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Keep Girls' Skills Above Ground

By Lisa Marsh Ryerson. Lisa Marsh Ryerson is president of Wells College in AuroraN.Y. / January 29, 1996



MOST girls learn to talk, read, and count earlier than boys. In preschool, girls score higher on IQ tests. They are more likely than boys to receive high grades in elementary school. But somewhere between fifth and ninth grade, girls begin to go "underground" with their abilities. Some of these talents don't resurface.

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A new national public-service campaign for gender equity in schools has the potential to transform our educational system and provide new opportunities for our daughters. The theme is "Expect the Best From a Girl: That's What You'll Get." It encourages us to let our daughters and female students know we expect more from them. In turn, we must offer the support and encouragement they need to reach the highest levels of achievement.

The campaign was created by the Women's College Coalition, in Washington, and the Ad Council (which brought us "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing To Waste"). Vital information and an action plan are available to parents, teachers, and adolescent girls. It is important that all of us, especially those involved in education and parenting, take time to find and review this material. I am pleased as the president of a women's college to be a spokesperson and resource.

Without truly equal education, women can be deprived of economic security and the opportunity for a high quality of life. The result is dramatically apparent in the job market, where women pursuing careers in traditionally male occupations requiring specialized training can expect to have lifetime earnings 150 percent above those of women who choose traditionally female careers. If girls aren't educated equally with boys, especially in math and science, they can be trapped at the low end of the economic scale.

Gender research indicates that developmental patterns and attitudes toward females in the classroom are largely the result of social and cultural forces. The good news is that parents and educators can improve things if they are willing to overcome cultural myths.

The campaign has some specific advice in this area. Encourage girls to:

*Take risks.

*Think, probe, and be inquisitive.

*Speak up for yourself and take action.

*Learn from mistakes and try again.

*Explore new interests and gain new skills.

*Take on leadership roles.

8Be physically active.

In all settings, whether public or private schools, coeducational or single-sex, we must support and encourage girls to reach ambitious goals. Improving education for girls does not require that the education of boys be diminished. Program improvements in our schools will help all students. Moreover, we can make boys more aware of women's contributions and debunk negative stereotypes.

Here are some recommendations that can be practiced at home and in school that I believe are particularly beneficial:

*Celebrate women's accomplishments.

*Promote girls' participation in debating clubs, school newspapers, sports, and student government. These are great activities for building self-confidence.

*Encourage a girl who is opting out of science, math, or advanced courses not to be influenced by stereotypes claiming women can't perform in these fields. Praise a C+ in a tough class as much as an A in an easy one.

*Be sure that girls get hands-on computer experience, if possible.

*Urge educators to introduce career awareness in elementary school and support this with discussion at home.

*Read what your daughter is reading.

I hope this information will help in the long process of changing our educational system for the better. Parents who want more information can call 800-WCC-4-GIRLS or visit on the Internet at http://www.academic.org. Working together, we can create a future filled with improved opportunities for our daughters and students.