Wednesday, March 5, 2008

How Schools Shortchange Girls: Three Perspectives on Curriculum

How Schools Shortchange Girls: Three Perspectives on Curriculum
American Association of University Women (AAUW)

In 1992 the American Association of University Women developed a report demonstrating how schools short-changed girls. The fourth part of this report is broken down into three sections: formal curriculum, the classroom as curriculum and the evaded curriculum. The following provides a condensed summary of this article.
A. The Formal Curriculum

The formal curriculum, all the learning that is planned and instructed by the school, has incredible influence on a students’ image of one self and the world we live in. The curriculum can positively or negatively effect students’ motivation to learn, students’ growth and development. When students see themselves reflected in the curriculum, they are motivated to learn and grow.
Interestingly, little educational restructuring of the curriculum has occurred over the years despite the fact that student achievement has been seen as unsatisfactory for boys and girls. Core subjects have generally remained the same since the turn of the century and grades dominate reasons for advancing into higher education. A drop in self-esteem by girls as they get older particularly puzzled researchers in the 1990s even though girls surpassed boys in most subject areas. Some researchers have attributed this drop to the negative images girls are exposed to by the school curriculum, delivering messages that women’s lives are of less importance to men’s.


Since the 1970s research around gender equity has ebbed and flowed, with the majority of it taking place in the 70s and early 80s and tapering off in the 90s. During these times researchers studied instructional materials that showed sexual bias and non-inclusiveness of women. For instance, Dick and Jane materials exhibited sex stereotyping while at the same time only 1% of women were shown in 13 popular 1971 history texts. A survey in the late 80s revealed that this problem continued to persist as only 1 /10 of the popular high school English texts were written by women. According to P. Campbell and J. Wirtenberg, sex stereotyping is a significant problem that impacts learning. “How Books Influence Children: What the Research Shows” (1980), demonstrates how books effect children: “multicultural readings produce markedly more favourable attitudes towards non-dominant groups than do all white curriculum; academic achievement (is) positively correlated with the use of non-sexist and multicultural curriculum materials and sex role stereotyping (is) reduced in those students whose curriculum portrayed females and males in non-stereotypical roles.” (as cited in Flinders and Thornton, 2004).
While great strides have been made in research and experiments on inclusive school curriculum, resulting in more scholarly work, ethnic studies courses, women studies and equitable book lists, federal support for research dropped significantly in the early 90s. While select groups continued their work and developed guidelines for non-sexist language, textbooks have changed somewhat but rarely show dual and balanced gender treatment. For instance, in a 1990 conference, textbooks designed to fit the California guidelines on gender and race equity still showed subtle language bias, absence of women in the fields of technology, development and history.

Conceptualizations of Equity in the Curriculum:

For the last 30 years work to define and better understand gender and race equity took place. From 1984-1990 members of The National Foundation for the Improvement of Education determined common forms of sexual bias and created a checklist identifying eleven forms of sexual bias, some of those being:

1) double standards
2) tokenism
3) denial of achieved status
4) backlash against successful women
5) divide and conquer strategies

Unfortunately, such checklists can also hurt the groups they are meant to protect by assigning them as victims. A better approach to an equitable curriculum “provides each student with both windows out onto the experiences of others and mirrors of her own reality and validity” (E. Style as cited by D. Flinders and S. Thornton, 2004). According to researcher Gretchen Wilbur, a gender fair curriculum comprises of six attributes: affirms variation, inclusive, accurate, affirmative, representative and integrated. But, since 1992 Wilbur claims that no major reform efforts have been made; instead many attempts have resulted in pullout curriculum to target special women issues. In the late 80s James Banks, interested in studying the ways in which ethnic content has been built-in to the curriculum since the 1960s, listed the approaches historically used in education :

1) Contributions Approach-heroes, holidays, cultural elements
2) The Additive Approach-content, concepts, themes and perspectives are added
3) The Transformation Approach-students view concepts, issues, events and themes from diverse perspectives
4) The Social Action Approach-students make decisions on important social issues and action

During this time researcher Peggy McIntosh explored five interactive phases of personal change by using history as an example:

1) Womanless and All-White History
2) Exceptional Women and Persons of Colour
3) Issues Curriculum
4) Women’s Lives or the Lives of People of Colour
5) History Redefined and Reconstructed to Include us all

Interestingly, in the early 1990s many school subjects still fell between 1 and 2 of McIntosh’s analysis. Why? A study conducted by the National Education Association shown in Bogart’s “Solutions That Work” illustrates key obstacles to reform in gender equity:
  • students reluctance to feel singled out
  • parents suspicions about unfamiliar curriculum
  • teachers lack of training and governments unwillingness to commit funds (as cited in Flinders and Thornton, 2004).

B. The Classroom Curriculum

In addition to the formal curriculum, we must consider what students experience in school, including their interactions with teachers and other students. Are the school and the classroom places where all children are valued and respected and good citizenship is encouraged? We must think about what type of community the students are in, and if it has been designed to be equal for girls and boys.

Teacher-Student Interactions:

Unfortunately, research consistently shows that girls do not receive the same amount of attention from teachers as boys. Boys demand more attention, but teachers also call on boys more often. Researchers David and Myra Sadker found that it is not only the number of interactions that are unequal, but also the content of the teachers' comments. The Sadkers "identified four types of teacher comments: praise, acceptance, remediation, and criticism" (p. 211). Interestingly, not only did the boys receive more of all the types of comments, but they also received the more useful types, praise, criticism and remediation. These types of comments will help a student improve performance, and the students receiving these types of comments were more often male. Some researchers believe that the fact that females do not receive more precise comments leads to learned helplessness in females, which "refers to a lack of perseverance, a debilitating loss of self-confidence" (p. 211).

Girls also attribute their success more often to luck, while boys feel their success is due to ability. Researchers have called this the "attribution theory" (p. 211), and believe that it causes girls to feel powerless, with no control over the outcome of their academic tasks, whereas boys often feel mastery and control. Because of this, girls are more likely than boys to give up on challenging tasks. New research indicates that learned helplessness and motivation are complex, and that this explanation may not be entirely accurate and may need further study.

The Design of Classroom Activities:

It is interesting to note that activities in schools are often more appropriate for the interests and potential success of boys. Boys are asked questions about eighty percent more often in lecture classes than girls. Fortunately, this does not hold true for laboratory classes, but unfortunately, in the area of science, lecture classes occur much more often than laboratory classes. Research has shown that if students are given an activity to complete first with a discussion after, girls will not only participate more, but they will perform as well or better than the male students in tests.

Successful Teaching Strategies:

A variety of teaching strategies can promote better learning environments for both girls and boys in school. Research has indicated that science teachers that have had success encouraging girls use more than one textbook, eliminate sexist language and have expectations that are equal for girls and boys (p. 213). Other research shows that math classrooms that do not have noticeable gender differences have less social comparison and competition. Girls have more success in classrooms that are described by students as warmer and fairer (p. 213). Another study from 1986 found that it is important for each student's individual perspectives and experiences to be accepted, and that classrooms must emphasize collaboration and allow for opportunities to discover the diverse opinions of the students. Unfortunately, the testing and evaluation of students can get in the way of collaborative approaches.
Cooperative learning, an approach designed to promote cooperation and reduce the negative effects of competition, is another teaching strategy that may create a more equitable environment for girls. Research shows that in elementary school, most students prefer working in groups with other students of the same gender. It has been found that in elementary and middle schools, most children have more same-sex friendships. One of the obstacles to developing cross-gender relationships is the different communication patterns of males and females. Girls are more indirect, asking more questions, while boys are more direct, making statements and sometimes interrupting. It has also been found that when boys and girls are working together in groups, girls are more likely to help boys when asked, but the boys are more likely to ignore the girls. The boys seem to have a higher position than girls when working in mixed groups as well. Cooperative learning, even though it is a positive teaching strategy, may not be strong enough to overcome these differences. Some research has even shown that if small, unstructured work groups are used infrequently, they may actually increase gender stereotypes. Boys are often given leadership opportunities in these situations, while the girls fall into a follower role. In the future, girls may express a preference for working in single-sex groups instead. There has been more positive research on cooperative learning approaches, but these concerns still exist, and the occasional small group learning opportunities will not eliminate gender differences in the classroom.

Problems in Student Interactions:

Another concern for girls is the way students treat each other at school. Research shows that girls are not treated well by boys at school. Junior and senior high school students are reporting more sexual harassment, and usually a boy is harassing a girl. Sexual harassment is often about power, and the harasser is usually more powerful than the peer being harassed. In the United States, sexual harassment is prohibited under Title IX, but unfortunately, it is often treated as a joke by school authorities. This gives a clear message to all students that it is acceptable for boys to exert their power over girls, and that girls are not worthy of respect. If students do not feel comfortable and safe at school, they will not be able to be effective students. School authorities must stop ignoring these behaviours and create more positive and equitable learning environments.


If there is to be a change in the teaching strategies being used in schools, teacher evaluations should include the use of equitable teaching strategies. It has been shown that girls learn and perform better in girls-only groups, but more research is needed to understand what makes this so. Even if all-girl classes are not allowed, it is possible for teachers to offer girls-only groups with the class, and teachers should be encouraged to try different arrangements of students.

C. The Evaded Curriculum

The avoided curriculum is very important to students and teachers; unfortunately, it is touched upon only briefly in most schools. These areas include: the functioning of bodies, the expression and value of feelings and the dynamics of power. And even when an avoided topic is actually part of the curriculum, like sex education, it is presented in a superficial manner, devoid of personal reflection and connection and usually delivered by method of rote memory of facts.

Why it is important:

Childhood should be seen as a time of great health but studies have shown that many young people are subjected to great problems such as eating disorders, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, suicide and taking part in risky behaviours. And the health and well being of students is directly related to students’ ability to complete school. For instance female teens who do badly in school are five times likely to engage in unprotected sex, involved in car crashes and become pregnant.

Take a look at these early 1990s statistics:

Substance Use:
-the initial use of harmful substances is occurring at younger ages
-2 out of 3 students have tried cigarettes before gr. 9
-1 out of 4 students have tried marijuana before g.r 9
-girls and boys differ in drug use: girls experiment with more over the counter weight reduction pills or stimulants while boys experiment with illicit drugs and binge drinking.
-more white girls smoke than any group

Sexual Activity:
-28% of youths are sexually active by age 14; 38% of girls are between the ages of 15-17
-the dramatic increase in white girls’ sexual activity has greatly reduced previous racial and income differences
-contraceptive use remains erratic
-reasons for not using contraceptives: inadequate knowledge, lack of access, not liking to plan to have sex
-before age 15 only 31% of adolescents use contraceptives; by age 19 91% do use contraceptives
-condom use is increasing: 21% in 79 to 58% in 88

Sexual Transmitted Diseases:
-Syphilis rates are equal amongst girls and boys and 1 million teens have suffered from Chlamydia each year.
-girls are particularly susceptible to STDs as their reproductive systems are vulnerable

-women make up the fastest growing group of persons with AIDS in US

Body Image:
-girls are less satisfied with their bodies than boys
-reports show that girls have more eating disorders than boys

-increased early onset of depression has been reported; slightly more girls than boys exhibit severely depressed traits.
-severely depressed girls show higher rates of substance abuse than boys

-girls are four times more likely than boys to attempt suicide
-gr. 8-10 girls are twice as likely as boys to report sad and hopelessness
-cohesive families/neighbourhoods, adequate resources, caring adults and quality schools help protect teens

The Functioning of Healthy Bodies:
-in spite of reports suggesting strong support for sex education, it isn’t widespread or comprehensive
-some of the obstacles include: teacher’s lack of knowledge, content varies due to local sensitivities, teacher’s comfort level.
-studies have shown that sex education helps increase knowledge, initiate effective contraceptive use and improves consistent methods of contraceptive use.
-girls confront sexual abuse four times the rate as boys.

The Expression and Valuing of Feelings

Classrooms must become places where students express their feelings and discuss personal experiences. Studies have shown that we learn best from acquiring answers to our own questions. By developing lessons that encourage students to explore issues relevant to their world, opportunities to discuss the avoided curriculum will arise in meaningful ways. Children need a safe place to discuss their problems and receive help and support. It is unacceptable that violence against women is an aspect of culture and that some lives are controlled by fear of rape and violence.
School curriculum needs to show the strengths that girls can bring to society, helping students learn and grow as part of a pro-social community. We must have these expectations in school; we must have these expectations in our world. Preparing our students for citizenship in a democratic society should be part of our school curriculum.

Conclusion and Recommendations:

As educators, we need to recognize that the curriculum can positively or negatively affect students’ motivation to learn, as well as their growth and development. Even with this knowledge, and research showing that student achievement for both boys and girls has been unsatisfactory, little educational restructuring of the curriculum has occurred over the years.
Even though girls outperform boys in most areas, their self-esteem continues to drop as they get older, a fact that has been attributed to the negative images of females in the curricula. This is a fact that should be addressed so that girls will see themselves more positively in the academic world.
Gender equity research shows that sex stereotyping is still an issue, and that the majority of high school English texts are written by men. Women have found their way into textbooks, but are usually featured in "Famous Women" type sections, rather than portrayed equally throughout the book. For girls to see the possibility of female contributions to society, these texts need to have a more equitable view of contributions throughout the years.
There are six attributes required for a gender fair curriculum, according to Wilbur. They are: affirms variation, inclusive, accurate, affirmative, representative and integrated. Unfortunately what we have seen is, rather than gender fair curricula, more pullout curricula for women's issues have been created. If curriculum developers could incorporate Wilbur's attributes in their documents, it would help teachers to create gender equal classrooms. Teachers must also be very critical of the texts they select for their courses, and can use these attributes to evaluate their materials and develop more gender equitable programs.
Teacher-student interactions seem to favor boys and their learning. Boys receive more comments from teachers, including more of the useful types of comments that help them improve their performance. If teachers are aware of this trend, they can evaluate their own practices, even having a colleague observe and track their comments to ensure they are responding equally to girls and boys, and offering useful comments fairly as well. The attribution theory states that girls attribute their success more often to luck, while boys feel their success is due to ability. This may not be easy to change, but regular dialogue about why students are successful may help alter these perceptions.
The design of classroom activities, especially lecture style teaching, often favours boys. Teachers need to teach in different ways and to different learning styles to offer equity in their classrooms. They can also create better learning environments for both girls and boys in their classrooms by including less social comparison and competition, having equal expectations for all and accepting individual perspectives and experiences. Collaboration, cooperative learning and cross-sex groupings are also positive, but may not be enough on their own to reduce gender inequity, especially if strong gender differences already exist. If we are to see a change in the teaching strategies being used, they must be part of teachers' evaluations. This also means that administrators need to be aware of the gender issues and know what strategies promote equitable classrooms and learning.
Sexual harassment is another problem in schools, affecting girls more often than boys. Teachers and administrators must take these concerns seriously and address them to ensure that the school's learning environment is safe and comfortable for all.
The evaded curriculum, including areas like the functioning of bodies, the expression and value of feelings and the dynamics of power, should be a more integral part of learning, but is usually only presented in a superficial manner, if at all. A direct link has been shown between the health and well being of students and their ability to complete school. Given this reality, and considering the statistics from the 1990's, schools need to bring these issues out in the open and educate students in these areas.
Classrooms should be places where students are comfortable expressing their feelings and discussing personal experiences. We know that students learn best by acquiring the answers to their own questions, so we must develop curricula and lessons that are relevant to their world and offer them the opportunities to ask their questions. The climate in the classroom needs to be one of respect and acceptance, so students will be willing to ask the questions that are important to them and will feel comfortable, whether they are female or male, with their classmates and themselves.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Article for discussion - Gender Bias Lives, for Both Sexes

Gender bias continues to be an issue, not just for girls, but for boys as well. Gender bias affects boys and girls differently, and we need to be aware of unintentional bias and work towards gender equity in education. This article brings us up to date on these issues. Please read the 2005 article "Gender Bias Lives, for Both Sexes" by David Sadker and Karen Zittleman before considering the questions that follow.

This is a ProQuest document, you may need to enter your username and password (same as you would to log into WebCT) before you will see the article.

Questions for discussion

In the spirit of Inquiry, we would like you to answer the three questions that you feel most strongly about after listening to the podcasts and reading the article.


1. In your experience, do you think girls or boys are more successful in your classes? What do you attribute this to (for example, teaching methods, classroom climate, material used)?

2. Give examples of gender bias you've seen against boys and against girls in your teaching experience. How do you think these could be eliminated?

3. If you could make one change in your classroom to encourage equity, what would it be? Would this be an easy change to make?

4. If you could ask your provincial curriculum developers to make one change to encourage equity in education, what would it be?

5. Sadker and Zittleman (2005) state "Girls receive higher report card grades throughout their schooling career. Boys outscore girls on most high-stakes tests, including both the verbal and math sections of the SATs". What do you think of this? In your experience, is this true?

6. Considering the "attribution theory", what steps do you think teachers can take to help students interpret their successes and failures in appropriate and objective ways?

7. If you think objectively about the materials you use in your classroom and the displays and messages in your school, what are they saying about female accomplishments? Is gender equally represented?