Schooled in failure?
Fact or myth - teachers favor boys; girls
respond by withdrawing. (research; includes related article on all-girls' schools)
By Amy Saltzman
Abstract: Research indicates that girls' self-esteem typically declines in
early adolescence enough to lower their academic performance, but the extent
and cause of the self-esteem decline are under debate. Research findings about
girls, self-esteem and academic performance are discussed.
Full Text COPYRIGHT 1994 U.S. News and World Report Inc.Source: U.S. News & World Report, Nov 7, 1994 v117 n18 p88(5).
Words like "tough" and "spunky" pop out when Vina Wise talks about the girls
in the ninth-grade English classes she has taught for a decade. "They aren't
afraid to speak up," s ays the veteran Fayetteville, N.C., teacher. "If they
make a mistake, they just keep trying. The boys are much more worried about
getting something wrong and are less creative." But in Marie Nolan's 10th- and
11th-grade chemistry classes in suburban Atlanta, "the boys view chemistry w
ith a sense of adventure and excitement. Most of the girls aren't even
comfortable lighting Bun sen burners."
Which picture adds up? Recent studies and books leave no apparent doubt that
school breaks girls' spirit. It starts when boys, who are typically louder and
more aggressive than girls, devour teachers' attention in the early-elementary
grades. Girls tend to be well behaved, so they fade into the background, at
most, praised for their handwriting and neat projects. Buffeted by years of
such ego pummeling, girls' self-esteem erodes in early adolescence. They
gradually turn away from subjects like math and science-and from careers in
The source of this dismal depiction was the American Association of Universit
y Women, whose 1991 report-"Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging
America"-claimed to document a drop in girls' self-esteem in early
adolescence. The following year, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," a study by
the AAUW and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, expanded on
the theme by examining the way classroom dynamics affect self-esteem. And over
the past year or so, a half-dozen related books have appeared. In School
Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap (Doubleday, $23.50),
published in September, journalist Peggy Orenstein offers an anecdotal
treatment of the self-esteem crisis through a yearlong observation of girls in
two middle schools. On the other side, Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who
Stole Feminism? (Simon & Schuster, $23), published last summer, attacks the
credibility of virtually all gender-bias research as itself biased and
lacking in substance. Sommers, an associate professor of philosophy at Clark
University in Worcester, Mass., has been on the talk show circuit and profiled in major newspapers.
The "shortchanging syndrome" quickly attained almost conventional-wisdom status. Since 1991, applications at girls' schools and women's colleges have
climbed 37 and 30 percent, respectively. More parents, according to teachers
and academics, are pushing their daughters to participate in competitive
sports, attend science camps and join computer clubs to help them stay
competitive with boys.
But the conventional wisdom is under attack. The studies supporting it are being challenged, and detractors argue that the growing presence of women in the
workplace and on campus defies the notion of lagging self-esteem. More women
than men, they note, are now enrolled in college and graduate school.
What is myth and what is fact? Would girls be better off attending single-sex
schools or classes? Or will the debate decay into a blip on the social science
radar screen? Is self -esteem truly connected to academic success at all? And
what should parents be doing-if anything? A look at recent studies, and
interviews with dozens of academics, psychologists, students , parents and
teachers, yield the conclusion that girls may indeed have a self-esteem
problem that could hamper their performance in certain academic subjects. But
the extent and even the cause have been obscured by zealousness and sloppy
research. Here are the issues:
Do schools favor boys? A single numerical assertion-that boys in elementary a
nd middle school call out answers eight times more than girls do-underpins
much of the pro-bias case. A computer search of major newspapers and national
magazines turned up at least 29 articles over the past two years citing the
study that ostensibly drew that conclusion. But the claim has no basis.
The "8 to 1" ratio originated with Myra and David Sadker, a husband and wife
team of education professors at American University in Washington, D.C.,
regarded as pre-eminent in classroom gender issues. They cite the ratio in
articles, interviews and lectures. When boys call out, report the Sadkers,
teachers respond by giving them full attention and making constructive
comments, while girls who call out are usually admonished to raise their
hands. The couple's work was key to the Wellesley/AAUW report, and the 8-to-1
ratio is a cornerstone of the Sadkers' latest book, Failing at Fairness: How
America's Schools Cheat Girls (1994, Charles Scribner's Sons, $22), which
documents how girls are treated differently in the classroom.
The Wellesley/AAUW report that popularized the figure, however, misinterpreted a 1981 article by the Sadkers in an education journal called The Pointer
(since renamed Preventing School Failure). The article actually states that
"boys, particularly low-achieving boys, receive 8 to 10 times as many
reprimands as do their female counterparts." "Calling out" is not mentioned.
Moreover, the Sadkers now admit that even the raw number they cited may have
been flawed. According to them, it came from a pilot study of public and
private classes in Washington, D.C., conducted at the end of the school year
mostly in low-income parts of the city-factors that David Sadker now says
could have produced an unusually rowdy atmosphere. The findings, says Sadker,
were presented in an unpublished paper at a symposium sponsored by the
American Educational Research Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that
provides resources for educational researchers. The Sadkers no longer have a
copy of the paper, and AERA could not track it down.
Subsequent studies have concluded that the ratio of boys to girls who call out questions and answers is much lower than 8 to 1. In a 1990 study of 1,332
North Carolina students in ninth-grade physical science and 11th-grade
chemistry, Gail Jones, an associate professor of education at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that boys called out twice as often
as girls did. Jones found no evidence that teachers were likelier to scold
girls, or otherwise respond differently, when they called out. She did find
that boys were praised over the course of the day about twice as often as
girls were. She doesn't dismiss the possibility of bias but believes a major
reason for the difference may be that boys called out more often and consequently had more opportunities to be praised.
Many experts now believe that it is the misbehavior of boys and the methods teachers use to control them, rather than a pervasive bias against girls, that
may gradually eat away at girls' self-esteem. "Teachers pay more attention to
boys because they act out more, not because of some widespread sexism," says
Jere Brophy, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University
who has studied teachers and their students for more than 20 years. Educators
need to switch their focus, he says, from trying to eradicate sexism directed
against girls to training teachers to better discipline boys.
Does girls' self-esteem suffer more in early adolescence? Probably, although
it depends on what is being measured. Most research on adolescent self-esteem
does support the AAUW 's findings of a significant slide for girls during
adolescence-but much of it relates to physical appearance. Studies by Susan
Harter, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, are typical in
this regard. She has found that boys and girls feel equally positive about
their physical appearance in third grade, but every year thereafter, girls'
opinion of their looks drops; boy s' stays about the same.
Surveys that assess girls' and boys' confidence in their academic ability are
less conclusive. The gap between the sexes is narrow enough, in fact, to be
breached by the well-stud ied tendency of boys to brag more than girls. And in
one of the handful of recent studies that examined actual behavior rather
than relying on students' opinions, girls had a better image of themselves as
students than boys did. The 1993 study, of 400 North Carolina junior high
school students, found that more girls than boys answered "very often" or
"fairly often" to such statements as "I offer to speak in front of the class"
and "I speak up for my own ideas." Study author William Purkey, a professor
of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, got similar
results when he asked the students' teachers the same questions.
Christina Hoff Sommers accuses the AAUW of using "deceptive figures" to exaggerate the drop in girls' self-esteem. She notes that the AAUW's summary of its
1991 self-esteem study includes only the 29 percent of high school girls and
the 46 percent of high school boys who responded "always true" to the
statement: "I'm happy the way I am." If the AAUW had listed all positive
responses, says Sommers, including "sort of true" and "sometimes
true/sometimes false," the totals would have added up to a nearly identical 88
percent for girls and 92 per cent for boys.
But that would have been bad science. In the first place, standard practice i
n such a survey is to report responses only at the extremes, which are
considered more valid than thos e in the nebulous middle. Moreover, the AAUW
took an additional step. Each response was weighted, from 5 for "always true"
to 1 for "always false," then statistically combined and averaged. The results
echoed the raw survey findings-in self-esteem, girls still came out
considerably behind boys.
Is self-esteem tied to academic success? If there is a connection, it is elus
ive. The AAUW's 1991 report noted that the highest self-esteem was found among
African-American girls and boys, considered among the groups most at-risk
The AAUW says the sample of young black males was too small to allow conclusi
ons. But the phenomenon of higher self-esteem among black girls seems genuine,
says Janie Vic toria Ward, an associate professor of education and human
services at Simmons College in Boston , who has studied black girls
extensively and who served on the academic panel that review ed the AAUW
findings. She believes the black culture's emphasis on independence and
assertiv eness gives black girls a greater sense of self-worth than that of
white girls. As a result, they aren't as likely to be beaten down by concerns
over physical appearance.
Ward has also found that black girls maintain high self-esteem by placing les
s emphasis on areas where they don't feel competent-namely, school. Yet on
measures of academic self -esteem, as reported in the AAUW survey, a larger
percentage of black girls than of white bo ys or girls agreed strongly with
such statements as "I'm proud of the work I do in school" a nd "My teacher is
proud of me." In fact, the group with the lowest academic self-esteem-white
girl s-outperforms virtually every other group, including white boys, in most
academic areas, makin g for a gossamer-thin connection between self-esteem and
Several studies have shown that girls consistently get grades equal to or bet
ter than boys' from elementary school through college. Even in math and
science, boys no longer outs hine girls by that much. On the National
Assessment of Educational Progress test, last given i n 1992, 17-year-old boys
outperformed the girls by a barely significant 4 points in math . In science,
the boys were 10 points higher, but that compared with 17 points in 1982. And
girls bettered boys by 12 points in reading proficiency and 17 points in
The Scholastic Assessment Test remains an Achilles heel for girls. In 1994, h
igh school males had an insignificant 4-point advantage in the verbal portion
of the SAT but a 41 -point bulge in math-a difference that translates into
more National Merit scholars and more sch olarship money. Numerous groups have
suggested that the SAT's reliance on multiple-choice questi ons favors boys,
who seem to be more comfortable making guesses. Several studies support th is
contention, although the Educational Testing Service, which created the test,
claims the for mat is fair to both sexes. Nonetheless, the results of ETS's
own follow-up studies would seem to ind icate a bias against females. One such
recent study found that women, who score an average of 33 points less than men
do on the math portion of the SATs, do no worse in college math courses .
Does self-esteem affect career choice? Echoing other studies, the AAUW report
found that girls say they enjoy math in earlier grades but tend to shy away in
adolescence. That may be changing. As many girls as boys now take advanced
math classes in high school and major in math almost as often in college. At
the graduate level, however, the number of women entering m ath programs drops
off significantly. Just 21 percent of math doctorates and 39 percent of ma
ster's degrees went to women in 1992, according to the Department of
Education. The vast majori ty of women still flock to traditionally
lower-paying fields such as English literature, psy chology, communications
and education; men dominate higher-paying areas like engineering and science.
Despite great progress for women, 60 percent of law, medical and dental
students are men.
Could self-esteem problems be partly to blame for differences in education an
d career choice? In the end, the studies and research have no answer-and
without answers, social sci ence cannot offer workable, long-term solutions.
That responsibility ultimately falls to parents, who will need to look at
their own assumptions and the needs of their daughters as individuals-an d
then decide what course makes the most sense for them.
RELATED ARTICLE: Emulating all-girls' schools
Are there ways to encourage girls' interest in math and science? The obvious
opt ion is an all-female school. Graduates of single-sex schools and colleges
tend to score hi gher on tests, major in math and science, earn postgraduate
degrees and get higher pay. Unfortu nately, the entire country has only 84
women's colleges and a few hundred girls' schools, an d tuition can be hefty.
But there are alternatives:
Single-sex classes. A handful of experiments with all-girls math and science
classes show at least a short-term benefit. Most schools have gotten around
potential legal challenges by officially opening the classes to boys-while
letting them know the classes are aimed at gir ls. An all-girls Algebra 2
class last year at Ventura High School in California led to a record s ign-up
by girls for trigonometry, the next level-51 this fall compared with 28 last
year. Teaching m ethods used in all-girl settings also can be incorporated.
Studies show that seating students i n small groups encourages cooperative
learning and cuts down on the likelihood that a few boist erous boys will
Promote math, science and computer clubs for girls. Clubs give girls a social
network that boys who play computer games and do science experiments together
in the basement alre ady enjoy. The trick is getting them to join. When Jayne
Kasten, a former computer teacher at a St. Louis County middle school, wanted
to lure girls to a computer club called Female Elec tronic Marvels, she asked
a few who were leaders to come and bring some friends. Within three mo nths,
more than 30 girls had joined. They take field trips to see women in technical
career s and experiment with interior design software and other programs to
boost their interest in comp uters.
Verbal girls can be good at math, too. Parents and teachers often assume that
a child with good language and writing skills won't do as well with numbers.
Such thinking is base less. When Patricia Campbell's daughter, Kathryn, was in
sixth grade, the school resisted p lacing her in advanced math even though she
did well in math. Her teachers felt she should foc us on her superior language
skills. But Campbell, an education consultant in Groton, Mass. , persisted.
Kathryn took the advanced class. Now 17, she is majoring in math and
linguistics at the University of Chicago.
Parents worried about passing on a math phobia should read the 1993 edition o
f the Sheila Tobias classic, Overcoming Math Anxiety (Norton, $23). The book
debunks myths ab out math and gender and offers tips on recognizing and
defanging math sexism.
Books and magazines can break down gender barriers. Even toddlers can get the message from books like Byron Barton's Machines at Work (Crowell, $15), which features bright ly colored illustrations of both sexes toiling on a
construction site. For preschoolers, an example of a book that portrays a
gutsy girl is Amazing Grace (Dial, $14), the tale of a self-conf ident black
girl who becomes anything she wants to by acting out adventuresome roles from books and s tories. New Moon magazine ($25 for six issues a year, PO Box 3587, Duluth, MN 55803) gives g irls from 8 to 14 a stream of positive female images and role models in areas like sports an d science.
Talk up sports and after-school programs. Team sports offer obvious benefits. But any activity in which physical appearance is not emphasized, from cleaning up a local stream to joining the Girl Scouts, will help girls feel good even if they don't look like models in Sa ssy.