What's important? Ask the nearest man

Joan Develin Coley

February 21, 1992|By Joan Develin Coley

HOW Schools Shortchange Women," a massive report issued last week by the American Association of University Women, made the front page of most major newspapers. In no uncertain terms, it said America's schools are places where young people learn not only their ABC's but the hard lessons of a society that judges its members by gender.

Despite four decades of focusing on such discrimination, we're still witnessing blatant mistreatment of women and girls in the schools.

My guess is that the report will generate appropriate hand-wringing, the requisite number of investigative committees in school systems and teacher-education institutions and a flood of recommendations for what should be done. Then it will be placed back on the shelf and ignored.

After all, these charges are old hat. What the report has done is to synthesize about 1,000 studies and publications on sex discrimination in the nation's schools, most of which date from the '70s and '80s.

This isn't to say the report is extraneous or unimportant. Merely the accumulation of all the information is no small accomplishment. But there is nothing new here, and if we were serious about correcting gender discrimination, we surely could have made a greater dent by now.

The major problem is that discrimination on the basis of sex is not simply an educational problem; it is a societal problem. What happens on a daily basis in the classrooms of this nation is mirrored in the workplace, where women still earn 69 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The study finds that girls are more often ignored in classrooms than are boys. That's symptomatic of medical and law schools, where women are in the minority. The study finds that women are underrepresented in math and science careers. That's paralleled in the field of education itself, where despite the fact that women comprise a majority of teachers, more than 95 percent of the nation's public school superintendents are male.

What it will take to combat the problem is the conviction that this kind of discrimination should be addressed in every segment of American society, public and private.

To be sure, there have been some improvements. The landmark 1972 Title IX legislation banning sex discrimination in federally funded education programs has helped, though much remains to be done. Women's athletics have received increased attention and funding. Textbooks have become more sensitive to gender issues. The number of women administrators has increased steadily, though it is still embarrassingly small. There are also hopeful signs in curriculum and teaching practices. Having children read real literature instead of the traditional "Dick and Jane" basal readers exposes them to more female subjects and authors. And many schools are trying to make education a cooperative enterprise rather than a competitive one. This makes learning more hospitable to girls.

But in many ways these changes are simply window dressing. The solution is more complex than simply providing more female role models, because some females who "make it" in a male-dominated world do so by buying into the very same male stereotypes that devalue women. The real evil of sex discrimination, like any other oppression, is that it devalues the humanity of the individual.

Our society ought not to expect everyone to conform to the white male model of what is important and valuable. The ideal should be to accept and celebrate our races, our genders, our ethnicities, our ages or whatever qualities define us as people. The challenges to equality are formidable and will require great creativity and ingenuity. It makes no sense economically, educationally or morally to shortchange a large segment of our youth.

Joan Develin Coley is a professor of education at Western Maryland College.

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