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Schools' Focus Stymies Girls In Math, Science

Robert M. Thorson

June 17, 2010

During commencement ceremonies this weekend, many smart girls will walk across the stage and away from careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Jennifer Ky of Hartford will not be among them. After graduating from University High School of Science and Engineering, she'll be heading to Yale University to pursue a career in molecular biology rather than in poetry and writing, at which she also excels. Congratulations to Jennifer, her family and her public school.

The root cause of the lingering gender disparity in mathematics and science fields is a widely held, persistent and bogus stereotype that females lack mathematical ability. Consequently, they've been insidiously and invisibly under-taught, under-mentored and under-encouraged, especially in public high schools. Reinforcing this disparity has been our nation's decade-long fixation on the tragedy of low-performing public schools, rather than on the enhancement of exceptionality and gender parity within them.

Fortunately, President Barack Obama is moving away from "No Child Left Behind" to a "Race to the Top." His math and science goals are geared toward global competitiveness and standards. Connecticut educational officials expect to learn by September whether they've succeeded in getting program funding. If so, we'll go "back to school" with a difference.

The gender gap is closing in most areas of professional life. Women, for example, now constitute a majority in law schools. and Elena Kagan probably will soon join Sonia Sotomayor on the U.S. Supreme Court. The gap, however, stubbornly persists in science and math fields, where, despite many notable exceptions, men still hold a dramatic lead (especially in physics and engineering) in the number of jobs, and dominate career leadership as well.

Why? There are many reasons. One takes place within high schools. Drawing an analogy with the Kentucky Derby can help. Horses at the gate and girls at their math desks start out equally. After their respective bells ring, stragglers of the equine and female variety appear quickly. Leaders edge up from the pack, becoming easy to single out for win, place and show at the racetrack and for first, second and third prizes at the science fair.

But what about the less visible horses and students at the leading edge of the pack, those who are fully able to win, but who may not have been publicly noticed and celebrated?

Based on a careful study of standardized testing at public schools in Connecticut and nine other states, and using "detailed statistical information on gender differences, by grade level and by ethnicity girls now score just as well as boys in math" (Science, July 25, 2008).

For the middle of the pack, "the weighted mean difference in performance between boys and girls was "0.0065, consistent with no gender difference." In contrast, the highest-performing students are more likely to be males than females.

In the previous No Child Left Behind program, the incentive structure for teachers and schools emphasized overall test results. Additionally, test items overwhelmingly emphasized lower-level (recall and skill/concept) relative to higher-level (strategic and extended) thinking in math. Thus, instruction targeted the middle of the pack, with less attention on stragglers and leaders in the horse race of math success. The leading edge was given even less attention, especially its nearly invisible females. This practice probably contributed to maintaining the gender disparity in science and math, further hurting future American global competitiveness.

High school teachers Edward DePeau III of Newington, and Kristen Record of Stratford don't need my advice. They've been selected to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Congratulations to them and their school systems!

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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