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Closing the Confidence Gap

ALL GIRLS: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters, By Karen Stabiner, Riverhead Books: 329 pp., $25.95

September 08, 2002|CLARA BINGHAM | Clara Bingham is the coauthor, most recently, of "Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law." She is a graduate of the Brearley School in New York City.

In the 1990s, a slew of new studies showed that adolescent girls were in crisis. Something strange happened to girls when they reached their teens. They went from having confidence and good grades to becoming silent, self-doubting, subpar students. One of the popular theories at the time was that teachers inadvertently favored boys in the classroom. Some parents responded by sending their daughters to all-girls' schools.

By the mid-1990s, the same schools that only 15 years earlier had been dismissed as "finishing schools" found their admissions offices overflowing with applications. Girls' schools were in vogue, no longer the domain of young ladies whose parents could afford to keep them out of trouble--that is, away from boys at the local public coed high school. They appealed not just to the daughters of the Junior League but also to daughters of feminists. Student populations at these schools became more ethnically and economically diverse, as well as academically competitive.

The idea that girls were being unfairly treated derived from the American Assn. of University Women's 1991 report, "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," which warned that girls were being ignored in the classroom and suffered from something called the "confidence gap." In adolescence, the report said, a confluence of events occurred in girls: Their science and math scores dropped precipitously, they felt critical of their changing bodies and they were overwhelmed by a sense of personal inadequacy.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 292 words Type of Material: Correction
Girls schools--The review of Karen Stabiner's "All Girls" in the Sept. 8 Book Review incorrectly said that Stabiner had enrolled her daughter at Marlborough while she was doing research about the school for her book. In fact, Stabiner's daughter did not start classes at Marlborough until the fall of 2001, several months after the book had been completed.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 22, 2002 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
The review of Karen Stabiner's "All Girls" (Book Review, Sept. 8) incorrectly said that Stabiner had enrolled her daughter at Marlborough while she was doing research about the school for her book. In fact, Stabiner's daughter did not start classes at Marlborough until the fall of 2001, several months after the book had been completed.

In 1994, Peggy Orenstein's book, "Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap," studied two coed eighth-grade classrooms, which supported the conclusions of the 1991 report. That same year, psychologist Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" poignantly described the identity crisis that girls endured when they changed from resilient, assertive tomboys, to deferential, self-critical, depressed teenagers.

Karen Stabiner, a freelance journalist and author of "To Dance With the Devil: The New War on Breast Cancer," contributes to the growing literature on girls with "All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters," an absorbing inside look at two all-girls' schools: Marlborough, a century-old prep school in Los Angeles, and the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem, an experimental public school.

"All Girls" divides its well-written narrative between Marlborough and the Young Women's Leadership School. Stabiner spent the 1998-99 school year at the schools, observing, talking to students, teachers and parents. The author confesses that she started her year of reporting with the old-fashioned bias. "I had carried around a rather musty, fussy, and completely uninformed image of what a girls' school must be; the sort of place where a child of privilege learned how to crook her little finger while she drank tea." By the end of that year, however, she had enrolled her own daughter at Marlborough.

Both schools, Stabiner discovers, are "vanity-free zones" where girls can spend seven boy-free hours a day, wearing uniforms instead of the latest spaghetti-strapped fashions. These girls don't waste energy competing for boys; instead, they focus, undistracted, on academics. They also get to know one another: One of the girls at the Young Women's Leadership School says that she was able to forge closer friendships with her classmates because "they knew me on a different level than they would have if there had been boys here."

The two schools are places where girls feel comfortable asking obvious questions in math and science class. At Marlborough, the girls are so opinionated and outspoken that a woman who comes to talk to students about the history of women and their body images is practically shouted off stage. "The whole point of segregating girls," writes Stabiner, "was to focus their attention on academic achievement and have them define themselves in terms of accomplishment, not by the more fleeting measures of appearance and popularity."

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