Gender Bias in US Education

THE so-called glass ceiling that keeps women from reaching top positions in the corporate world has been well-documented. Now a new report describes what could be called a glass ceiling in American education - the invisible barriers and biases that keep girls from achieving their full potential in school.

The study, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," was conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). It explains that although boys and girls enter school with equal ability, girls fall behind by the end of high school. As one example of gender bias, the report claims that teachers pay more attention to boys. When boys call out answers - which they do eight times more often than girls - teachers listen. When girls do the same, teachers tell them to "raise your hand if you want to speak."

Teachers are less likely to encourage girls to take advanced courses in science and math. Girls encounter few female role models in textbooks and may be at a disadvantage on standardized tests.

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Not all the news is gloomy. The gap between girls' and boys' math scores is narrowing. More women than men now enroll in college, and women earn a third of all medical degrees.

Even so, the report serves as a reminder that any education reform must include systematic attention to the needs of girls. Training teachers in "gender-equitable education" can help. So can encouraging girls to study math and science. So can improving textbooks and curriculum.

But schools don't exist in a vacuum. The classroom is a microcosm of society. Beleaguered teachers can't be expected to right all the wrongs perpetuated by powerful images in the media and popular entertainment, which still deal in stereotypes.

Encouraging respect for women's intelligence and ability begins in the home, with parents treating daughters and sons equally. But it cannot end there. The AAUW study measures how subtle universal sexism is, so that even educators - the correctors of prejudice - have been found to construct the first glass ceiling for young heads to bump against when they push toward the sky. The report's acknowledgment of its presence in the classroom should help shatter it everywhere.

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