Sex Bias in Class? Few Teachers Raise Hands : Schools: Most educators say they know that girls face obstacles, but that a recent study affirming the problem doesn’t apply to them.


Ask teachers if girls get shortchanged in class because boys demand and get more attention, as a landmark new study asserts, and they’re likely to respond: “Not in my classroom!”

Diana Wright Guerin nodded knowingly. As a child development expert at Cal State Fullerton, she knew better too. Still, she found herself calling mostly on the boys who were eagerly waving their hands during a recent presentation at a Placentia elementary school.

“I couldn’t believe it, and I felt (bad) for days,” said the assistant professor whose own research includes issues of sex bias in education. “It’s something as teachers that you constantly need to monitor.”

Aurora (Dodo) Standring sighed.

“I find I’m guilty of allowing boys who are more active and more verbal to interrupt, and I don’t allow girls to do it,” said Standring, a science teacher at Fullerton’s Ladera Vista Junior High School who has a reputation for teaching equally to girls and boys.

“Girls want to please and boys don’t,” she said. “That’s just the way it is in junior high. Boys just barrel ahead and do things that girls wouldn’t at that age. They’re more curious, it seems like, more willing to take chances.”


Last Thursday, for example, one of her boys pulled a hair from another’s head and stuck it on a hot plate in the science lab. “You could smell protein burning all over the place,” Standring said. “A girl wouldn’t do that. And then he swore up and down that he didn’t do anything.”

The flip side, though, is that girls in recent years have become more assertive, demanding their turn at scarce equipment that is all too often hogged by the boys, Standring said. And because of her own experience as the only woman in college science courses in the 1950s--and today among science instructors at her school--she tries to encourage female students to participate, to consider careers as chemists, biologists, astronauts and engineers.

“A lot of times I hear, ‘I’m really dumb in science, Mrs. Standring.’ I say, ‘No, you’re not. You think just as well as the boys in the class.’ I point out the fact that girls have the same intelligence as boys, and that it’s not a matter of intelligence. They just have to expose themselves to the knowledge.”

Equal access for girls and women in the nation’s classrooms has been an issue since Congress passed Title IX of the Education Act of 1972, a law barring sex discrimination in education. Researchers went out to find out more about the problem. About the same time, a growing number of scholars began to look anew at the relationship between sex and education.

Despite the crosscurrents of education reform over the past two decades, a sweeping report by the American Assn. of University Women concluded last week that the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools remain biased against girls.

The report found that:

* Teachers give markedly less attention to girls.

* Courses often ignore girls or reinforce sex stereotypes.

* Most standardized tests are biased against girls.

* The gender gap in mathematics scores is declining, but girls are still not pursuing math-related careers in the same numbers as boys; there remains a large, perhaps growing gender gap in science.

* African-American girls interact even less than white girls in the classroom. Although they try to engage teachers more than any other group, black girls usually get less reinforcement.

* Sex harassment of girls by boys is increasing, partly because school officials regard such incidents as “harmless instances of ‘boys being boys.’ ”

At a time when women and minorities will soon be a majority of all U.S. workers, the AAUW said educators must provide equal access to education or the United States will cease to be a competitive economic force in the next century.

In interviews last week, more than a dozen county teachers agreed that sex bias is an important issue. Many had heard of the AAUW report. But most said boys and girls are favored equally in their own classrooms.

“We are all aware of and concerned about equal access in the classroom,” said Ed Neely, a fifth-grade teacher at Truman Benedict Elementary School in San Clemente. “I just do not see it as a major issue in my classroom. . . . Many of my best students in science are girls. And everyone participates in my classroom. I’ve never seen the boys dominate the discussions. But then, I don’t let them.”

Linda Serafino, a sixth-grade teacher at Fred N. Newhart Jr. Elementary School in Mission Viejo, said she does find that boys talk and act up more than girls, and that can be a nuisance--one best solved by sending the miscreant to the principal’s office.

But that does not take valuable time and attention away from the better-behaved girls, she said.

“As far as understanding the whole child, I think we do--we certainly attempt to,” said Serafino, who has taught for 17 years at nearly every elementary grade. “And on the whole, quite often girls are much more receptive than the boys.

“Of course, part of it is that they are wanting to please you. . . . But I find many girls work harder for their grades, and they know when they’ve earned them.”

Cal State Fullerton’s Guerin is familiar with the polite, people-pleasing ways of girls in the classroom. That very tendency, she fears, may mean that girls with learning disabilities are not detected in the classroom.

Conventional wisdom, for example, says the reading disability known as dyslexia is two to 10 times more prevalent in boys than in girls.

However, as part of a 13-year study of 100 North County boys and girls, Guerin and several other researchers have found that of the 21% whose tests suggest that they have mild or moderate dyslexia, 10 were girls and 11 were boys.

Yet girls are far less likely to be referred to special programs for learning disabilities, Guerin said. That is because outward behavior is often the chief criterion for referral. When more objective tools--such as test scores and a comparison of IQ tests--are used, researchers find many more girls in need of screening for dyslexia who were not doing well in school.

“What concerns us is that girls aren’t detected because they aren’t a problem for teachers,” Guerin said. “What worries me is that they aren’t getting the remedial help they need.”

Conversely, scientists suspect that many boys are erroneously tagged for remedial help because they act up more in class, daydream or seem not to pay attention.

“It’s a disservice to boys too,” Guerin said, “because if we refer them for special services when they are not in need of it, they can be stuck with a label and a stigma.”

Tom Savage, a professor in Cal State Fullerton’s teacher preparation program, agreed that sex bias can and does occur. But he also noted that the greater interactions boys have with teachers include disciplinary experiences that may have a negative impact.

“I firmly believe that we lose an awful lot of little boys who feel they can’t be successful, that they are basically a failure because they can only get negative attention from their teacher,” Savage said.

Historically, research has shown that girls on average perform as well or better than boys in elementary grades but lose ground to them by the time they graduate from high school. Scholars speculate that social and cultural expectations, combined with sex bias in the classroom, begin shunting girls toward sex-segregated social roles and careers.

The critical period for that shift, they believe, is adolescence.

To better understand what is happening at that age, Cal State Fullerton developmental psychologist Patricia Szeszulski surveyed a group of seventh-graders and discovered that boys and girls have distinctly different ways of viewing themselves.

When asked to rate themselves in intelligence and looks, there was no apparent sex difference in their view of themselves as smart or attractive. But when asked how they knew they were smart, boys looked to internal experiences and girls to external evidence and the opinions of others.

“One hundred percent of the girls said they knew they were smart ‘because I get good grades and because my mom and my teachers tell me I’m smart,’ ” Szeszulski said. Boys, by contrast, rate their intelligence by clever things they have done and the ease with which they learn.

When it comes to appearance, Szeszulski found the situation reversed. Girls, she said, could describe their good and bad features from head to toe. Boys, when asked how they knew they were good-looking, typically responded: “Oh, I don’t know, the girls like me, and my mother tells me I’m cute.”

What this suggests, Szeszulski said, “is that looks are very important for girls and not necessarily for boys. So boys don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.

“Sadly, the message for girls is that getting good grades is important, but being smart is not,” she said.

Szeszulski is expanding her study to 1,000 high school students, half boys and half girls, from North and South County to explore their ideas about themselves, as well as differences in development by ethnicity, social class and sex.

Another upcoming study will examine course choices in high school as a window on values that shape girls and boys and are likely to lead them to college. As a rule, Algebra I taken in the ninth grade is a good marker for students who go on to four-year colleges or universities and succeed, said Patricia Keig, a professor of elementary education at Cal State Fullerton.

“My perspective is that girls aren’t as likely to choose science and math classes as the boys, but that I may find teachers . . . (who) do make a difference,” Keig said. “So I’m interested in finding the heroes.”

The girls who take accelerated math and government classes at San Clemente High School tend to do just as well or better than the boys, according to their teachers.

“The girls in my (accelerated) calculus class are equally capable with the boys,” said Bob Alston, a longtime math teacher at the school.

Nor does he think that girls are turned off to science or math by their high school experiences. Rather, it is the expectation, or lack of, shown by their parents.

“The girls I see who are the most successful are the ones who come from families where, as young children, the parents emphasized science and math even as young as preschool,” Alston said. “Not that they have to be scientists themselves. One girl I was talking to . . . has a father who just likes to watch the ‘Nova’ ” TV science program.

Tony Sisca has taught government, U.S. history and social sciences for 38 years, much of it at San Clemente High. In general, he said, sex bias is not a big problem in his classes.

Yet in a discussion of a feminist book on such issues, a group of girls making the presentation in Sisca’s class could not even get the author’s points across before they were shouted down by several boys.

“At first, I was very, very happy about it, because the students were very emotional and involved when making their argument,” Sisca said. “Then I had to step in and say, ‘Hey guys, give them a chance to get their ideas across before you attack them.’ ”

But Sisca was pleased with the class discussion last week on the AAUW report and sex bias.

“The girls on the basketball team said, ‘Gee, look at how much attention the boys’ basketball team gets.’ The boys said, ‘Yeah, but the boys are so much better and so much more entertaining.’

“A couple of the girls really let them know they resented that. They said, ‘Boy, it’s not fair at all.’ They are very, very aware of gender bias.”