Opinion: Past successes can guide us in tackling today’s problemsIn my office, atop overflowing bookshelves, sit nine photographs of people in my family who went before me in education. Included among them are my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my aunt, all of whom were teachers and one even a county superintendent.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
In my office, atop overflowing bookshelves, sit nine photographs of people in my family who went before me in education. Included among them are my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my aunt, all of whom were teachers and one even a county superintendent.
They are a special lot because all went to college or “normal” school to become a teacher. All studied hard, earned their degree and began their careers in one-room schoolhouses, where they not only taught, they also served every other role, including custodian, secretary, nurse and administrator for their multiaged students. All three are in a special lot, also, because each ended their career in education after a few short years, specifically when they married. That may have been just fine with them, though I can’t be sure because regardless of their views on the matter, they were contractually no longer allowed to teach once they married. It wasn’t appropriate. (And I can’t ask them how they felt about it because they’ve all left this world behind them, off to a better place, I suspect, where summers last six months and no one’s dog ever eats their homework.)
I think of them occasionally. I thought of them specifically on Wednesday of last week when the Center on Education Policy (CEP) announced its findings on the student achievement gender gap. Traditionally and for pretty much as long as anybody can remember, the gender gap has meant that girls do better in reading and boys do better in math. Technically, if you go back far enough, it meant that boys did better in both subjects in school but that was simply because boys were more likely to attend school than girls. Since that changed decades and decades ago, however, the girls’ lead in reading and the boys’ lead in math have been pretty standard. So standard, in fact, that it became enmeshed in the nature vs. nurture argument with one researcher sometime ago arguing that high levels of testosterone or some other chemical in boys’ development caused a type of slight brain damage that enabled them to actually be better mathematicians. For seemingly forever, educational researchers argued over whether the gender differences were due to children’s upbringing or their physiology.
Well, that argument is over because one side of the gender gap is no longer there. At elementary, middle school, and high school, according to the Center on Education Policy, girls are now reaching proficiency levels in mathematics at rates equal to those of boys. There is still a slight discrepancy at the advanced levels, but the only major gender gap left now is in reading, where boys, as a group, still score well behind girls. One is tempted to make various observations at this point, on the yawns that seem to accompany calls for eliminating the reading deficiency among boys, on whether this will mean that various genderbased laws can now be discarded, etc. but I think this misses a rather larger point. Females today are graduating from high school and college at higher percentages than boys. They outnumber boys in college by wider and wider margins all the time. They are present in professional programs such as law and medicine at levels equal to and typically surpassing those of males. The only remaining exception is in engineering though they are making gains there as well. The battle of the sexes, as they used to call it, is over and I really needn’t say who won.
But even that isn’t the point. The point is that this should be a time for two things. First, it is a time for celebration. The Western World has unleashed the arm it had tied behind its back and can now make progress with everyone engaged. Second, this sort of thing is possible. We know that because we’ve done it. Now we need to figure out how we did it so we can attack the same problem among other groups.
On the same day the gender gap results were released by CEP, the New York Times printed its data on college graduation rates (one statistic among many but sufficient to serve this purpose) among Hispanics. While white college students graduate at a rate of 59 percent, Hispanics undergrads do so at only 51 percent. Why the difference? More importantly, how can we take what we learned when we successfully eliminated the gender gap to attack the racial gap or the socio-economic gap or any other gap that exists in educational attainment among groups?
Yes, there is more to be done. But at least now we can use a past success to guide us toward tackling current and future problems of a similar sort. I like to think one of the solutions to solving the gender gap were those who went before, the women in education who attained the degrees and entered the classrooms and demonstrated that they were up to the job, even as they were pushed out the door. People like Mary Ann Michelson, Carrie Thom, and Lucy Graves.