Education And Gender Research Paper

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Since the 1970s, the number of empirical studies on differences in the academic performance and social development of boys and girls in elementary and secondary school has escalated. In 1992, the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (AAUW) estimated that over 1,000 articles and studies on girls and their education in kindergarten through 12th grade had been reviewed for their comprehensive report, How Schools Shortchange Girls. Gender studies of this type typically show how societal structures, primarily schools, distribute resources inequitably among boys and girls and what effect these distributions have on various outcomes such as achievement, self-esteem, educational attainment, and occupational choice. It now appears that the distribution of resources is changing, and assumptions about the treatment and consequences of certain actions are being challenged as the gender gap between boys and girls closes along several key dimensions.

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Recent US data indicate that the achievement test score gap between girls and boys has been steadily declining during the 1980s and 1990s, and girls now perform as well as boys on most national tests.

In 1996, girls outperformed boys on tests in subjects such as reading and writing, and performed nearly equal to boys in mathematics (Campbell et al. 1998). In light of these findings, the question has been raised if schools are still ‘shortchanging girls.’ Kleinfeld (2000) argues that the idea that girls are victimized at school is wrong; girls receive higher grades in school, perform better than boys on standardized tests in many subjects, and enter and complete college more frequently than young men. Males are more likely to be placed in special classes for learning disabilities, are more difficult for teachers to handle, and are given less encouragement by their teachers to succeed.

As differences in the academic performance and educational attainment of boys and girls continue to decrease in magnitude, increasingly researchers are suggesting that girls and boys are a great deal more similar than they are different. This is not to say that there are no gender differences, but they appear when examining specific knowledge and skills in particular samples of females and males. Gender research has moved from assumptions of homogeneity within the sexes to a more detailed examination of intra-gender differences among girls and boys. Focusing on race, ethnicity, and social class has made recent research on gender more complex, and allowed for more fine grained distinctions of the academic and social challenges facing boys and girls as they progress through school.

1. The Elementary School Years

When they enter kindergarten, most young children have clear ideas about gender and strive for conformity with gender-stereotyped roles. Boys are committed more rigidly to sex roles than girls, consistently choosing and preferring sex-typed toys and activities. By age 10, there appears to be more flexibility in sex-segregated behaviors, although most children continue to prefer to spend time with same-sex peers (Thorne 1993).

Large-scale studies show that females are more likely to start their formal schooling at an earlier age than males and are less likely to fall behind academically and repeat a grade. Girls typically enter kindergarten with education-related skills such as small muscle development and language competence, abilities that are highly valued by their teachers. Mastery of these skills often eases the transition for girls from preschool into kindergarten. Boys, on the other hand, tend not to be as proficient in these capacities when they enter school and receive more attention than girls from their teachers, who give them specific and helpful feedback and challenge them with more complex and abstract questions. Teacher–student interaction studies in elementary school reveal that teachers tend to view boys’ academic problems as motivational, but when girls exhibit similar problems they are seen as lacking ability (Sadker and Sadker 1994).

2. Middle School

The differential treatment by teachers of girls and boys continues through middle school where, it has been argued, girls’ sense of competence is undermined and they become silent in the classroom (Brown and Gilligan 1992). Findings by Eccles et al. (1998) indicate that gender differences are more likely to be observed where gender stereotypes are endorsed by girls and boys. Girls who believe the stereotype that boys are more competent in a subject like math will be more likely to lack confidence and to avoid challenges in that subject.

Beginning in early adolescence, females consistently report greater dissatisfaction with their appearance and bodies than males. This phenomenon appears to have intensified over the last several decades. Perceptions of one’s attractiveness are correlated with self-esteem for both males and females. Some claim, however, that females are more susceptible to the influences of the media, their teachers, parents, and peers, and have substantially lower self-esteem than males (Orenstein 1994). A more cautious view of these findings and other studies are discussed in two major meta-analyses conducted by Kling et al. (1999) and Feingold (1994), which show small but statistically significant gender differences in self-esteem favoring males for both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies.

In middle school, girls continue to demonstrate an academic advantage over boys, outperforming them with respect to grades in academic and nonacademic subjects. However, there appear to be no significant differences in test performance between boys and girls (Willingham and Cole 1997). Females at this age are more likely than males to report talking to their parents about selecting courses, school activities, and their classes. Boys continue to skip school and get into trouble more often than girls. At home, however, there appear to be few differences in how parents monitor behavior. Males and females are likely to report similar levels of parental control regarding television viewing, reviewing homework, and limiting the time they can go out and be with friends (US Department of Education 1995).

3. Secondary School

Despite growing support among the general public and supplementary federal funding for the development of nonsexist curricular materials and programs in the 1970s, gender equity issues continued to plague American secondary schools well into the early 1980s. Although in high school girls consistently received higher grades than boys, boys tended to perform better than girls on standardized tests. In trying to discover what contributed to these results, researchers examined several different factors, including educational expectations, course-taking behaviors, gender bias of standardized tests, peer group interactions, and extracurricular participation. Results of their efforts encouraged the development of a number of different programs and activities to increase teacher and parent awareness of the problems facing girls in school (AAUW 1995). In the 1990s, it appears that these initiatives have been effective, and gender differences are slight or nonexistent in some domains.

4. Educational Expectations And Occupational Aspirations

Educational expectations and occupational aspirations, which have been shown to be highly sex-typed, have tended to be predictive of adult occupational attainment (Marini and Brinton 1984). Today, however, most adolescents expect to attend college after high school graduation, and these expectations do not vary by gender (Schneider and Stevenson 1999). Comparing large-scale longitudinal data from 1972 to 1992, Green et al. (1995a) show that in 1972 males were more likely than females to expect to complete college. However, by 1992, females and males were equally likely to expect to complete their education with at least a bachelor’s degree. In 1992, for the first time, females were more likely than males to expect to earn a graduate degree. These results do not hold across all groups: Hispanic females are the least educationally ambitious and are least likely to expect to complete college or earn a graduate degree.

Males and females both aspire to professional occupations that require higher education degrees. However, gender differences continue to persist among certain occupations. Females are more likely than males to aspire to careers in education, health, psychology, and cosmetology, whereas males are more likely than females to aspire to careers in engineering, auto mechanics, and electronics. No gender differences are apparent for career aspirations in computer programming or business.

5. Course-Taking Patterns

The courses students choose to take in high school have a significant impact on their lives after high school graduation. Students who take advanced courses in science and mathematics are more likely to attend selective colleges than those who do not. In the 1980s, girls lagged behind boys in the number of mathematics and science courses they enrolled in. In the 1990s there has been a change, with girls now taking nearly as many mathematics and science courses as boys (Wirt et al. 1999). However, a gap still exists with respect to the types of courses girls and boys take in these subjects. Females are less likely than males to take a fourth year of mathematics or science, which includes calculus and physics. Even females who earned high grades in previous mathematics and science classes often elect not to take these courses. Boys are more likely than girls to take physics as well as biology and chemistry. Girls outnumber boys in humanities and social studies; they are also more likely than boys to be enrolled in basic data entry and word processing courses.

Advanced placement (AP) and honors courses are geared to help students prepare for advanced placement tests for college entrance, where a scoring within a specified range allows a student to earn college credit for a specific subject. Consistent with their general course-taking patterns, females are more likely than males to take honors courses in foreign languages, English, and social studies; take about the same number of honors classes as boys in science, and slightly fewer in mathematics (Dwyer and Johnson 1997). In the 1990s, the number of girls taking AP exams increased more rapidly than the number of boys. By 1996, the number of males and females taking AP exams in the natural sciences and mathematics also increased, with the number of females increasing slightly more than males. Although more females were taking AP exams in the 1990s, the relative performance of girls and boys in most subjects was very similar (Willingham and Cole 1997).

6. Other Tests Of Academic Performance

The small sex differences observed on the AP exams can also be found on other standardized tests. Recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a nationally representative exam of student knowledge in selected subjects, show that the highest standardized test scores in reading and writing across all sampled grade levels were earned by girls. Boys earned higher scores on average in history, geography, mathematics, and science (Campbell et al. 1998). Males’ test scores are about 10 percent more variable than females’ which means that men are likely to outnumber women at the top and bottom of the scale, even though there are no sex differences in the mean scores (Hedges and Friedman 1993). Therefore, if the cutoff for admission to a highly selective program is scoring in the top 5 percent, fewer than half as many women as men may be admitted.

7. Experiences In School

Gender differences also characterize many aspects of adolescents’ peer relationships. Adolescent girls’ peer networks are often larger than those of adolescent boys, include more opposite-sex friends and fewer close friends. Nevertheless, girls’ friendships are characterized by greater intimacy than are those of boys (Connolly and Konarski 1994). Females and their friends are more likely than males and their friends to have positive values and attitudes regarding their schooling experiences. While 43 percent of females say their friends think studying is very important, only 29 percent of males believe studying is very important to their close friends. Nearly 56 percent of females compared to 41 percent of males believe that their friends value receiving good grades (Green et al. 1995b).

8. Extracurricular Participation

There has been an increasing awareness that much of gender socialization occurs outside of the classroom in the extracurricular and informal activities of the school (Eder and Parker 1987). Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988–94, a nationally representative longitudinal sample of over 20,000 adolescents, show differences in gender participation. Girls were more likely to participate in artistic, religious, social, and service activities. White females were more likely to participate in most extracurricular activities than Hispanic, African– American, or Asian–American females. Male high school graduates were more likely than females to have taken at least one year of physical education, and outnumbered girls in team sports. Girls outnumbered boys in performing arts, school government, and literary activities, but boys were more likely than girls to occupy positions of leadership in some of these activities. As for activities outside of school, girls were more likely to take classes and be involved in activities with their parents than were boys.

9. Single-Sex Schools

One of the responses to the negative implications of gender bias in schools has been a movement toward creating more single-sex schools (US Department of Education 1993). Research on the advantages of single-sex schools is mixed, particularly when taking into account selection bias issues. However, as more parents and educators become concerned with issues of harassment, differences in self-esteem, and the academic performance of females, the number of female single-sex schools may increase, even though there is not overwhelming evidence that girls fare better academically in these environments.

10. Leaving School Before High School Graduation

Although dropout rates have been declining steadily, there are some important distinctions with respect to gender. Dropout rates are especially high among Hispanic girls. In 1995, 30 percent of Hispanic females aged 16–24 had dropped out of school and not yet passed a high school equivalency test. In contrast, dropout rates for white and African–American females declined, and those for white, African– American, and Hispanic males remained stable (US Department of Education 1995). One of the most frequent reasons teenage girls give for leaving school is being pregnant. Teenage pregnancy is linked with poor school performance, and is also distributed differentially among girls of different race and ethnicity, with Hispanic girls the most likely to become pregnant and leave school. Typically, across all racial and ethnic groups, males tend to take less responsibility than females for decisions about child bearing and childcare.

11. Transitioning From High School

Most young people will enter some type of postsecondary school following high school graduation. Today, females are slightly more likely than males to obtain some form of postsecondary education. In a recent study by AAUW (1999), among those high school students who entered the work force after graduation, males were significantly more likely than females to describe their employment as a career rather than a job, to say they never seriously considered attending college, and to believe that they could get a decent job without a college education. Females in this group were more likely to feel that lack of money was a barrier to education and that better information about financial aid would have influenced their chances of attending college.

Even though there have been substantial gains in closing the gender gap in elementary through high school, there are still small differences that can have substantial implications. For example, low self-esteem may encourage a girl or boy to take less challenging courses, which can ultimately affect future plans after high school. Young people, regardless of gender, have talent and ability in particular areas when given the opportunity to succeed. The life paths that young people choose need to be constructed on the basis of their talents and efforts not their gender.


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