How to Grade Your Child's School On Gender Equity

A school's commitment to gender equity can be easily discerned from bulletin boards and display cases, athletic fields, curriculum content, classroom seating and whether teachers encourage girls to develop a public voice-and boys a “public ear.”

Mother and child walking to school

Back to School season has officially arrived. Angst, anxiety and anticipation increase as millions of Americans struggle with really big education questions. Is this a “good” school, or should I be looking elsewhere? Is this teacher too easy, or too hard? Is this a good curriculum? How do I rate my child's education?

Good questions as far as they go, but they don't go far enough. Often gender-related issues are forgotten; yet they are extremely important. Boys and girls are treated to very different educational worlds, and these differences influence many things from test scores to career decision to self-esteem. For parents to get a true sense of a school's effectiveness, they should take a good hard look at how their school treats girls and boys.

What to look for? While there are sophisticated and revealing instruments for analyzing school effectiveness, there are also some fairly simple steps that can be pretty telling as well. Here is a sample:

Hallways: There is an old saying, “If walls could speak, what tales they would tell.” In fact, they do speak-and clearly. Each day millions of students learn what and who schools think is important from bulletin boards and display cases. Do the images and photos in the hallway include both males and females? What are the numbers? Check on the representation of race and ethnicity as well. All the areas that are graded in this article for gender equity can also be graded for other equity areas as well. Are women's stories and contributions described as well as those of males? If trophies are displayed, are they only for sports teams? Here's a tougher question: Who is missing from the hallways?

Athletic Fields: How are the outdoor athletic activities being organized? Are the teams segregated by gender? Do the males dominate the center of the athletic fields, while the females are relegated to the perimeter? How is the equipment being shared? Are the teachers instructing both genders equally?

Classroom Seating: As with the athletic fields, classroom seating can also segregate by gender. Did the teacher allow both girls and boys to choose their seats and they self-segregated, or did the teacher assign these seats and create male and female areas? Gender-segregated seating, whether arranged by the teacher or the students, leads to unequal teacher attention. Like magnets, teachers are drawn to the male areas, where hand waving, call-outs, more active behavior and even discipline problems attract attention. Teachers who intentionally build gender-integrated seating and groups can help promote more equitable classroom interactions.

Student-Teacher Interactions: A bit more subtle, but quite important, is how the teacher's time and attention is distributed. Research shows that boys tend to dominate classroom interactions. Boys call out more, are questioned more and receive more specific help from the teacher. Boys learn that they are center stage, while girls too often learn the lesson of silence. Girls need to develop a “public voice;” boys need to develop a “public ear.”

To get at this more subtle bias, you need to ask the teacher's permission to observe in the classroom. You also may wish to explain to the teacher what you are doing and why, and offer to share the results afterward. To get some basic information, simply count the interactions going to females and males, and compare this with the proportion of girls and boys in the classroom. If girls are 45 percent of the students, they should be getting about 45 percent of the teacher's questions. You may want to construct a sitting chart and check each time a student gets to talk. Are some students dominating while others are quiet? Do you notice a gender difference? Does one gender call out more? Get praised or helped more? Who are the silent students?

Standardized Test Scores: We have become a test-driven society, and there are important gender differences on tests. While boys often get higher scores in math and science and girls in reading and writing, this is often not the case on “high risk” tests, the tests that really matter in the lives of children, like the SATs. On the SATs, boys get higher scores on both verbal and math abilities, and higher scores on the SAT IIs, the tests needed for the most selective colleges. Check your school's scores on the SATs and see if there is a gender gap.

Textbooks: Look through your child's textbooks. Are there a significant number of topics about women's experiences and contributions? Are the photos and pictures telling the story of both genders? Are social and humanitarian issues given adequate coverage in the history texts, or do wars and politics dominate? Are both girls and boys learning to honor and respect all people and their contributions, or is one gender or one race monopolizing the pages?

Sexual Harassment Policy: Does the school have a sexual harassment policy? Do students and teachers know what it includes and how to report violations? Do children feel safe throughout the building or are there areas, students or even adults to be avoided?

Gender Equity Training: When was the last time that the faculty and students received training on how to insure gender equity in the classroom and in the school? On sexual harassment policy? On equitable teaching strategies? On how to create an equitable curriculum? On gender-fair athletics and sports practices?

Beyond the Basics: Is the school doing anything special or unique to help girls or boys overcome gender stereotyping? For example, is there a program to help boys break the male stereotype, or to help girls improve their performance in computer science or engineering? If the school is doing something proactive, give credit to this school's efforts and spread the word. If not, you may wish to consider forming an advocacy group of parents, educators, students and community members to encourage schools to undertake equity programs.

The simple steps described in this article offer a good start on the road to fairer and more effective schools.

David Sadker is a professor of education at American University in Washington, D.C. He is co-author, with the late Myra Sadker, of “Failing At Fairness,” Touchstone Press, 1995.