Enough About the Boys, Our Girls Aren't Reaching Their Full Potential

Mar 31, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Kayla Patrick

The focus on the many struggles boys face in school often leaves girls out of the conversation. While many assume that girls are doing fine or even better than their male counterparts, inside of schools they are consistently being told that they do not belong. Boys speak nine times more than girls in class, and teachers often encourage them to do so, but girls are seldom encouraged to speak up in the same way. Additionally, teachers often encourage boys to problem-solve individually, while offering more hands-on guidance and help to girls when they get stuck. Although the experiences boys have in school are important to track and understand, this should not be done at the cost of ignoring the many barriers to success that girls face throughout their education.

An Environment Where Women Are Leaders

I received a single-sex education at two different critical stages in my life: in middle school and in college. My middle school’s mission was to educate “confident, capable, creative and compassionate women of tomorrow.” Attending a middle school filled with teachers and administrators who saw, heard and encouraged my development helped me be who I was and open myself up to the different possibilities of who I might become. The mission of my women’s college was similarly motivational: [pullquote]To provide an excellent education “for women who will make a difference in the world.”[/pullquote] My peers and I entered into adulthood within an environment that did not expect anything from us other than to be the best version of ourselves. Being in an environment where every student leader was a young woman (as well as every budding scientist, economist, poet, mathematician, artist, politician and computer scientist), enabled each of us to actively participate in and get used to a world in which girls and women thriving in every field and every sector was the norm. I do not share these stories to advocate for single-sex education as the solution to the barriers girls face throughout their education, but to demonstrate the importance of establishing learning environments in which female success is not unexpected, discouraged or dismissed.

When Girls Are Prevented From Reaching Their Full Potential

A quick scan of the news will show that schools are not providing these environments to girls. The classroom has been used to further particular ideas about gender which spills over into college and the workforce. Recently, a Georgia high school student asked a question only to have her teacher respond that she was the “dumbest girl” he had ever met, and that her purpose in life was to “have sex and have babies.” Although this example is extreme and upsetting, teachers often discourage girls from flourishing intellectually in much more subtle ways. Too often, girls are gently steered away from subjects like math and the hard sciences when they face obstacles, ask questions, or express frustration. After decades of discouraging girls and young women from pursuing STEM subjects, the U.S. education system is now interested in reversing that trend, given the importance of these subjects and their continued relevance. But simply adding more computer science classes in a school will not be enough to encourage girls to enter into this field. Teaching these subjects in a manner that demonstrates their relevance to the girls’ lives and interests, their health and their potential power to help shape a better world, must be a critical component to any STEM curriculum. Outside of academics, Black girls, in particular, often struggle to conform to a standard of white femininity that is seen as the norm, and as a result are disciplined harshly—more often than not being kicked out of the classroom for being “disrespectful” or “out of line.” Not only do these actions impact the learning trajectory of girls who are subject to such harsh discipline, it also sends a message to the rest of the students about what girls are and are not allowed to say, do and pursue. To help the girls in classrooms across the country achieve their goals, they must be recognized for who they are, given opportunities to be mentored by women in diverse fields and, most importantly, encouraged to seize the opportunity to be seen and heard in school.

Kayla Patrick

Kayla Patrick is a senior education policy analyst with a deep interest in using data-based analysis to inform U.S. education policy and practices, especially to improve the lives of underserved children of color. Her expertise includes school discipline policies and college and career readiness. Kayla worked at the National Women’s Law Center, where she conducted research and data analysis on critical issues that impact women and girls. While there, she led a team to produce a well-publicized report, Let Her Learn: Stopping School Pushout for Girls. She also co-authored a report with 20 Black girls in Washington D.C. titled “Dress Coded,” which highlighted the harmful effects of dress codes on girls’ education. This work was recently cited in the education platform of 2020 presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren and will soon be featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's exhibit on girlhood. Kayla received her bachelor's degree in political science from Wellesley College and her master's in education policy from Teachers College at Columbia University.

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