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School: Hellhole for Boys


Contributing editor for U.S.News & World Report
February 22, 1999

Gender wars redux

After seven years, the truth is finally beginning to catch up with "How Schools Shortchange Girls," the influential but largely false 1992 report by the American Association of University Women.

The report, which swept though the world of education and led to girls-only financial plums of the Gender Equity in Education Act, described the American classroom as a hellhole for girls. Female students were allegedly invisible, ignored, silenced, and broken by a loss of self-esteem.

Media elites welcomed the report, often writing their stories directly out of the AAUW executive summary. Few reporters seemed to notice or care that the AAUW synthesis of more than a thousand studies in the field ignored those that didn't fit the "victim" thesis.

Reporters also overlooked the heavy ideological content of the report. The text was basically an expression of radical feminism, which views relations between the sexes solely in terms of power and oppression. "School curricula should deal directly with issues of power, gender politics and violence against women," it said.

Sinking reputation. The AAUW report is "politicized research" and "false political propaganda," says Judith Kleinfeld, professor of psychology at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks. Kleinfeld deserves much of the credit for the report's sinking reputation. She undertook its analysis at the suggestion of the Women's Freedom Network. Kleinfeld makes many of the same points that were made against the report in 1992 but that somehow failed to penetrate the skulls of education reporters. From grade school through college, female students in all ethnic groups receive higher grades, even in math, obtain higher ranks, and receive more honors, except in science and sports.

In 1992, as in 1999, females lagged behind males in math and science test scores, but males were much further behind females in writing skills. By 1992, women had long since surged past men in college attendance (55 percent female, 45 percent male) and were flooding into the professions. By 1994, women attained almost half of professional degrees, up from almost none in 1961.

The most devastating charge in the AAUW report was the claim that teachers call on boys more often and allow them to call out answers 8 times more often than girls. This finding turned up everywhere–on television, in lectures, and in the Doonesbury comic strip. But it wasn't true. It comes from a mistake involving David and Myra Sadker, education professors and gender-bias specialists. In a 1981 article, the Sadkers reported that boys in Washington, D.C., public schools "receive 8 to 10 times as many reprimands as their female counterparts." Somehow the AAUW report garbled this finding into one saying that boys who didn't raise their hands got away with barking out remarks 8 to 10 times more often than girls, and received the full attention of their teachers. But the Sadkers' original ungarbled study shows that this "extra attention" to boys was almost entirely scolding.

Many studies show that boys are not called on more often than girls. Kleinfeld shows that one of the AAUW's own studies ("Expectations and Aspirations: Gender Roles and Self-Esteem," 1990) finds it too: More girls than boys (59 percent to 57 percent) said they are called on often, and more boys than girls (67 percent to 63 percent) report that teachers won't let them say things they want to say.

"By overwhelming margins," the 1990 AAUW report said, teachers give more attention to girls. Around three quarters of boys and girls said teachers compliment girls more often, think they are smarter, and prefer to be around girls. Apparently embarrassed by the political incorrectness of its own study, the AAUW released it with no publicity.

Amazingly, the AAUW is at it again, issuing another overwrought victim report, "Gender Gaps: Where Schools Fail Our Children." A main point is that "a new boys club" and "an alarming new gender gap" threaten to "cheat girls" because more females who are interested in computers take lower-level clerical and data-entry courses, and more males take computer science. The latest statistics, which go back to 1994, show that females dominate in clerical and data entry and are close in computer science–with 10.96 percent of girls and 13.85 percent of boys taking full-year courses. A 2.89 gap in the sexes in four-year-old stats indicates an ominous "new boys club"? Only at the AAUW.

The truth is that our schools have many flaws, but the oppression of females isn't one of them. The educational status of boys, not girls, is the real problem. Boys as a group, particularly minority boys, are falling behind, getting lower grades, suffering more emotional difficulties, getting punished far more frequently, dropping out more often, and reading and writing at levels that are appalling by girls' standards. One recent study finds that males account for 70 percent of all alienated students. If we put ideology aside, which gender do we think needs help now?

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