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The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls

Social Science in the Service of Deception
as covered in U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and on MacLaughlin One-On-One.
Click here to read the full text of Prof. Kleinfeld's 35-page article, with full documentation, tables, and figures.

Copyright ©1998 Judith S. Kleinfeld 1
Report prepared for the Women's Freedom Network 2


Note: We have included the introduction, bullets of the findings and the conclusion in this summary. Each finding secgtion is linked to the corresponding section of the full report, where you can see the documentation, tables and figures that elaborate on and support each finding.

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Prof. Judith Kleinfeld
Prof. Judith S. Kleinfeld


Women's advocacy groups have waged an intense media campaign to promote the idea that the "schools shortchange girls. " Their goal is to intensify the image of women as "victims" deserving special treatment and policy attention. Their sophisticated public relations campaign has succeeded. The idea that girls are victimized by the schools has become the common wisdom, what educated people just assume to be true.

But the idea that the "schools shortchange girls" is wrong and dangerously wrong. It is girls who get higher grades in school, who do better than boys on standardized tests of reading and writing, and who get higher class rank and more school honors. It is young women who enter and graduate from college far more frequently than young men. It is women who have made dramatic progress in obtaining professional, business, and doctoral degrees. The great gender gap of the 1960s in advanced degrees has almost closed, especially in the professional fields to which ambitious women aspire. In the view of elementary and high school students, the young people who sit in the classroom year after year and observe what is going on, both boys and girls agree: Schools favor girls. Teacher think girls are smarter, like being around them more, and hold higher expectations for them.

This does not mean that males and females are equal on every educational outcome. In some areas, females do better than males, and in other areas, males do better than females. Females lag behind in two academic areas: mathematics and science achievement. Females also lag slightly behind males in attaining professional, business, and doctoral degrees. But males lag behind females in two other academic areas and by far wider margins: reading achievement and writing skills. Males are far more apt to end up at the bottom of the barrel in school, placed in special classes for students with learning disabilities. Males are also more apt than females to believe that the school climate is hostile to them, that teachers do not expect as much from them and give them less encouragement to do their best.

The myth that the schools shortchange girls is dangerously wrong because it has diverted policy attention from the group at genuine educational risk---African-American boys. This is the group that scores lowest on virtually every educational measure. This is the group where an enormous gap does exist between males and females. But the African American gender gap favors females, who are pulling far ahead of males in college graduation rates and in obtaining professional degrees.

Where did the notion that the schools shortchange girls come from? And how do advocacy groups manage to convince people that it is girls who are victimized in the schools? What data do they use and what data do they ignore?

In this paper, I examine the charges made in a highly publicized report, How Schools Shortchange Girls, published by the American Association of University Women (1992). I show how the findings in this report are based on a selective review of the research and how findings contrary to the report's message were suppressed. These contrary findings indeed appear in studies the AAUW itself commissioned, but the AAUW not only did not include these findings in their media kits but made the data difficult to obtain.

To find out what is actually going on, how boys and girls do fare in the schools, I review the best available information on a wide variety of strong measures: school grades, class rank, honors and prizes in academic competitions, scores on standardized achievement tests, college entrance and graduation rates, and attainment of professional and doctoral degrees. To locate this information, I often had to do new analyses of government reports, which also emphasize the "women as victims" viewpoint---showcasing the problems but not the progress. I examine as well charges that the schools shortchange girls based on weak measures, the view that girls are silenced in the classroom and suffer a dramatic loss of self-confidence at adolescence. I show that the research on which these charges are based have in some instances disappeared and in other instances have been distorted to make a political point. Research on gender differences in class participation, school climate, and self confidence provides a welter of conflicting findings, sometimes favoring girls, sometimes favoring boys, and sometimes showing no gender differences at all.

The AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) put itself on the political map through its highly publicized 1992 report: How Schools Shortchange Girls. The media trumpeted the message around the world: In the schools, as in so many other areas of life, females are victims. Girls are silenced in the classroom, suffer a decline in self-esteem at adolescence, and fall far behind boys in such crucial subjects as science and mathematics. As the AAUW Executive Summary declares:

The educational system is not meeting girls' needs. Girls and boys enter school roughly equal in measured ability. Twelve years later, girls have fallen behind their male classmates in key areas such as higher-level mathematics and measures of self-esteem. Yet gender equity is still not a part of the national debate on educational reform. (p. 1)

The AAUW provides a glossy order form for this report. The form features a photograph of a classroom peopled with attractive girls and boys from many groups---an African-American girl, an African-American boy, an Asian girl, a Caucasian boy. The irony is that there is one child in this photograph whom the schools are shortchanging, but this child is not a girl. This child is the African-American boy. This is the group in need of creative policy initiatives.

What is worth remembering is that boys used to be the group considered shortchanged by the schools. The idea that the schools shortchanged boys was part of the common wisdom through the 1970s. As Brophy (1985) reminds us:

Claims that one sex or the other is not being taught effectively in our schools have been frequent and often impassioned. From early in the century (Ayres, 1909) through about 1970 (Sexton, 1969; Austin, Clark, & Fitchett, 1971), criticism was usually focused on the treatment of boys, especially at the elementary level. Critics noted that boys received lower grades in all subjects and lower achievement test scores in reading and language arts. They insisted that these sex differences occurred because the schools were "too feminine" or the "overwhelmingly female" teachers were unable to meet boys' learning needs effectively. (pp. 115-116)

As this paper documents, girls surpass boys in some academic areas and boys surpass girls in other areas. Indeed, a far stronger case could be made for the view that "the schools shortchange boys" than the other way around. After all, it is boys who get consistently lower grades in school even though they score just as high or higher than girls on many standardized tests of achievement. This is strong evidence of bias against boys. It is boys who end up far more often than girls in special education classes for students with serious learning problems. It is males who are falling behind in college attendance. As recent survey research shows, it is boys , especially minority boys, who believe that teachers are not as apt to encourage them to achieve their goals or do their best (Harris, 1997, pp. 10, 13).

The AAUW has done women and the nation a service in drawing attention to the gender gap in science and mathematics and in encouraging an array of policies and programs designed to boost female performance in these fields. But the schools need to be equally concerned about the problems of boys. Boys mature more slowly than girls, for example, in areas like verbal skills. Late-maturing boys can be stigmatized as poor learners and assigned to "low-ability groups in the primary grades, especially in reading" (Halpern, 1997, p. 1098). Boys are also more active than girls and more difficult for teachers to handle. "Bright, bored, and rambunctious boys" have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and placed on drugs like Ritalin (Zachary, 1997, A1).

Neither girls nor boys nor the nation itself are served by politicized research and "noble lies." Major assertions in the AAUW report are based on research by David and Myra Sadker that has mysteriously disappeared. Evidence which contradicts their thesis that the schools shortchange girls is buried in supplemental tables obtainable only at great difficulty and expense. Such shady practices undermine public confidence in social science research. This damage done by the AAUW report will have repercussions that last far beyond the immediate issue of whether either girls or boys are shortchanged in the school.

Gender Differences in School Grades, Rank in Class, and Honors

If schools as an institution were shortchanging females, such gender discrimination should be easy to spot. Schools give clear and measurable rewards: grades, class rank, and honors. These rewards are valuable in gaining admission to a selective college or graduate school and in gaining a desirable job. Which group---males or females---receives a disproportionate share of the school's rewards?

From grade school through college, females receive higher grades and obtain higher class ranks. They also receive more honors in every field except science and sports.

Gender Differences in Standardized Tests of School Achievement

Even though girls surpass boys in school grades, the schools might still be shortchanging girls if they are getting good grades but not learning as much as boys. Grades, after all, are based not only on how much students know but also on conformity to institutional demands, such as whether students follow the teacher's directions and turn in their assignments on time. Scores on standardized achievement tests provide a measure of school achievement less influenced by such extraneous influences as willingness to obey the teacher's directives.

On standardized achievement tests, females typically surpass males in writing ability, reading achievement, and certain other verbal skills while males surpass females in science and mathematics. In the general population of males and females, however, sex differences in achievement tests are typically small---except for the big female advantage in writing.


In short, on these comparisons, across many different tests, not much difference occurs between males and females in achievement in standardized tests in the general population. Most gender differences are small and favor females more often than males. The only gender difference of medium size, writing abilities, favors females.


The enormous achievement gaps in America concern race, not sex.

Sex differences on achievement tests are small among high school males and females in general. But let us ask a different and equally significant question: Where is the talent? Do males or females dominate the top of a field? These are the conspicuous achievers who create cultural images of success. Among the top students in a subject area, a different picture emerges.

Among students at the top of the heap, gender differences in achievement test scores can be large and consequential even when only slight differences exist in the general population. In the top 10 percent of high school students, females surpass males in writing ability and reading achievement while males surpass females in mathematics, geopolitics, and science performance.


In short, differences in the performance of males and females in the general population are small, even in science and mathematics. But more males end up at the top in science and mathematics, among the most conspicuous achievers. Why?

One important reason has less to do with bias than with biology---the greater variability of males on many human characteristics. Most of us have in our minds an image of the bell-shaped curve that comes from IQ tests---a voluptuous bell curve with a generous middle and spreading extremes. We do not stop to consider that bell-shaped curves can take other forms. A bell-shaped curve with exactly the same average, for example, can be high and peaked. The bell-shaped curve in a male population tends to take the voluptuous shape with more males at the extremes; the bell-shaped curve in a female population tends to be high and narrow with fewer females at the extremes. The illustration below shows two such bell-shaped curves, exaggerated to make the point that two populations with the exactly the same averages can nonetheless have very different numbers of people at the extremes.

Bell curve diagram

On many characteristics, the bell-shaped curve among males takes the voluptuous form: More males appear among the top talent and more males appear at the bottom of the barrel. As a consequence, males more often end up in the ranks of conspicuous achievers. As Willingham & Cole (1997) point out:

Greater male variability tends to work to the advantage of males at the top of the score distribution...More variable male scores exaggerate [emphasis added] any male advantage at the top....If male scores are more variable, there is less female advantage at the top than would ordinarily result from a higher female mean.
(p. 51)

In short, greater variability among males means that more academic stars, those at the extreme right end of the normal curve, are apt to be males. But this variability also means that more males will be at the extreme left of the normal curve, academic duds. This is exactly what happens.

Gender Differences in Special Education and Learning Disabilities

Males More Often Appear At the Bottom of the Barrel in Schools, Labeled as Impaired and Assigned to Special Education Classes


In sum, the research literature on sex differences in scores on cognitive tests and the origins of these differences is complex and contentious. But there is general agreement on a few important points. First, in the general population most sex differences on standardized tests of achievement are small or negligible. Second, among select groups of higher-achieving young people, however, females have an advantage in reading achievement and writing skills while males have an advantage in mathematics, science, and geopolitics. Third, males are more variable than females in many characteristics, such as mathematics achievement. Males are far more apt to show up at the bottom of the heap, over represented in special education classes. By the same token, males are more apt to show up at the top of the heap, over-represented among the star mathematics students. Finally, sex differences in intellectual achievement are rooted in both biological and in cultural influences which have circular and mutually reinforcing effects. Schools are not necessarily "shortchanging" either girls or boys when sex differences occur in cognitive tests and achievement tests.


Females Now Take as Many High School Classes in Mathematics and Science as Males Do. In Advanced Placement Classes in Mathematics and Science, the Gender Gap is Narrowing.

(details ... click here)


Table 7: Females Have Caught Up with or Surpassed Males in High School Mathematics and Science Courses: High School Graduates, 1994


In short, the gender gap favoring males in mathematics and science is very small in the general population but pronounced among the highest achievers. This gender gap continues into higher education. But it is only one part of a larger story.

Gender Differences at the Postsecondary Level

In college attainment, a gender gap exists and is increasing. But this gender gap clearly favors females.

Women Have Become the Majority of College Students---Especially in the African-American Population---and Women Earn the Majority of Bachelor's and Master's Degrees

Women Are Closing the Gender Gap in Professional Degrees and in Doctoral Degrees

Professional Degrees. Since the 1960s, women have made stunning progress in obtaining advanced degrees. Their progress is especially evident in professional fields---the major focus of women's career ambitions.

  • Women attained over 40% of professional degrees awarded in 1994, up from almost none in 1961
  • Minority women made especially large gains in attaining professional degrees. African-American women received 57% of professional degrees awarded to African-Americans in 1994, outdoing African-American men
  • Most women with professional aspirations seek law degrees. In 1994, 43 percent of law degrees were awarded to women.

  • In 1994, women received the majority of professional degrees awarded in veterinary medicine, pharmacy, and optometry.

    Business Administration Degrees. Women are also catching up in receiving business degrees, especially the advanced MBA.

  • In 1995, American women received over 37 percent of the MBAs awarded American citizens (NCES, 1997b, Table 269).

  • The number of MBAs awarded to women since 1965 has increased more than a hundredfold. In 1965, women received only about 300 MBAs. In 1995, women received almost 35,000 MBAs (NCES, 1997b, Table 281).

    Doctoral Degrees. The gender gap in doctoral degrees is also closing. Since the 1960s, women have made enormous progress in gaining doctoral degrees. Women in 1994 Attained About 40 Percent of Doctoral Degrees, Up from About 10 Percent in 1961.

  • In the biological and life sciences, American women in 1994 received over 40 percent of the doctorates, up from 12 percent in 1962
  • In mathematics and the physical sciences, American women in 1994
    received over 20 percent of the doctorates, up from only 4 percent in 1961


    In short, women are moving into high status occupations in enormous numbers. Ambitious women, however, are seeking professional degrees far more often than doctoral degrees in mathematics and the physical sciences (Bae & Smith, 1997, p. 18). Among women who were college freshmen in 1996, twice as many women (20 percent) aspired to professional fields compared to men (less than 10 percent). More men did seek careers in the physical sciences and mathematics (3 percent) compared to women (2 percent), but these numbers are minuscule. The emphasis on the gender gap in mathematics and science has diverted attention from the great strides large numbers of women are making in the high status careers they are choosing---the professions.

    Gender Differences in Classroom Participation

    If girls make higher grades in school, get higher class rank and more academic honors, surpass boys on standardized tests in two subjects (reading and writing) and lag behind in two subjects (mathematics and science), graduate from college more often but attain a slightly smaller proportion of advanced degrees, what then is the basis for the charge that the schools shortchange girls? A fair judge might call such a pattern a draw: females do better in some academic areas and males do better in others.

    The charge that the schools shortchange girls is not based on such hard and comprehensive measures of educational attainment but instead on soft and slippery issues, like the "silencing" of girls in the classroom. The AAUW report (1992) emphasizes dramatic, highly publicized findings from research by David and Myra Sadker:

    Whether one looks at preschool classrooms or university lecture halls, at female teachers or male teachers, research spanning the past twenty years consistently reveals that males receive more teacher attention than do females...

    Researchers David and Myra Sadker have studied these patterns for many years. They report that boys in one study of elementary and middle school students called out answers eight times more often than girls did. When boys called out, the typical teacher reaction was to listen to the comment. When girls called out, they were usually corrected with comments such as, "Please raise your hand if you want to speak." (p. 68)

    The Sadkers' findings are indeed shocking. The problem is that the research on which these dramatic findings were based has strangely disappeared (Sommers, 1994; Kleinfeld, 1996). It is hard for a study to disappear---ordinarily many copies are made and circulated. I telephoned David Sadker to ask him directly about the serious charge that his famous study had disappeared. He could not send me a copy of the report. He disingenuously directed me to his university's proposal office and asserted that many other studies of classroom interaction support the contention anyway that boys receive far more attention than girls in the classroom.

    Leaving the Sadkers' "lost" study aside, what evidence do we have from other studies of classrooms that teachers do give more attention to boys or even that boys talk more in the classroom? This seems like a straightforward question, but the question actually contains a tangle of murky issues. First, the question carries a hidden assumption---that differences in teacher attention actually influence how much students learn. But we actually have no evidence that talking in class or getting attention from the teacher makes any difference to student achievement, as Lindow, Marrett, & Wilkinson (1985, pp. 13-14) point out in their summary of the major studies on classroom interaction.

    Second, the meaning of "getting attention from the teacher" is unclear. Suppose, for example, that a teacher asks a fourth-grade boy a question in class. Is this a genuine academic question, which will help him learn? Or is the teacher's question actually a reprimand in disguise? The teacher may see that the boy is acting up and use the question to get him back on task.

    Third, studies of classroom interaction are expensive and difficult to conduct, so we do not have large, representative studies of what goes on in different classrooms, in different subjects, and in different locales. To get a stable and reliable measure, a well-trained researcher must sit in the classroom for many hours and count who talks, who asks questions, who answers questions. Unlike achievement tests or college graduation rates, we have no nationally representative data on the question.

    Finally, most classroom interaction studies, especially in recent years, have been conducted in classrooms where females are suspected to be, and most likely are, at a disadvantage. These are high school mathematics and science classrooms, subjects where females generally do not excel, and law school classrooms, where an aggressive style of classroom questioning has long been considered crucial to preparing students for the combat of legal discourse (Reviewed in Young, forthcoming). The research on gender interaction in the classroom does not feature studies conducted in literature classes or foreign language classes, areas of female strength. In these classrooms, the results might be quite different.

    Sex differences in classroom participation, as measured by observers, are small, inconsistent, and variable. Some results show teachers favoring boys while others show teachers favoring girls.


    In a nutshell, no consistent pattern of male or female favoritism appears. Teachers do give more attention to boys but this attention has to do with keeping boys in line. Whether teachers give more academic attention to boys, the kind that might indicate bias, is unclear.


    The AAUW's own commissioned research in fact undercuts the position it trumpets---that girls receive less attention than boys. The AAUW sponsored a nationwide survey of 3,000 children between grades four and ten which forms one important statistical base for its glossy, highly publicized reports (American Association of University Women [AAUW]/Greenberg-Lake, 1990). When I tried to obtain a copy of this report, I had a difficult time.

    While the politicized version, How Schools Shortchange Girls (1992) is available for a mere $16.95, obtaining the full data report requires a payment of $85.00 for unbound xeroxed pages. The AAUW provides an 800-number for ordering its reports, but the person I called at this number knew nothing about the full data report. I then called the AAUW offices, left messages, and waited for weeks to get telephone calls returned until I finally located someone who knew of this report.

    That the AAUW should make the report difficult to obtain is understandable. The data from their own report do not back up the charges they publicize---that girls receive less attention from teachers.
    When asked about their personal experience, boys and girls reported receiving virtually identical amounts of attention from their teachers (Table 13). The gender differences that occur are trivial, and sometimes favor boys and sometimes favor girls.


    When asked about teacher bias in teacher attention, boys and girls do report bias. But what they see is bias against boys. Boys and girls agree "by overwhelming margins," in the report's own words, that teachers give more attention to girls (AAUW/Greenberg-Lake, 1990, p. 64).

    Table 14: Boys and Girls Believe Teachers Give More Attention to Girls


    In sum, the research on classroom interaction does not show consistent teacher favoritism toward boys or girls. Whether we look at studies by observers sitting in the classrooms or the perceptions of the students themselves, what we see are small and inconsistent sex differences, some favoring girls and others favoring boys. We see no pattern of more academic attention going to boys, and, even if we did, we have no evidence that teacher attention in class has any relationship to achievement.

    Gender Differences in Self-Esteem

    The other highly publicized AAUW message---that girls have lower self esteem than boys---rests on equally shaky grounds. The commercial success of psychologist Mary Pipher's (1994) pop-feminist book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, brought this message to the general public. A clinical psychologist who treats troubled girls, Pipher's anecdotes come primarily from her practice, not from any systematic, scientific comparisons of adolescent girls and adolescent boys. The message has been aired so often, on Oprah and the Today show, in Time and Newsweek, that its truth seems unquestionable. Everyone now knows, do they not, that girls have lower self-esteem than boys. Everyone now knows that girls suffer a severe drop in self-esteem at adolescence. Everyone now knows that boys gain confidence at adolescence while girls lose the vitality and confidence they displayed in childhood.

    When I began the research for this paper, I as well did not question these beliefs. The issue, I thought then, was whether girls' loss of confidence and vitality at adolescence had anything to do with what happened to them in the school. Perhaps the explanation for adolescent girls' loss of self-confidence had to do with the hormonal changes of puberty; I consulted physicians on the physiology of puberty and the relationship of hormonal change to mood disorders. Perhaps the explanation for girls' loss of self-confidence had to do with the Barbie doll standards of thinness and beauty that so many adolescent girls struggle without success to attain; I wanted to take a hard look at what adolescent girls' sense of themselves was based on---beauty, popularity, academic success.

    What I was not expecting to find was that the fundamental idea that I had simply taken for granted---that adolescent girls actually do have lower self-esteem than boys---might not be true. I did a computerized search of the recent research literature on self-esteem, with the assistance of a professional reference librarian. The database (PsychINFO) yielded 84 references to the combined keywords "human sex differences" and "self esteem" and "adolescence." A review of this literature suggests these conclusions:

    • Self-esteem is extremely difficult to measure. Different studies define and assess self-worth, self-acceptance, self-confidence, and related concepts in quite different ways.
    • The bases of self-esteem appear to be different in boys and girls and in different ethnic groups. What adolescents think about themselves is far more dependent on physical appearance and on relationships with friends than on what happens in schools.
    • While boys are more often reported to have higher self-esteem than girls, the differences are typically small and could easily be explained by a slight tendency of boys to choose extreme response categories on vague, multiple-choice questions. Some of the most careful research in the field shows no differences between boys and girls either in "self-esteem" or in "loss of voice."

    Common sense suggests that a person's response to a question like whether "I'm happy the way I am" (a core question in the AAUW/Greenberg-Lake study) depends on the person's mood and recent experiences. Many people with a solid opinion of their own self-worth might not say "Always True" [emphasis in original] in response to such a statement because such an answer would reveal a most unbecoming lack of modesty or a most unbecoming disinterest in self-improvement. Yet, these are the types of questions on which the AAUW bases its findings about low self-esteem among adolescent girls.

    Studies of adolescent self-esteem, moreover, reveal another problem which makes interpretation of these vague questions difficult. What adolescents say in response to such questions appears to be based on different criteria among females and males and among different ethnic groups (Thorne & Michaelieu, 1996; Tashakkori, 1993a; 1993b). Personal appearance and attractiveness and peer relationships play a large role in what adolescents think of themselves. This is the key point: Academic self-confidence, the kind nurtured by the schools, does not show much relationship to general self-esteem in any gender or ethnic group (Tashakkori, 1993a).

    Leaving aside these serious problems in measuring self-esteem, the research actually shows no large, consistent gender differences in self esteem at adolescence. Some of the most well-known researchers who specialize in the study of self-esteem, such as Susan Harter (1997), find no gender gap at all either in measures of self-esteem or in confidence in revealing your opinions and who you are (termed as "lack of voice" in Harter's research). Using carefully developed measures, Harter (1997) examined "lack of voice" among approximately 900 boys and girls from grades 6 through 12. Contrary to the feminist argument that "voice" declines for females as they enter adolescence, Harter (1997) finds:

    There is no evidence in our data for loss of voice among adolescent females as a group....The mean levels we obtain (average scores of around 3.0 on a four-point scale reveal that levels of voice are relatively high among young female adolescents. ...We have also found no evidence for gender differences favoring males... [Emphasis in original ] (pp. 25-26)

    Nor does Harter find that girls are more likely than boys to suppress their opinions in school because they don't want to seem smart and aggressive:

    It has also been claimed that girls, in particular, suppress their opinions within the school setting because they are fearful of looking too smart, which may cause them to risk rejection by their male classmates (Orenstein, 1994). We asked our low voice high school subjects to respond to items that tapped this issue directly (e.g., I don't say what I think because I don't want to look too smart). Once again, we found no gender difference supporting the claims that this is merely a problem for girls. Anecdotal reports from within the high school suggest that certain boys are fearful of being considered "nerds", "dorks", or "brains", if they are too smart, risking peer rejection. (pp. 38-39)

    We need to pay attention to individuals, Harter emphasizes. Certain girls and certain boys do lack confidence and voice. But the problem is hardly limited to girls. "Reviving Ophelia," Harter (1997, p. 51) tartly concludes, "is certainly a worthy goal. However, Hamlet also displayed serious problems of indecision and lack of voice."

    It is important to point out once again that the research literature on gender differences in self-esteem is full of inconsistencies. Some studies do show differences in global measures of self-esteem in favor of boys (Dukes & Martinez, 1994; Chubb, Fertman, & Ross, 1997; Francis & James, 1996). Careful analysis of such reports, however, raises the question as to whether such measures of self-esteem discriminate against girls who may not be as inclined as boys to brag or choose extreme responses on surveys.

    The Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls, released in 1997, provides a recent example of the politicization of trivial sex differences in self-esteem (Schoen et al., 1997). The glossy report and media kit trumpet the standard, politicized message---a gender gap exists in self-confidence that widens in adolescence. I noted that the scoring system for the measure of self-confidence was most unusual---a lot of weight was placed on extreme responses in deciding who fell into the category of "high self-confidence." I telephoned the Commonwealth Fund to ask for a copy of the actual results for each question and, to their credit, the Commonwealth Fund promptly faxed to me the actual tabulations.

    What this survey actually shows is remarkably similar levels of self confidence among boys and girls. Boys are more apt to give extreme responses. This could indicate higher self-esteem but it could also indicate a lack of verbal subtlety or what some might consider an unfortunate lack of modesty. The following table presents the actual responses of boys and girls to these questions phrased in a straightforward, positive way:
    Table 15: Adolescent Boys and Girls Both Express High Levels of Self Esteem
    BeliefStrongly AgreeSomewhat AgreeTotal
    I feel that I am a
    person of worth, at least on an equal basis with others.
    I feel that I have
    a number of good qualities.
    I am able to do things as well as most other people.
    I take a positive attitude toward myself.
    On the whole, I
    am satisfied with myself.
    Source: From The Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls, by C. Schoen, K. Davis, K. S. Collins, L. Greenberg, C. Des Roches, and M. Abrams, 1997, New York: The Commonwealth Fund. Data Tabulations provided by the Commonwealth Fund.

    Virtually no important difference between adolescent boys and girls appears, and both sexes express virtually the same positive opinions of themselves when the "strongly agree" and "somewhat agree" categories are added together. Yet, these findings are sent to the media as more proof of the gender gap in self-confidence.

    In terms of academic self-confidence, the type of self-esteem that depends on what happens in schools, teachers boost girls' academic self confidence far more than they do that of boys.

    These are the basic findings about adolescent self-esteem promoted by the AAUW Report, How Schools Shortchange Girls (1992).

    A nationwide survey commissioned by the American Association of University Women in 1990 found that on average 69 percent of elementary school boys and 60 percent of elementary school girls reported that they were "happy the way I am"; among high school students, the percentages were 46 percent for boys and only 29 percent for girls. (AAUW, 1992, p. 12).

    The AAUW report implies that the schools are to blame. Self-confidence is one more area where the schools shortchange girls. When I obtained the actual report on self-esteem on which this charge was based, I found no evidence that the schools eroded girls' self-confidence. The reason that so many teenage girls were not "happy with the way I am" at adolescence, as the actual AAUW/Greenberg-Lake report (1990) clearly shows, was that the girls are more dissatisfied with their physical appearance. As the report itself puts this point:

    The Importance of Appearance. For boys and girls of all races feelings of attractiveness are a fundamental part of overall self-worth. Evaluations of personal appearance (as measured by responses to the statement, "I like the way I look") correlate strongly with more general statements about self-esteem (such as "I'm happy as I am" and "I like most things about myself"). Other specific assessments of self-esteem, including academic performance, relationships with peers and family, feelings of importance and acceptance, are all less central to self-esteem than is appearance (p. 31).

    The AAUW/Greenberg-Lake report (1990) does not show that the schools shortchange girls, that the schools in any way contribute to girls' dissatisfaction with themselves at adolescence. The report in fact shows the exact opposite. Girls see the school as an arena where they receive disproportionately more positive messages about themselves. Boys make the same judgment---teachers favor girls and boost their self-esteem. These are the findings hidden in the statistical tables which the AAUW makes it so difficult to obtain:

    Table 16: Teachers Bolster Girls' Self-Esteem in the Classroom Far More than Boys' Self Esteem
    Perceptions of the School Environment
    Boys' Answers Girls' Answers
    Who do teachers
    think are smarter?
    Who do teachers compliment more often?
    Who do teachers
    punish more often?
    Who do teachers like to be around?
    Source: Adapted from Expectations and Aspirations: Gender Roles and Self-Esteem (p. 18), by AAUW/Greenberg-Lake, 1990, Washington, DC: Greenberg-Lake.

    Another AAUW report, released without publicity, also undercuts the message that the climate of the schools shortchanges girls (Lee, Chen, & Smerdon, 1996). This study is based an excellent sample, the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, a carefully drawn sample of more than 9,000 students in almost 400 schools. Its authors explain that they had intended to examine school climate in the middle grades because of the "research identifying early adolescence as the developmental stage when a gender gap favoring boys often emerges in self-perception and school performance (AAUW, 1992)."

    But the findings did not support this position at all. The study found only small to moderate gender differences, "favoring girls as well as boys" (Lee et al., 1996, p. 1). To the authors' chagrin, poor schools shortchanged boys far more than girls. The more orderly the school and the higher quality instruction, the more boys became engaged in learning and the larger the gender gap became, in favor of boys.

    In a coup de grace to the AAUW's much publicized findings about the low self-esteem of adolescent girls, the 1997 Metropolitan Life Survey comes to the opposite conclusions. The Met-Life report on gender issues is one of a series of reports with the policy goal of bringing understanding to current issues that affect the nation's schools. As previously discussed, this survey sought the opinions of a nationally representative sample of 1,306 students from grades 7-12 and 1,035 teachers in grades 6-12 on girls' and boys' experiences in the schools and aspirations for the future. The conclusions flatly contradict the message that the schools shortchange girls:

    1. contrary to the commonly held view that boys are at an advantage over girls in school, girls appear to have an advantage over boys in terms of their future plans, teachers' expectations, everyday experiences at school and interactions in the classroom;

    2. minority girls hold the most optimistic views of the future and are the group most likely to focus on education goals;

    3. minority boys are the most likely to feel discouraged about the future and the least interested in getting a good education; and

    4. teachers nationwide view girls as higher achievers and more likely to succeed than boys.
    (Emphasis in original, p. 3)

    The Met-Life study is based on teachers' and students' beliefs, not objective measures of actual school achievement. But the wealth of evidence reviewed in this paper shows that objective measures of achievement support these beliefs. Girls surpass boys in reading and writing skills. Girls are more apt to go to college and graduate with baccalaureate and masters' degrees. Girls have higher aspirations for professional degrees and have made dramatic progress in attaining both professional and doctoral degrees. Far from shortchanging girls, the schools encourage and favor girls.


    The charge that the schools shortchange girls is false political propaganda. In their zeal to advance the interests of women, the American Association of University Women and other advocacy groups have distorted the achievements of women and the experience of girls and boys in schools. But what harm has been done, a sensible person might ask? Government agencies, foundations, and teachers have directed attention and resources to girls and have developed their skills in those areas where girls do lag behind, science and mathematics.

    The myth that the schools shortchange girls, one might argue, is nothing more than what Plato called a "noble lie"---a falsehood in the service of a desirable political good (Plato, trans. 1942, pp. 302-304). But this noble lie, it turns out, is not so noble. It draws attention and resources away from the group the schools truly fail, African-American males. This lie has other, more insidious, effects on the culture of schools. The problem was evident in a workshop I attended for the teachers of gifted and talented students. I was on a panel with several school counselors. The moderator posed the question, "What can we do to help girls, who suffer such a loss of self-esteem at adolescence?" One of the counselors on the panel launched into a fiery description of the emotional problems of teenage girls. Girls she knew had changed from vigorous children who spoke their minds to bored and passive teenagers. This counselor was not aware that she was repeating the message of the AAUW report. These ideas had been promoted in workshops and education courses for years. They were just in the air.

    I came next on the panel and thought about what I should do. Should I flat out contradict this counselor and tell the teachers in the audience that the research shows no important difference between teenage boys and girls in self-esteem, that this research has been politicized to make girls look like victims? As diplomatically as I could, I made these points. The counselor's reaction astonished me.

    "I'm so glad you said that!" she proclaimed. "I know that boys have problems, too. But we just don't give the boys much attention."

    Other teachers agreed, with a palpable sense of relief. "Come to think of it, I have four suicidal adolescents in my classes this year, and all four are boys," one said.

    "Write a newspaper article about this. Get the word out," said the sole male teacher at the workshop. "We're too busy to read the professional literature. We didn't know this."

    The school counselor bemoaning the problems of girls, it turned out, had actually developed a valuable program for teenage boys. She had invited a male graduate student from the university to talk with several troubled boys. The same boys who wouldn't talk to her, she observed, sprawled on the floor with this graduate student, talking with intensity. But she hadn't bothered to describe her program to the other teachers. Troubled boys were not on the list of topics important enough to discuss.

    Indeed, boys came up only indirectly when the panel was given the question of what to do with bright students who complain that they are "bored" in school. I could tell that most of these students were boys from the teachers' examples. One described a boy, for example, who hated math class because the class was too slow for him. His teacher forced him to do pages of problems that he already understood. What was the solution? "Let bored students know that it is not acceptable to say 'I'm bored' to teachers," was the consensus of the school counselors. Figuring out a way to provide more advanced instruction in mathematics, for either boys or girls, was not on the agenda.

    In the hectic, crowded world of the classroom, teachers have limited time, attention and energy. Teachers are concentrating on the problems of girls, but they are dismissing the problems of boys and neglecting the problem of how to educate the most gifted students. The focus on promoting female success gives the schools an excuse for ignoring their gravest failure with minority boys. The "noble lie" that the schools shortchange girls is not so noble, after all.


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Judith Kleinfeld received her bachelor's degree from Wellesley College in 1966 and her doctoral degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1969. She is professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and head of the Northern Studies department. The Northern Studies website can be found at Her many publications focus on gender issues, the education of culturally diverse children, and the education of children with fetal alcohol syndrome. In 1993, she won the Emil Usibelli Award for Distinguished Research. For an extended bio, please see

She can be reached at: College of Liberal Arts, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775. Telephone: (907) 474-5266; e-mail:

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