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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Answer for Girls Is Math, Science Classes Minus Boys

June 23, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Today, in honor of the 21st anniversary of Title IX, the federal law that outlaws unequal treatment of males and females in public schools, a modest proposal.

Elegant, inspired and delightfully old-fashioned, it comes from Susan Zucker, a math teacher at Gompers Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles.

For a long time, Zucker has been aware of research showing that girls are shortchanged in the classroom. Once they hit adolescence, studies say, their self-esteem plummets and they lose confidence in their ability to handle math and science. So Zucker has tried to find a solution, to apply what we know of the big picture to our everyday lives.

What she proposes is single-gender math and science classes in public middle schools. Separate the sexes for just two subjects.

Boys can't lose.

Girls can only win.

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Anyone who knows the research will probably have no trouble recognizing the beauty of this idea. The list of pedagogical crimes against girls is now quite well known. The perpetrators--teachers--are unwitting, and the victims are sentenced to mere underachievement. In terms of crisis value, classroom bias against girls doesn't rank up there with gangs, drugs, truancy and teen pregnancy, said Zucker, and so the problem is not often addressed.

"In my six years as a teacher," she said, "it has never even been brought up. It was never part of my training."

But we know from a variety of studies that girls in general get a raw deal in the classroom:

Girls are called on less frequently than boys. Boys are praised and criticized more than girls. Boys often interrupt girls and denigrate their contributions. Girls who call out are told to raise their hands; boys who call out are heard. (Also, girls are more likely to attribute success in school to luck; boys are more likely to attribute success to ability.) High-achieving girls receive the least amount of classroom attention. Likewise, girls with special educational needs are often ignored, too, because they don't have behavioral problems. (Or, as Zucker put it: "They just sit there so they don't get any attention.")

What is so important about math and science?

First of all, these are the subjects for which girls lose heart most dramatically. But even the obvious answer--that so many of today's professional opportunities are in the scientific fields--does not go far enough. As Zucker points out, even students who don't go on to college are eliminating themselves from competition for jobs in the highest-paying technical trades, such as drafting or construction.

Not surprisingly, the L.A. school district's Commission for Sex Equity reported recently that not a single one of 1,280 students enrolled in training classes at East Los Angeles Occupational Center is a woman.

*

I wouldn't wish the middle-school years on anyone--male or female. For girls, there suddenly is a conflict between excelling academically and excelling cosmetically, between acting like an enthusiastic A-student and acting like a delicate flower. It is a time, as Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan has documented, when a girl's self-esteem can plunge.

"I had a great time till I was 12," said Zucker. "Then, when I was 13 and all that boy/girl stuff started, I was miserable. My mother says for the whole year I was 13, I never smiled. I remember being at a party, arm wrestling a boy and my friend whispered in my ear, 'You're supposed to let boys win!' "

That attitude is still alive and well, and Zucker sees it in her classroom all the time.

"I have some girls in class who speak out, but I do have a lot of quiet girls," she said. "When I assign them to work in cooperative groups, I have single-gender groups. Otherwise the boys dominate the groups and the girls just sit there and let the boys be the bosses. The girls usually get their work done quicker."

And, she notes, "It is easy to ignore the girls because they do just fine."

Which is, in this problem, the bottom line.

Creating single-gender math and science classes would make it impossible for teachers to ignore girls. Girls would not have to choose between acting "like girls" and acting like young scholars. At a time in their lives that is fraught with self-consciousness, it would provide girls the safety that is critical to taking chances, especially in a peer group.

Surely, in the spirit of Title IX, this proposal deserves a shot.

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