Gender Equality: Are We Serving the Needs of Our Youth?

In the classroom, it’s important for teachers to address the needs of both female and male students, to ensure that each is treated fairly and can excel. Teachers need to be aware of the differences between students and know that equal does not always mean fair treatment. In other words, fairness for one student may not be fair for another student. Instead, teachers need to strive for equity and develop and use strategies that will help diverse students in the class.

One of the most hotly debated issues in education today is whether coeducational public schools are serving the needs of our youth. Research has suggested that single-sex schools are actually more effective and give students more opportunities to succeed by capitalizing on the inherent strengths of each gender and removing the obstacles magnified by puberty. The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education (NASSPE) has gathered compelling data from multiple studies indicating that boys in an all-male environment are more comfortable to pursue the arts and develop reading skills faster, focusing on areas that are shown to be problematic for boys in coeducational schools. These studies also show that girls in an all-girls school excel at mathematics and are more disposed to become involved in athletics.

Same-sex schools also alleviate many of the distracting opposite-sex issues faced by coeducational students during the school day. The sense of competition for attention from the opposite sex would be removed from the classroom, where self-consciousness certainly impedes progress. Students who spend their school days with only same-sex peers often develop better time-management skills in and out of the classroom. Boys can enjoy their competitive learning environment, while girls appreciate the comfort of the more collaborative and cooperative setting.

In a responsive model of instruction, teachers seek out and include examples of achievements from both genders. Although classroom parity has come a long way, it is still difficult to find curriculum texts that reflect an equitable picture of female accomplishments. Progress has been slow to incorporate gender-fair terminology into textbooks. Girls need to read about role models in science and mathematics, not just see pictures of women in lab coats with occasional references to females in the text. The accomplishments of minority women, women with disabilities, local women from the community, and working-class women all are important to help present a complete, realistic, and equitable picture of female role models in society. Teachers help overcome the gender inequities and change present perceptions by presenting the accomplishments, experiences, and hard work of both men and women.

A balance of the inclusive and particularistic is required. Being inclusive and particularistic ensures that all students are welcomed and included in all aspects of the school, while acknowledging their unique differences with respect and acceptance. It’s not healthy or productive to promote the historical female experience as completely negative or to emphasize the struggles and minimize the triumphs. Such an approach presents an unrealistic picture and may produce bitterness. And it’s not positive to emphasize men as the “oppressors,” because this tends to foster resentment.

There are many reasons to emphasize women’s achievements. One of the most important is to build girls’ self-esteem. Blame the magazines, the movies, the models, pin it on the pin-up girls, but the fact remains: girls struggle with the mixed messages about body image. Impressionable adolescent girls in particular struggle with bulimia, anorexia, and an obsession with weight, and they sometimes self-inflict injuries and other damage to their bodies. Teachers lack the ubiquitous influence of the media to manipulate the self-image of girls. Advertising often pitches to the fundamental needs of the subconscious mind: sex sells. It is important for girls to find self-worth in sources other than their physical appearance. One helpful strategy is to acquaint young girls with the accomplishments of great women, including Phyllis Wheatley, Marian Wright Edelman, Rosa Parks, Clara Barton, Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Blackwell, Sacagawea, Wilma Mankiller, Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sotomayor, Sally Ride, and many others who overcame great odds to be strong and successful.

Too many boys are struggling in schools today. Dr. Leonard Sax, a staunch proponent of single-sex schools, suggests that five factors are responsible for the decline in school performance among boys: video games, prescription drugs, endocrine disruptors, devaluation of masculinity in popular culture, and teaching methods. Sax and many others believe that video games disengage boys from real-world pursuits. Mind-numbing keyboards and flashing images have a seductive effect on the brain. Medication for ADHD may be damaging motivational centers in boys’ brains, and the harmful effects of estrogens from food and plastic containers are upsetting the balance of boys’ endocrine systems. The athletic, scholarly male TV heroes of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s have been replaced with Bart Simpson.

One possible impact of the current experiences of boys in schools is the reversal of the college population. The number of male students enrolled in traditional 4-year colleges and universities has dropped at an alarming rate during the last decade. In addition to the gradual shift in social norms for females, which accounts for the rise in the female college/university population, several additional factors can account for the shift in higher education populations where women are now in the majority. Women are taking advantage of declines in gender discrimination and increased job opportunities. The decline in male enrollment over the last four decades does not reflect a decline as precipitous as the previous three decades. Still, men who are completing the 4-year degree take longer than women to do so, and tend to socialize more in college, study less than women, and have poorer grades.

With this in mind, are we serving the needs of our youth? It is time for us to reexamine how we discuss, teach, and portray women and men in the classroom. Each time we do, we leave an impression on the minds of our growing youth.

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