WILLA v8 - Teachers Write: Report Card on Equity - Gender-based Achievement Gaps: There is Something a Teacher Can Do

Volume 8
Fall 1999

TEACHERS WRITE: Report Card On Equity in the Schools

Gender-based Achievement Gaps: There Is Something a Teacher Can Do

Elementary Representative
Edna Brabham, Department of Curriculum and Teaching, Auburn University

This term I get to visit schools, talk to teachers, and mentor five interns, four females and one male. Seizing the opportunity, I asked these elementary teachers and their interns what they wanted to know about gender issues. Responses included questions such as 'Are there still gaps in achievement for elementary boys and girls?" and "If there are, what can we do about it?" They also informed me that they are too busy planning lessons, teaching, documenting progress in portfolios, and having family fun events as well as conferences with parents to find any answers to these questions themselves. So I asked students in the Literacy in the Content Areas class I teach on campus to help me access statistics and information that do address these questions.

According to the Nation's Report Card compiled from recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores (NAEP, 1999), gender gaps in achievement have not vanished, but the results are mixed with girls coming out on top in language arts and the arts while boys maintain the edge in other subject areas. Reading scores for grades 4, 8, and 12 are higher for females than males, and more females than males at each grade level achieve basic, proficient, and advanced levels of reading achievement. On writing assessments, twice as many females as males score at or above the proficient level across the three grade levels tested. National assessments for the arts have been given only to eighth grade students, but females consistently outperform their male peers in creating, performing, and responding to music, theatrical works, and the visual arts.

Gender gaps in other subject areas favor males instead of females, however. Overall, males achieve higher scores than do females at all three grade levels on the geography scales, with the most significant differences at grade 4 on "Space and Place" items. For science and history, there are no significant differences in the performance of males and females at grade 4 or even grade 8, but males perform at a higher level than females at grade 12. Results for mathematics show the opposite trend with higher achievement for fourth grade boys but no gender differences for eighth and twelfth graders (NAEP, 1999).

What can elementary teachers do about gender gaps that continue to produce differences in learning, achievement, and opportunities for boys and girls? For a start, teachers can critically examine existing practices, instruction, and technologies in elementary classrooms and curricula. By identifying com-ponents of schooling that limit in-terest, opportunities, and perfor-mance in language arts, the per-forming arts, and visual arts for boys and in geography, math-ematics, and computer science for girls, elementary teachers can make changes that advance the goal of equity and promote high academic achievement for both boys and girls in all subject areas.

When classroom practices work for girls, they usually work for boys. Hands-on experiments, for ex-ample, produce greater invol-vement in science for girls, but this approach works for boys, too, and increases science achieve-ment for both sexes. Not allowing student "put-downs" makes many girls feel more comfortable, interested in coming to school, and motivated to learn, but boys also learn better without teasing or insults. Gender stereotypes in teacher expectations, educational materials and software, instruc-tional practices, classroom interactions, and recommenda-tions for selection and placement in classes shortchange both girls and boys and must be eliminated if we are improve schooling and put gender equity into action in the classroom (Bailey & Campbell, 1999).

A literature-based, inte-grated curriculum that has the potential to eliminate stereotypes and encourage boys and girls to become fully engaged with learning in all of the subject areas is described in a recent book Feisty Females: Inspiring Girls To Think Mathematically. There is more to this book and the educational approach it describes than the title suggests. The lit-erature recommended in this integrated, thematic curriculum has powerful connections to mathematics and is full of stories with feisty females. These same stories also include strong male characters, however, who com-plement and appreciate female strength and feistiness, and the literature provides a vehicle for innovative uses of instructional methods, other authentic mat-erials, computers and technology, and assessment techniques that go well beyond a focus on mathematics--promoting learn-ing and explorations of individual potentials across the disciplines through full engagement with literature and language arts, the performing and visual arts, history and geography, math, science, computer science and technology. A curriculum model that is good for feisty females will probably be good for feisty boys as well, encouraging equity in learning and achievement for both genders in all subject areas. This and other curricula and practices that engender equity in education provide teachers with models they can apply to "do" something about gender gaps in learning and achievement in elementary schools and decrease the likelihood that those gaps will continue, limiting opportunities for students in middle school, high school and throughout their lives.


American Association of University women. (1999). Gender gaps fact sheets. Washington, DC: AAUW Educational Foundation.

Bailey, S. G. & Campbell, P. B. The gender wars in education. Groton, MA: Campbeil-Kibler Associates. http://www.campbell-kibler.com/Gender_Wars.htm

Karp, K., Brown, E. T., Allen, L., & Allen, C. (1998). Feisty Females: Inspiring Girls to Think Mathematically. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard

Copyright 1999, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Brabham, Edna. (1999). " Gender-based Achievement Gaps: There Is Something a Teacher Can DO." WILLA, Volume 8, p. 18, 21.

by Radiya Rashid