has only to look at the number of girls enrolled in math, science and technology classes to verify that real concerns still exist. We should not be content that only 9 percent of the engineers in this country are women and we should find it unacceptable that less than 25 percent of those taking the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam are girls.

Teachers must constantly and consistently be trained to embrace the learning styles of girls. Whether it be Harvard or preschool, we know that boys have a quicker reaction time, so teachers need to build in waiting time and not call on the first hand up; they need to allow girls to think through more possibilities before they respond.

Schools must continue to equip girls to resist the subtle messages from ads, magazines, TV and films that they should consider only nursing or teaching, and that they only need nice clothes and an attractive body to be successful.

Our schools must strive for an environment where girls exercise their potential -- where they learn to think, to live and to lead. Whether it be in a single-sex or a coed environment, our girls need enough physical and psychological space to focus on their own development.

This challenge extends beyond the classroom. The parents' role is critically important. They must have the same expectations for daughters in science, math, engineering, business and technology as they have for sons. There is no good reason that Jason gets a wrench set with his new bike and Meagan gets only the bike.

Parents are the ultimate role models. Children are enormously sensitive to every nuance of their parents' words and actions. While they often appear unable to follow the clearest directive to clean their rooms, in fact these preadolescent and teen sons and daughters are geniuses at gleaning information by inference and from innuendo about the way society expects girls and boys to behave and to be treated.

Even though progress has been made, we cannot allow ourselves to slip back into thinking that we have achieved an acceptable level of gender equity or that it will automatically continue without our focused attention and hard work.

During the lifetime of our daughters and granddaughters, gender equity in and out of the classroom will continue to be a work in progress.

Ultimately, it is only through the development of each heart and head and each creative and courageous personality in both our daughters and our sons that the paralysis in gender equity will be overcome, thereby allowing all students to realize their highest possibilities and greatest usefulness.

Betty White is the principal of Sacred Hearts Academy,
Hawaii's largest all girls' school.

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