• by Kristin Grayson, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2006 • Kristin Grayson, M.A.

Boys and girls receive many different silent messages in schools even while they are in the same classrooms with the same teachers using the same textbooks. These silent gender messages are part of the many complex and interactive factors in our communities, cultures and schools that can negatively influence the academic achievement of boys and girls. (Harro, 2000).

The law is clear. Bias, stereotyping and discrimination based on sex is not allowed as legislated in Title IX. But, legislation is only the first step toward change. Recognizing and addressing the complex factors that promote silent negative gender messages is the next step.

Educational equity provides all learners the opportunity to learn, to achieve at high levels and to have equitable access and inclusion, equitable treatment and equitable resources for learning (Harro, 2000).

In April 2000, the IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity held a focus group of educators and pinpointed some of the specific gender equity issues now facing public schools. These include a low level of staff interest in gender issues, the persistent inappropriate view that gender issues are only women’s issues, and the lack of consideration given to males and gender equity (Scott and Cortez, 2000). In view of these challenges and issues, the SCCE is piloting a new observation instrument to re-examine gender issues in schools. This instrument will provide a way to assess needs and plan for systemic changes concerning gender bias in schools.

Schools are microcosms of the larger society. The creation of the school’s culture and students’ perception of themselves and others is affected by many things in and around the school. The interacting processes of race, gender, class, language and heritage cannot be separated in culture and identity (Goodwin, 2000).

Thus, in order to begin the process of identifying gender bias issues within a particular school setting it is necessary to observe objectively and quantify, when possible, these interactive processes. Unmasking hidden gender bias that affects the academic achievement of boys and girls begins with observation. Following observation, discussion can begin about the implications of what was observed and needs to be addressed. Finally, a systematic and planned process toward change can begin.

IDRA’s new observation tool has been divided into four parts: a classroom observation component, a teacher survey, a student survey and an administrator interview. These four parts define a way to look for the many interrelated processes identified in the research about gender equity.

Step 1: Classroom Observation

Within the classroom, it is important to observe the physical setting, the curriculum and instruction, and the interaction and behaviors that occur within the setting. Visuals used in the classroom and the curriculum and materials need to be examined to see when, where and how roles of girls and boys are portrayed (Hutchinson, 1999).

Actions, instructional practice and interactions between teacher and students, and between students and students, need to be examined. An early study by Myra and David Sadker showed that, at all grade levels and in all subjects, boys had more opportunity for interaction (1985). Quantifying these interactions was made possible with the Intersect observation form that they developed during this time period.

Later, the Gender Expectations and Student Achievement (GESA) professional development program was developed to increase equity in interaction (MEC, 1993). Observing nonverbal messages, such as eye contact, personal space, seating patterns, wait type, question types and types of classroom activities are also important (Sadker, 1995).

Studies have been conducted quantifying the different interactions that African American and Latino female and male students receive. Frequency and quality of interaction have been correlated to the quality of education a student receives. Differential treatment has been linked to low and limited teacher expectations (Goodwin, 2000).

Step 2: Teacher Survey

The teacher survey focuses on teachers’ attitudes and expectations, which are very important to student success. Many well-documented studies exist that show a positive correlation between teacher expectations and student performance. It is important to unmask the assumptions that underlie comments teachers make, such as “Boys will be boys,” “That’s just the way it is,” and “It’s their fault,” because these attitudes can perpetuate the exact misconception they communicate (Hutchinson, 1999). Teacher expectations and attitudes also are addressed in the observation tool.

Step 3: Student Survey

The student survey reveals students’ attitudes toward themselves as students, toward education, toward schools and toward other students (boys and girls). Student language unmasked can reveal assumptions toward boys and girls that students have learned in their surroundings (Martin, 1999). Boys’ and girls’ perceptions about gender can help identify the unintended and subtle messages students receive in school, home and community.

One study conducted among middle school students found that boys and girls thought boys can do more and that boys have different restrictions and expectations (Mee, 1995). Observing student language, interaction, self-perception and gender attitudes is important for understanding the larger context of school and gender issues. The student survey provides information within this area of concern.

Step 4: Administrator Interview

The administrator interview is a critical component of the observation tool. Its purpose is to provide an extensive collection of information about the community, staff, school setting, students and their achievement, and the interacting processes of race, gender, class, language and heritage. Information about males and females related to attendance, dropout rates, course enrollment, extracurricular activities, parent involvement, discipline and student achievement are types of information that can be collected during the administrative interview. Other surrounding influences also are identified during the administrative interview.

Informing Meaningful Strategies

After observation, analysis and plans for ensuring gender equity can be initiated. Parents, teachers and administrators all have a role in ensuring equity in education. In the last decade, particular emphasis has focused on ways to ensure gender equity in math and science education. Some strategies to ensure gender equity include replacing curricular materials with others that provide positive role models for males and females, especially of diverse backgrounds, in all academic areas.

Other strategies involve addressing different learning styles, providing for cooperative learning instead of competition between males and females, and encouraging and recognizing achievement of all students (Suda, 1999).

Addressing gender equity issues in the school and classroom is difficult because it intersects so many issues in the larger society. There are many opinions on the role that teachers should take and the strategies they should use to address gender equity (Singh, 1998). But, when gender issues affect student achievement, there is a need to identify processes that the school can take to improve the education of students.

Observing factors that are part of these processes is the first step toward identifying problems and beginning to implement change for positive solutions. This new instrument piloted by the IDRA SCCE will be used for this purpose. Those interested in the instrument or pilot study can contact IDRA at feedback@idra.org or 210-444-1710.


Goodwin, A. L. “Honoring Ways of Knowing,” WEEA Digest on Education Assessment (Newton, Mass.: Women’s Educational Equity Act Resource Center, March 2000).

Harro, B. “The Cycle of Socialization,” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, by Adams, et al. (Routledge, N.Y.: Routledge Publishers, 2000).

Hutchinson, J.N. “Issues of Gender and Education,” Democracy and Education (Winter 1999).

Martin, J.R. “Gender in the Classroom: Now You See It, Now You Don’t,” Democracy and Education (Winter 1999).

Mee, C.S. “Middle School Voices on Gender Identity,” WEEA Digest on Education Assessment (Newton, Mass.: Women’s Educational Equity Act Resource Center, March 1995).

Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, Inc., and The NETWORK, Inc. Beyond Title IX: Gender Equity Issues in Schools (Bethesda, Maryland: Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, September 1993).

Scott, B., and J. Cortez, “Equity Challenges Continue,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 2000).

Sadker, M., and D. Sadker. “Sexism in the Classroom,” Vocational Education Journal (October 1985).

Sadker, D. Classroom Tips for Non-Sexist, Non-Racist Teaching (Washington, D.C.: American University, 1995).

Singh, M. “Gender Issues in the Language Arts Classroom, Eric Digest. ED 426409 1998-00-00.

Suda, K. “Math and Science: A Practical Equity Guide,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1999).

Kristin Grayson, M.Ed., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2006 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]