It's a Myth that Schools Shortchange Girls

Menstuff® has compiled the following information from the 1998 report by Judith S. Kleinfield for The Women's Freedom Network, "The Myth that Schools Shortchange Girls: Social science in the service of deception.

Information Update

Women's advocacy groups have waged an intense media campaign to promote the idea that the "schools shortchange girls." Their goal is to intensify the image of women as "victims" deserving special treatment and policy attention. Their sophisticated public relations campaign has succeeded. The idea that girls are victimized by the schools has become the common wisdom, what educated people just assume to be true.

But the idea that the "schools shortchange girls" is wrong and dangerously wrong. It is girls who get higher grades in school, who do better than boys on standardized tests of reading and writing, and who get higher class ranks and more school honors. It is young women who enter and graduate from college far more frequently than young men. It is women who have made dramatic progress in obtaining professional, business and doctoral degrees. The great gender gap of the 1960s in advanced degrees is closing, especially in the professional fields to which ambitious women aspire. In the view of elementary and high school students, the young people who sit in the classroom year after year and observe what is going on, both boys and girls agree: Schools favor girls. Teachers think girls are smarter, enjoy being around them more, and hold higher expectations of them.

This does not mean that males and females are equal on every educational outcome. In some areas, females do better than males, and in other areas, males do better than females. Females lag behind in two academic areas: mathematics and science achievement. But males lag behind females in two other academic areas and by far wider margins: reading achievement and writing skills. Males are far more apt to end up at the bottom of the barrel in school, placed in special classes for students with learning disabilities. Males are also more apt than females to believe that the school climate is hostile to them, that teachers do not expect as much from them and give them less encouragement to do their best.

The myth that the schools shortchange girls is dangerously wrong because it has diverted policy attention from the group at genuine educational risk - African-American boys. This is the group that scores lowest on virtually every education measure. This is the group where a great gap does exist between males and females but this gap favors females. African-American females are pulling far ahead of males in college graduation rates and in obtaining professional degrees.

Where did the notion that the schools shortchange girls come from? And how do advocacy groups manage to convince people that it is girls who are victimized in the schools? What data do they use and what data do they ignore?

This publication examines the charges made in a highly publicized report, How Schools Shortchange Girls published by the American Association of University Women (1992). The findings in this report are based on a selective review of the research and that findings contrary to the report's message were suppressed. These contrary findings actually show up in the studies the AAUW itself commissioned; the AAUW not only omitted these findings from their media kits but made the data difficult to obtain.

To find out what is actually going on, how boys and girls do fare in the schools, this report reviewed the best available information on a wide variety of strong measures: school grades, class rank, honors and prizes in academic competitions, scores on standardized achievement tests, college entrance and graduation rats, and attainment of professional and doctoral degrees. To locate this information, the author often had to do new analyses of government reports, which usually emphasize the "women as victims" viewpoint - showcasing the problems but not the progress. She also examined charges that schools shortchange girls based on weak measures and the view that girls are silenced in the classroom and suffer a dramatic loss of self-confidence at adolescence. She shows that the research on which these charges are based have in some instances disappeared and in other instances have been distorted to make a political point. Research on gender differences in class participation, school climate, and self-confidence proves a welter of conflicting findings, sometimes favoring girls, sometimes favoring boys, and sometimes showing no gender differences at all. Neither girls nor boys nor the nation itself are served by politicized research and "noble lies*." (See information at the end to get a copy of this 32 page report.)


The charge that schools shortchange girls is false political propaganda. In their zeal to advance the interests of women, the American Association of University Women and other advocacy groups have distorted the achievements of women and the experience of girls and boys in schools. But what harm has been done, a sensible person might ask? Government agencies, foundations and teachers have directed attention and resources to girls and have developed their skills in those areas where girls do lag behind, science and mathematics.

The myth that schools shortchange girls, one might argue, is noting more than a "Noble lie*." However, it draws attention and resources away from the group the schools truly fail, African=American males. This lie has other, more insidious, effects on the culture of schools. The problem was evident in a workshop the author attended for teachers of gifted and talented students. She was on a panel with several school counselors. The moderator posed the question,
What can we do to help girls, who suffer such a loss of self-esteem at adolescence?"  One of the counselors on the panel launched into a fiery description of the emotional problems of teenage girls. Girls she knew had changed from vigorous children who spoke their minds to bored and passive teenagers. This counselor was not aware that she was repeating the message of the AAUW report. Theses ideas had been promoted in workshops and education courses for years. They were just in the air.

The author came next on the panel and thought about what to do. Should she flat out contradict this counselor and tell the teachers in the audience that the research shows no important difference between teenage boys and girls in self-esteem, that this research has been politicized to make girls look like victims? As diplomatically as she could, she made these points. The counselor's reaction astonished her.

"I'm so glad you said that!" the counselor proclaimed. "I know that boys have problems, too. But we just don't give the boys much attention."

Other teachers agreed, with a palpable sense of relief. "Come to think of it, I have four suicidal adolescents in my classes this year, and all four are boys," one said.

"Write a newspaper article about this. Get the word out," said the sole male teacher at the workshop. "We're too busy to read the professional literature. We didn't know this.

The school counselor publicly bemoaning the problems of girls, it turned out, had privately developed a valuable program for teenage boys. She had invited a male graduate student from the university to talk with several troubled boys. The same boys who wouldn't talk to her, she observed, sprawled on the floor with this graduate student, talking with intensity. But she hadn't bothered to describe her program to the other teachers. Troubled boys were not on the list of topics important enough to discuss.

Indeed, boys came up only indirectly when the panel was given the question of what to do with bright students who complain that they are "bored" in school. The author could tell that most of these students were boys from the teachers' examples. One described a boy, for example, who hated math class because the class was too slow for him. His teacher forced him to do pages of problems that he already understood. What was the solution? "Let bored students know that it is not acceptable to say "I'm bored" to teachers," was the consensus of the school counselors. Figuring out a way to provide more advanced instruction in mathematics, for both boys and girls - a matter of national urgency - was not on the agenda, even among the teachers of gifted and talented students.

In the hectic, crowded world of the classroom, teachers have limited time, attention and energy. Teachers are concentrating on the problems of girls, but they are dismissing the problems of boys and neglecting the problem of how to educate the most gifted students. The focus on promoting female success gives the schools an excuse for ignoring their gravest failure with minority boys.

* What Plato called a "noble lie" - a falsehood in the service of a desirable political good (Plato, trans 1942, pp. 302-304). But the "noble lie" that the schools shortchange girls is not so noble, after all.

Source: ©1998 Judith S. Kleinfled. She received her bachelor's degree from Wellesley College in 1966 and her doctoral degree from the Harvard Graduate School of  Education in 1969. She is professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her many publications focus on gender issues, the education of culturally diverse children, and the education of children with fetal alcohol syndrome. In 1993, she won the Emil Usibelli Award for Distinguished Research. She can be reached at: College of Liberal Arts, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, 907.474.5266

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