Research on European American Girls
School failure and intrusion are substantially different for European American girls than for members of racial and linguistic minorities. Studies by Sadker et al. (1989) and others (which focus mainly on European American girls) show that gender-based bias in school is significant and powerful. Some schools still track girls to mothering roles and boys to college. In the 1980s and 1990s, girls scored lower than boys on some math and science measures, but by 2000, these differences had been virtually erased (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).
In the primary grades, the school’s failure of girls takes different forms. The average girl enters school academically ahead of boys her age and remains ahead (as measured by grades and test scores) through the elementary grades (AAUW, 1992). For these girls, the major problems with school achievement occur after they leave the predominantly female turf of elementary schools.
A multiracial perspective on gender and student achievement leads to distinctly different conclusions for students of color. Unlike students of color, young European American girls normally do not come to school and encounter a new environment run by “others.” These girls go from a usually female-centered home culture to a female-centered school culture. Schools and teachers have positive expectations for them. Young, middle-class European American girls do not encounter the substantially destructive attacks on their gender that young minority children (male or female) encounter in their culture. When students share class, race, and gender with the teacher or the counselor, they are usually encouraged to “become the best they can be.” Female students from several minority cultures encounter the oppression of race and class in school.
Fortunately, gender-role stereotyping in schools is decreasing, but it remains a problem (National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, 2002). The efforts to reduce gender stereotyping among teachers create new questions about school achievement across cultural groups.
It is often boys, particularly African American, Latino, and Asian boys, who lack role models for the first six years of schooling. Whereas European American girls benefit from their female-centered primary school experience, children of color—particularly boys—fail. It is boys who encounter the most conflicts, receive the most punishments, and most often get placed in special education and remedial programs (Flood, 2000).
The positive school experiences of girls begin to change in adolescence. The teenage years in our society are a time of redefining self and roles. Young girls and boys who were once self-confident now search for new identities. Earlier self-definitions shift. For many teenagers, belonging to a group becomes a major goal. Young people look to their peers for guidance through these difficult and troubling years.
Schoolgirls, at least those European American girls studied, suffer significant declines in self-esteem as they move from childhood to adolescence. A nationwide study commissioned by the AAUW in 1990 found that on average 69 percent of elementary school boys and 60 percent of elementary school girls reported being “happy the way I am”; among high school students, the percentages were 46 percent for boys and only 29 percent for girls.
The AAUW survey revealed sharp differences in self-esteem among girls from different racial and ethnic groups. Among elementary school girls, 55 percent of white girls, 65 percent of black girls, and 68 percent of Hispanic girls reported being “happy the way I am.” But in high school, agreement statements came from only 22 percent of white girls and 30 percent of Hispanic girls, compared to 58 percent of black girls. However, these black girls did not have high levels of self-esteem in areas related to school success. Obviously, self-esteem is a complex construct, and further study of the various strengths and perspectives of girls from many different backgrounds is needed in order to design educational programs that benefit all girls. (American Association of University Women, 1992, pp. 12–13)
Young girls who excelled in elementary school may begin to falter as they enter the middle grades (6 through 8). Particular concern has been expressed by teachers over the falling grades of girls in science and math (National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, 2008). Gilligan, in her groundbreaking work In a Different Voice (1982), hypothesizes that many girls acquire feminine ways of learning and relating to others that are distinctly different from the behavior described as universal to boys and girls by psychologists. In critiquing prominent theories of moral behavior, she states, “While the truths of psychological theory have blinded psychologists to the truth of women’s experience, that experience illuminates a world psychologists have found hard to trace” (p. 62). Another researcher, Tannen (1990), describes differences in communication styles learned by boys and girls. It is important to keep in mind that these roles, like all roles within cultures, are constantly changing.
The writing and research of feminist authors also provide important insights into classroom differences. Tavris (1992) systematically examines the research on differences between males and females and finds that many assumptions and assertions have been overgeneralized beyond the available evidence. Her book, The Mismeasure of Woman, provides an excellent analysis of overinterpretation from limited data, criticizing work in learning styles and brain activity as well as Gilligan’s assumptions about value orientations and relationships. We must assume, until proven otherwise, that gender differences do not explain or cause differences in school achievement; these differences can be attributed to how teachers and schools treat children (Tannen, 1990; Tavris, 1992).
Early research by Dweck and her associates suggested that girls may learn “helplessness” in math based in part on teacher expectations and on how teachers respond to and evaluate student work. Teachers of either gender could unknowingly concentrate their responses to girls in a way that discourages intellectual effort, particularly in math (Dweck, 1977). Various researchers have chronicled the several ways that females and males do not receive the same support from teachers. Carinci (2007) notes that this teacher behavior has a cumulative destructive effect on female students. The most recent data we have are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 2007. In reading, girls consistently outperform boys at the fourth-grade level, and in math, girls score within two points of boys (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). On the SAT test, often used by the most selective colleges to determine admission, boys continue to significantly outperform girls in math (Corbett, Hill, & St. Rose, 2008). On the other hand, as a consequence of their overall achievement, girls are admitted to college at a higher rate than are boys.
Years of effort and emphasis on closing the achievement gap for girls, encouraged by Title IX, may have produced significant change since the early research by Dweck.
Concerns continue about girls’ success in math. If you ask what percentages of boys and girls are at or above “proficient” in math for their grade level, you get the data shown in the table below.
The data are sorted by ethnicity, in the table below, the differences between boys and girls are small, while the differences between ethnic groups (both boys and girls) are large. Corbett, Hill, and St. Rose (2008) say it well: “Large discrepancies have long existed in the American educational system and continue today. These long standing inequalities could be considered a ‘crisis’ in the sense that action is urgently needed. But the crisis is not specific to boys; rather, it is a crisis for Hispanic, African American, and low-income children—both boys and girls” (p. 68).
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