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BOOK REVIEW / EDUCATION : Education Separates Girls From the Boys : FAILING AT FAIRNESS: HOW AMERICA'S SCHOOLS CHEAT GIRLS by Myra and David Sadker ; Scribner's, $22, 352 pages.

March 18, 1994|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Coeducation is not equal education, as the authors definitively demonstrate in their systematic examination of America's public schools and colleges.

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Myra and David Sadker spent 20 years collecting evidence to support their disturbing thesis, sending trained observers into classrooms, videotaping teachers and students in action, and interviewing boys and girls about their attitudes toward school and each other.

Although their results are profoundly unsettling, the Sadkers present the facts succinctly, briskly and with occasional forays into wry humor. The children help.

Asked to imagine what life as a girl might be like, a middle school boy offers: "I'd have to . . . shave my legs and wear heels. I'd buy a Thighmaster, but every day I would grow more cellulite." A girl in the same group responds eagerly: "I'd order Playboy. Buy beer. Talk dirty. I wouldn't have to deal with date rape. I wouldn't mind it for a change."

There is, however, not much fun in the facts the Sadkers' research uncovered. Although girls surpass boys academically in the early grades, outdistancing them in all the elementary subjects, by middle school the boys have not only caught up but have begun to sprint ahead, not only in math and science, but in the subjects where girls had the most conspicuous lead: spelling, reading, history and geography.

The boys are louder, faster, more obstreperous, demanding and receiving a disproportionate amount of the teacher's attention.

Shown videotapes of their classrooms, teachers who pride themselves on their fairness are stunned to see how much more often they call on boys, how patiently they listen to them, how generous they are with their praise.

The girls get compliments on their new sweaters and pats on the head for the neatness of their workbooks, but the boys receive explanations, corrections, and the leading questions that encourage them to keep thinking and talking.

Ignored, their contributions acknowledged by a hurried "OK" or "Uh-huh," the girls become increasingly tentative and hesitant. By junior high, they're prefacing every classroom comment with a disclaimer--"I'm not sure if this is what you mean," "I'm probably wrong"--answering with a question when they answer at all.

The trend accelerates in high school when the gender gap becomes a chasm. Desperately concerned with what others think, terrified of being branded with the expletives reserved for the brainy girls, they conceal their intelligence and downplay their achievements.

Their grades may remain high, but as the Sadkers demonstrate, good grades are too often given for behavior rather than for ideas. When these A students are confronted with the Scholastic Aptitude Test (now somewhat revised as the Scholastic Assessment Test), their ladylike habits of difference and deference are a distinct handicap.

Boys, who have fewer inhibitions about speaking up and being wrong, will guess if they don't know; girls will often leave blank a multiple-choice box unless they're sure of an answer. A guess had a 25% chance of being right; a blank has none.

The authors remind us that the SAT is the outgrowth of a test designed during World War II to sort out Army recruits, and despite extensive revisions, it remains "male friendly."

In its original incarnation as the Army Mental Test, it didn't do a particularly efficient job of matching soldiers to appropriate jobs, and half a century later, it still rewards speed and penalizes thoughtfulness.

The appalling statistics are emphasized and enlivened by anecdotal material. Reluctant as we may be to admit so counterrevolutionary a notion, it seems that boys and girls arrive at intellectual conclusions by different routes. The male route may be more direct, the female more circuitous. Although both sexes will eventually offer an equal number of correct answers, standard tests are weighted in favor of speed.

Even more counterrevolutionary is the finding that when girls are no longer competing with boys for the teacher's attention and with each other for the boys' approval; when they're not overly concerned with their appearance or whether a right answer will devalue them as prom dates, they speak up loudly, clearly and correctly in class.

This reversal happens when girls attend single-sex schools. Although the authors stop short of recommending a wholesale return to sexually segregated classrooms, they demonstrate that in certain cases--for boys as well as girls--separate education produces amazing results.

Of course, a number of 19th-Century educators stumbled on to that, but for many of the wrong reasons. Now that we have a fresh set of motives, the idea might be worth re-examining.

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