Gale Agnew squinted at a group of her students. The girls had seated themselves on one side of a table where they were following directions, looking for writing paper. On the other side, the boys were poking each other with pencils, climbing on chairs and singing.
But Agnew, an Azusa teacher trained in anti-sexist teaching techniques, did not allow herself to label the offenders by sex. Instead she chastised them: "Will the people who are supposed to be writing cut out the singing and the noise?"
A small step for sex equity in the classroom, and a small step for equal opportunity in life. But now, in the third decade of the women's movement and 15 years after a law known as Title IX banned sex discrimination in most American schools, the fight against sexism in education is refocusing on the small steps--the language, actions and unconscious attitudes of teachers in the classroom.
Rigid Notions in Modern Times
Teachers are continually astounded to find children of the '80s entering school with rigid notions of male and female roles, despite the changed attitudes and life styles of their parents. What happens in classrooms from kindergarten on reinforces those ideas, to the detriment of both boys and girls, educators say--with girls clearly suffering the most.
"Females are the only group that starts ahead and ends up behind," said Myra Sadker, an education researcher in Washington.
On standardized tests, females generally test equal to or higher than boys when they enter elementary school. But girls wind up being outperformed on all sections of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Testing Program (ACT) by the end of high school. In 1986, California females trailed males in the math section of the SAT 456 to 508 and in the verbal section by 418 to 428.
In an effort to come to grips with the more subtle aspects of sex discrimination, Los Angeles County educators have devised an experimental training program that encourages teachers to recognize their own biases and raise their expectations for female students. So far, about 2,000 teachers, Gale Agnew among them, have taken part in the Gender/Ethnic Expectation and Student Achievement program, developed by the county Office of Education.
The county program and a similar effort in Washington draw on 10 years of research that shows that boys and girls receive different messages from the way teachers group, discipline, speak and behave toward them.
Among the findings are these:
--Boys are eight times as aggressive as girls in calling out answers, and teachers from kindergarten through college react accordingly. Los Angeles teachers responded four to nine times as often to boys, according to a study by the gender/ethnic program. While often tolerating interruptions from boys, teachers tend to tell girls who call out answers, "In this class, we're supposed to raise our hands."
--When it comes to discipline, however, it is boys who get the harsher treatment--even for identical misbehavior. In cases where a boy might be sent to the principal's office, a girl might be told to just sit quietly.
--In college classrooms, professors call on women less, listen to them less and interrupt them more. Overall, those groups of students most likely to gain the teacher's attention are, in order: white males, minority males, white females and minority females.
--Boys and girls segregate themselves--at tables, in lines and games--more than teachers segregate them. But teachers tend to encourage this separation with admonitions such as, "If you don't behave, you'll have to sit with the girls."
--Teachers expect boys to follow directions and do the work themselves but tend to intercede and finish work for girls, fostering "learned helplessness." One study cited an example in which a second-grade boy had trouble cutting and pasting paper. His teacher re-explained the task and suggested he start again. For a girl with the similar problem, the teacher picked up the pieces, fixed them and remarked, "Doesn't that look better?"
Teachers want to help girls and refrain from pushing them, said Delores Grayson, co-developer of the Gender/Ethnic Expectation and Student Achievement program. "What makes it difficult is that it's rooted in a kind heart," Grayson said.
Few educators consider themselves biased, but studies have found that nearly everyone--even those who consider themselves feminists--harbors biased perceptions and attitudes. There is a growing consensus that these attitudes lead to lower self-esteem, limited ambitions and lower-paying jobs for women.
"Schools can have a lot of weight with kids," said Pam Miller, project coordinator of a single-parent program in the Long Beach schools and a graduate of the Los Angeles county gender/ethnic program.