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Friday, May 23, 2008
Report from Women's Advocacy Group Threatens to Derail Efforts to Help Troubled Boys
Instead of offering new research, the report provided the AAUW's take on research already out there. It omitted any discussion of statistics showing that boys are far more likely than girls to be suspended or placed in special education or to commit suicide. It did not find much cause for alarm in data showing that men now account for just 43 percent of bachelor's degree and 41 percent of master's degree recipients, that boys and have significantly lower grade-point averages than girls, and that black women outnumber black men on selective college campuses by a factor of about 2 to 1. Noting that there is not much of a gap in the academic performance of upper-middle-class white boys and girls (the children of much of its membership), it suggested that the gender gaps in other segments of the population should be attributed to class and race. It cited rises in the raw numbers of boys achieving at certain levels to say we should not fret over drops in the percentages achieving at certain thresholds, and cited increases in the grade point averages of boys in asserting that the persistent gap in the grades of boys and girls is not an issue.
Many journalists wrote stories publicizing the report's findings without much in the way of rebuttal or critical analysis. Among the high-profile pieces drawing public attention to it were a front-page story written by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, as well as stories by Tamar Lewin of the New York Times and Queenie Wong of the McClatchy Newspapers.
Other education journalists chose to ignore the report as a work of advocacy with dubious scientific value. Instead of giving the report news coverage, USA Today published an editorial saying the AAUW "seems intent on trying to debunk something that's virtually irrefutable: that men are falling behind women at all levels of education, and that this is creating societal problems that need to be addressed." (Richard Whitmire, an editorial writer at USA Today and president of the National Education Writers Association, subsequently explained his objections to the report--and criticized much of the coverage of it--here in an online review of journalism published by USC's School of Communications.)
Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine wrote a blog post suggesting that the AAUW objects to the idea of a boys' crisis because it "threatens the perks and programs of entrenched victims groups." Among the other bloggers who criticized the study were Marty Nemko, a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report, and Alexander Russo of This Week in Education, who threatened to trigger a gender war among education writers with a post titled "Women's Group Says Boys Not In Crisis; Female Reporters Agree."
Sorting through this controversy is important. Not only has the AAUW's report received a lot of public attention, the group has wielded a lot of influence over education policymakers in Washington in the past and, depending on what happens in the November elections, could do so in the future.
Back in the early-to-mid 1990s, the American Association of University Women was known mainly as the driving force behind widespread fears that girls were the ones in crisis. As a reporter for Education Week, Color and Money author Peter Schmidt not only analyzed the AAUW's research on schoolgirls, but obtained many of the group's internal documents shedding light on its motives and methods. His reporting on the subject for Education Week is available only to its subscribers, but he holds the rights to reproduce an article summarizing his findings which he wrote for The Weekly Standard. Given its potential to inform the current debate, it's published in full below:
THE PHONY WAR ON SCHOOLGIRLS: A MYTH EXPOSED by Peter Schmidt 07/08/1996, Volume 001, Issue 42
America's girls are said to face a grave threat: their schools. Word has it that hordes of sexual harassers prey on girls in classrooms and corridors; that teachers routinely ignore or mistreat them; that sexist textbooks degrade them; that gender-biased tests underrate them; and that the entire elementary and secondary education system conspires to break their spirits, cripple their self-esteem, and curtail their careers.
This is the news that certain feminist advocates, with the help of the media, have spread. As a result, "gender bias" has emerged as one of the main concerns of the school-reform movement. School districts have come under pressure to eliminate policies and practices that cannot be deemed "gender neutral." Colleges and universities have been overhauling their education departments to ensure that they are not training tomorrow's teachers in the use of gender-biased instructional methods. States have passed laws designed to promote gender equity and crack down on in-school sexual harassment (even when the alleged perpetrators are children in first or second grade). The previous Congress also joined the crusade, voting to amend its chief school- funding bill with language enlisting various federal programs in the battle for gender equity.
It seems an unquestionably noble cause, the rescue of schoolgirls. But the truth is that girls do not need to be rescued. The much-bemoaned schoolgirls crisis is largely a hoax. By most academic and social measures, the nation's girls are doing fine, and it's the boys we should be worried about.
So where did this widespread misperception come from? It came not from a consensus of education researchers, but a slick public-relations campaign mounted by the leadership of a single advocacy group, the American Association of University Women. The AAUW commissioned, published, and hyped the three reports on schoolgirls that sounded the alarm in the popular media; these reports compose the bible of the ongoing crusade. The AAUW has also taken the lead in lobbying for a policy agenda meant to remedy the problems alleged in its reports.
While the group's leadership insists it mounted its campaign out of a sincere concern for girls, its own literature betrays ulterior motives: ideology and self-interest. AAUW officials had resolved to instill the belief that schools discriminate systematically against girls long before much of anything besides feminist theory told them this was so. Soon, they came to see a crusade as a way to raise their organization's profile, recruit new members, and solicit new donations.
The AAUW issued the first of its three reports, "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," in 1991. The report found that girls' self-esteem plunges during adolescence and that schools bear much of the blame. A 1992 report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," concluded that girls are the victims of severe educational discrimination that affects their marks, course selections, and career possibilities. A 1993 report, "Hostile Hallways," exposed what the AAUW described as "a sexual harassment epidemic" in schools.
The organization touts these reports as authoritative and unbiased, pointing to a dearth of public criticism as evidence of their validity. Anne L. Bryant, the AAUW's executive director, said in 1994 that she could count the reports' critics' on two hands, and those tended to be "a few academics and news commentators--mostly men."
But critics there are. One of them is Diane S. Ravitch, head of the Education Department's research branch under George Bush, who accused the AAUW of selective interpretation of data. Another is Chester E. Finn Jr., who held the same post under Ronald Reagan and called the group's research "a deflection from what is really wrong in education and a focus on a bogus problem." Still another is Joseph Adelson, editor of the widely used Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, who described the AAUW effort as "a propaganda machine that does not seem to respond to any contrary evidence."
If other educators as social scientists have accepted the AAUW's reports at face value, it is perhaps because they have been lulled by the group's reputation as venerable, staid, and mainstream. Established in 1881, the AAUW was old-line and hardly at the vanguard of feminism at the time of its centennial. The average age of its members was 55, and many had rebelled against the group's decision to support abortion rights. The AAUW was founded specifically to advocate on behalf of women who were being denied access to higher education. Having all but won that war, it was suffering a rapid decline in membership and was under pressure to prove its relevance.
So the timing seemed right when, in the mid-1980s, the group discovered Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan and other feminist scholars who had tapped into a hot new field: bias against girls. By June of 1989, AAUW leaders had begun to view the lives of schoolgirls through a feminist lens. In a pamphlet issued that month, they lamented the fact that girls and boys tend to take different courses and get slightly different grades, pointing to gender bias as a prime culprit. Citing the work of Gilligan and others, the pamphlet posited that girls favor cooperation over competition and thus fail to thrive in the competitive, male-centered environments found in most schools. "The structure of lessons and the dynamics of classroom interaction all too often create an environment alien, if not hostile, to girls," it said. The pamphlet urged members to pressure teachers, local school officials, and university education departments to embrace instructional methods certified bias-free.
Fourteen months later, a second pamphlet proclaimed that the schools' white-European-male-dominated curricula must be replaced by books and lessons "that show women and minorities as doers, leaders, and decision-makers." The pamphlet assured AAUW members that their group "was exerting every effort to bring the needs of women and girls to a central position" in the national debate over school reform.
The first big report came in January 1991. Based on a survey of about 3,000 children conducted by the polling firm Greenberg-Lake, it said that girls undergo a dramatic and disproportionate loss of self-esteem during adolescence--due largely to the way they are treated in schools. "Girls aged eight and nine are confident, assertive, and feel authoritative about themselves," the report said. "Yet more emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, constrained views of their future and their place in society, and must less confidence about themselves and their abilities."
The report linked much of this deterioration to girls' difficulties in math and science. "Of all the study's indicators, girls perceptions of their ability in math and science had the strongest relationship to their self-esteem; as girls 'learn' they are not good at these subjects, their sense of self-worth and aspirations for themselves deteriorate."
Ordinarily, the results of such studies first appear in social-science journals, where others in the field can examine methodologies and conclusions. The AAUW eschewed this approach and chose instead to distribute a spiffy summary directly to the popular media. From a public-relations standpoint, the strategy paid off. The nation's journalists eagerly repeated the report's most alarming conclusions without bothering to check them out. The AAUW's subsequent literature boasted that the survey "shook America's consciousness and had a far-reaching impact."
One journal that showed some skepticism was Science News. In its March 23, 1991, issue, it noted that the AAUW's researchers had depended on students to assess their own thoughts and feelings and thus had based their conclusions on a form of data notoriously unreliable and difficult to interpret. It also faulted the researchers for not bothering to locate and survey high-school dropouts, who are disproportionately male and whose answers would likely have painted a less rosy picture for boys.
In Science News and elsewhere, social scientists also questioned the the way in which the AAUW solicited and interpreted children's answers. The survey presented children with such statements as "I am happy the way I am" and asked them to choose the best response in a continuum generally ranging from "always false" to "always true." The researchers then threw out those responses in the middle--which they held merely to signal the respondent's uncertainty--and drew conclusions based on the number of children who expressed strong feelings. Such methodology may work well in anticipating election returns, but it can lead to tenuous and subjective findings when used in studies of human behavior.
Moreover, readers of the AAUW report might have gotten the impression that self-esteem has been clearly defined and shown to have an impact on student achievement. In fact, it has not. Experts on the behavioral sciences say self-esteem has not established definition, is almost impossible to measure, and has not been shown to lead to or stem from academic success. If high self-esteem leads to high academic achievement, why is it that black males in the AAUW survey were the most self-assured while, at the same time, the most at-risk academically? If lower self-esteem breeds academic failure, why do Asia's relatively humble children routinely clobber our own on international comparisons of academic achievement? And if girls are giving up on themselves academically, why are more women than men enrolling in colleges and graduate schools?
But the AAUW publicized its report as if its starkest conclusions were beyond doubt. That June, it launched its "Initiative for Educational Equity," and elaborate effort to prod federal, state, and local authorities to purge schools of gender bias. The heads of the AAUW's approximately 1,700 local branches received packets from the national office telling them how to mobilize members to demand such change. The packet included a guide for hosting round-table discussions to ensure the AAUW's "visibility as the leader on educational equity issues."
The national leadership's vision of a "gender-fair" education system left little to chance. Under the proposed new order, states would not certify prospective teachers and school administrators unless they had taken courses on gender-related subjects such as new research on women. Teacher-training programs would tell prospective pedagogues that they "must not perpetuate assumptions about the superiority of traits and activities traditionally ascribed to males in our society." School systems would evaluate administrators, teachers, and counselors based on their efforts to promote and encourage gender equity.
And schools would have to submit to annual evaluations conducted with the assistance of the AAUW's new "Gender Equity Assessment Guide," which asks: Are girls equally represented in all classes, sports, and activities? Are " multicultural and gender sensitivities . . . raised in every aspect of the curriculum?" Are procedures in place "to review textbooks, teaching methods, and curricula for gender-role stereotyping?" Do the school's health-care providers offer a "full range of reproductive health services?" Etc. The answer, of course, must be yes, and woe to the school official who might defend the standard curriculum or express fear that offering a "full range of reproductive health services" would spark a parent rebellion.
The AAUW's second report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," attempted to explain exactly what makes the status quo so destructive to the women of tomorrow. Conducted under contract by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, it concluded, based on a review of 1,331 previous studies, that schoolgirls are the victims of profound gender bias at all grade levels. Teachers lavish substantially more attention on boys, it said. Textbooks erode girls' enthusiasm for learning by downplaying the achievements and experiences of women. Schools avoid discussing health-related topics, such as birth control, that are especially crucial to girls' development. Although girls enter school on the same footing as boys, they fall behind in key subjects because of their second-class treatment, and then on top of it all, they are asked to take standardized college-admissions tests that are biased against them.
Unfortunately, the report shortchanged its readers by presenting only half the picture. It failed to note that much of the extra attention that boys get from teachers comes in the form of scoldings and reprimands. It disregarded Education Department statistics showing that girls have almost caught up to boys in science and mathematics and are doing much better than boys in reading. It glossed over the fact that girls have substantially narrowed the gender gap in college-entrance test scores and are actually more likely than boys to complete high school and obtain college or graduate degrees.
The report gave no clue that boys generally receive lower grades on their report cards, or that boys are far likelier to be suspended or held back a year, or that boys account for two-thirds of children in special-education programs. Attempting to portray boys as youth's favored gender, brimming with confidence and self-esteem, the AAUW also failed to account for the particular self-destructiveness of adolescent males: Not only are boys two to four times likelier to commit suicide, depending on their age, they also stand much greater risks of being murdered, killed in car accidents, or incarcerated later in life, according to data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics and other federal agencies.
The AAUW and its researchers denied any sort of bias. "Advocating for girls and women's rights is important, but our business is not advocacy, our business is research," asserted Susan McGee Bailey, executive director of the Wellesley center. Journalists once again took the AAUW at its word and gave currency to its claims. Educators scrambled to show worried parents that they were attentive to the problems described in the report, which was accompanied by an "action guide" telling AAUW members how to whip up public support for certain school reforms.
"The early reports are in and it's clear that the 'Initiative for Educational Equity' is the right issue at the right time for the AAUW," boasted a new letter to AAUW branches. Instead of suggesting how to help girls, the accompanying instructional packet described how to capitalize on the popular appeal of the crusade to help the AAUW. Branch leaders were urged to ask themselves: "How will Initiative efforts help our branch achieve membership growth, visibility, and fundraising goals?"
Much of the packet read like a training manual for door-to-door salesmen. It advised branch leaders: View everyone you meet in the course of the gender- equity campaign as a target for membership recruitment. Invite them to branch meetings where you can get their addresses and phone numbers and fellow members can chat them up. Push them to join and, "if possible, take their checks on the spot." When networking with other educational organizations or women's groups, ask for their membership or donor lists. "The overarching strategy is to turn every activity into a membership recruitment opportunity," it coached.
In June of 1993, the AAUW issued its explosive third report, "Hostile Hallways." Its shocking conclusion: 85 percent of girls have experienced sexual harassment in school. In a survey conducted by Louis Harris & Associates of 1,630 8th-through 11th-graders, 65 percent of girls complained of having been touched, pinched, or grabbed in a sexual way, and a fourth of the girls who reported being sexually harassed identified teachers or other school employees as the perpetrators.
But, perhaps due to the seriousness of its allegations, educators and social scientists seemed less inclined to accept this third report on its face. They argued that the AAUW had defined "sexual harassment" too broadly and thus risked trivializing the problem. In many cases, the alleged transgressions were unwelcome comments, jokes, gestures, or looks.
Skeptics asked, Were girls being subjected to a teenagers' Tailhook or just horseplay, adolescent taunts, and the awkward romantic overtures of unpopular boys? Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, complained that the report blurred the lines "between acts that are criminal and acts that are merely rude" and paved the way for schools to adopt new codes of conduct conveying the message that students "have an absolute right never to be offended." The report appeared to assume that the unsavory behavior it described was the product of a sexist society. Conservative scholars and pundits have posed an alternative explanation: that such behavior is actually the bitter fruit of the sexual revolution that feminists helped bring about.
But the AAUW stuck by its guns and called on schools to crack down on sexism. The crusade rolled onward, drawing new support and gaining ground on several fronts. In some school districts, the AAUW forced more changes in education policy in the space of a few short years than had advocates for black children in forty. Philanthropies and government agencies poured money into new programs for girls. All-girls private schools enjoyed a dramatic upsurge in popularity -- as did women's colleges such as Wellesley. A few public schools set up separate classes for girls, even as women's-rights groups elsewhere were trying to block districts from forming experimental academies for black males.
By now, other groups with more overtly feminist agendas were getting into the act. Inspired by the AAUW's research, the Ms. Foundation for Women launched "Take Our Daughters to Work Day." Its curriculum included handouts that lionized Anita Hill and Gloria Steinem and sought to teach children a litany of widely disputed statistics, telling them, for example, that a woman earns 71 cents to a man's dollar and that "10 percent of American women are lesbians." One handout listed a court's ruling that a lesbian couple comprised a "family of affinity" as a key historical event of 1992.
The effort was soon joined by the National Education Association. Working with the Wellesley College center, it produced Flirting or Hurting, a 106- page guide instructing teachers of 6th-through 12th-graders how to fight student-to-student sexual harassment. The authors, both from Wellesley, were Nan Stein, who had recently contributed to the book Transforming a Rape Culture, and Lisa Sjostrom, who had written both the Ms. Foundation's curriculum and a primer called The Mother Daughter Revolution Reader's Companion Guide. Among Flirting or Hurting's admonishments: "When a target complains about being sexually harassed, it should not be within the purview of school staff members to decide whether or not the situation being described constitutes sexual harassment."
In April of 1993, the AAUW proudly announced that Congress had been moved to respond to its "irrefutable" evidence of extensive gender bias in schools. Flanked by officials of the AAUW and other women's groups, the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues announced an ambitious package of House bills dubbed the "Gender Equity in Education Act." Education Week placed the annual cost of the measures at $ 360 million -- three times what the Education Department was spending on school desegregation and nearly half again its budget for bilingual education and immigrant programs. The proposed legislation created an Office of Gender Equity and funded the recruitment of female math and science teachers. Later that summer, members of the Senate offered a similar group of bills.
Congressional support was overwhelming. Elsewhere, however, the fanfare, rhetoric, and additional federal spending associated with these measures caused the gender-equity crusade to pop up on conservative radar screens. Barbara J. Ledeen, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, denounced the legislation as "feminist pork" and asserted that its underlying philosophy demeaned women by viewing them as victims.
But the most visible critic was Christina Hoff Sommers, a Clark University philosophy professor whose new book, Who Stole Feminism?, debunked the AAUW reports and an assortment of other statistics popularized by feminists. She blasted the AAUW studies as biased "advocacy research" and alleged that the federal legislation they inspired "will enrich the gender-bias industry and further weaken our schools."
Sommers's book attracted wide-spread attention and secured her a place on the talk-show circuit. Outraged, the AAUW became part of a coordinated effort to attack her credibility. "We need to respond and respond loudly," the liberal media-watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting said in a letter mailed to AAUW officials and other feminist activists. Both FAIR and the AAUW sent formal complaints demanding retractions from Simon & Schuster, Sommers's publisher. When Ann Bryant took to the radio to defend the AAUW studies against Sommers's criticisms, an interoffice memorandum urged her staffers to flood the talk show's switchboard with sympathetic questions and comments. "Men usually dominate as call-ins, so we need all the friendly calls we can get," implored Gabrielle Lange, an AAUW public-relations official.
Eventually, gender-equity legislation was passed into law. Since then, however, the new Republican-led Congress has come under pressure from conservatives to repeal some of its measures. Rather than simply defend the AAUW's reports, gender-equity crusaders have been questioning the motives of the critics by asking, What difference does it make if the AAUW's research was flawed? What is important, they argue, is that the reports succeeded in making the nation aware of the educational needs of girls. Only a sexist reactionary would fret over the veracity of reports that so clearly serve the best interests of girls.
Logic of this kind is seductive to those prone to confusion about ends and means. This is because it ignores the harsh truth that our public schools have finite resources with which to address overwhelming demands. Far from fully meeting the needs of all students, most school administrators wrestle with the dilemma of how to apportion neglect. And hard decisions should be based on accurate information, not propaganda.
The AAUW has a point when it says that girls lag behind in science and math and that schools should be doing more about it. But instead of directing its energies toward changing the way these subjects are taught, the AAUW decided that a complete transformation of the school culture was required. The sweeping and diffuse education-policy agenda that it subsequently adopted seems more concerned with having schools produce feminists than with having them produce new generations of female doctors and engineers.
And given that our education system seems to be having enough trouble teaching the basics, parents might question whether schools should be in the business of quizzing students on the glories of Anita Hill or disciplining them for sending a valentine to the wrong classmate. The AAUW, aware that many children learn traditional notions of gender from their parents, has been promoting the slogan "Raise boys and girls the same way." The slogan tips the organization's hand and reveals its true agenda: not a laudable quest for basic fairness, but a radical desire to create a society in which the concept of gender no longer applies. Such thinking ignores both the biological basis of gender and the wishes of many parents, who would rather raise boys as boys and girls as girls and feel it is their prerogative to do so. Even those parents who accept the AAUW's philosophy and want to raise boys and girls the same way often find that doing so is impossible, if not downright cruel to the children.
If the gender-equity crusade were truly motivated by an earnest concern for all children, rather than feminist ideology, one might expect its leaders to be concerned with the serious problems that plague boys. For the most part, they aren't. The AAUW has not just diverted attention from the problems of boys, it appears to have opened the door to outright discrimination against them. One AAUW pamphlet asserts that even when all children are treated exactly the same, "there may be a negative impact on girls because they may experience it differently than boys."
The sorriest truth is that the reforms inspired by the crusade may actually harm the education of both boys and girls. "There is reason to fear [that] such programs and policies will deepen gender stereotypes, 'water' down the curriculum, label girls as having 'special needs,' and ultimately cheat all students," warned Roberta Tovey, a writer and teacher from Boston, in The Harvard Education Letter last year. In pushing for the equal representation of girls in all classrooms, the AAUW may, perversely, be putting schools under pressure to assign more girls to low-level compensatory and special-education classes, where they are now out-numbered.
If the AAUW genuinely wants to rescue girls, it can start with this: by sparing those, girl and boy, who risk being trampled by its crusade.