• by Anita Tijerina Revilla, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1998 • 

Whether or not they are excelling in school, girls are often not given appropriate attention in classrooms. In many instances, male and female teachers enact sexist views and enforce stereotypes in the classroom, ignoring the potential (positive and/or negative) of female students.

One teacher sadly admits that boys get all the attention, “It’s all negative attention – detention, things like that – but it’s attention, it signals who’s more important” (Orenstein, 1994). Of course, teachers are not the sole bearers of the blame, the problem is much deeper. Sexism is ingrained in every facet of our lives.

Gender Bias in Schools

In Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, Peggy Orenstein analyzes some of the issues that girls have to deal with in school that relate to gender and power. Her examination of poor and minority girls includes observations that many feminist and gender equity advocates ignore. She writes:

The gap in standardized test scores between the affluent and the poor is far greater than any gender gap between low-income boys and girls. Low-income children, regardless of race, rarely score at the advanced levels in reading or math, while high-income students seldom fall below the basic skills level (Orenstein, 1994).

In classrooms with high numbers of ethnic minorities, boys and girls alike experience inequities such as low standards, poor resources and cultural insensitivity. These boys and girls are faced with markedly different situations than students from middle-class and high-income families. Gender equity is a low priority, and it is an almost non-existent worry at schools where teachers and administrators believe that the “real” problems are related to poverty.

While these issues are significant, verbal and physical abuse plagues classrooms. The obscenities that girls and boys subject themselves to are clearly illegal and are in violation of the Office for Civil Rights guidelines. Yet many educators turn away from those “less important” problems such as sexual harassment and sexist actions.

When Orenstein complained of the sexual harassment she witnessed in a particular urban school, she wrote:

Those teachers respond[ed] that the children’s home environment makes their school behavior inevitable. In other words, instead of the hackneyed pretext that “boys will be boys,” the unspoken implication is that “Blacks will be Blacks,” “Latinos will be Latinos,” or, perhaps, “poor people will be poor people.” That assumption serves the school well: it conveniently blinds teachers to the large number of boys and girls who do not harass while absolving them of responsibility for educating the ones that do (Orenstein, 1994).

These types of assumptions encourage girls (and boys) to lose faith in the institution of education. If a girl believes that no one cares, then she too will stop caring about herself and her involvement in school. Thus, while educators, administrators and entire communities blame children for dropping out of school, research shows that students drop out because they feel disconnected from the school and because they lack support.

A 1989 Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEEA) study, entitled Female Dropouts: A New Perspective, reported:

When people think of students who are most likely to dropout, they think first of disruptive boys, and then of pregnant girls. This stereotype does not reflect reality. Girls and boys drop out of school at approximately the same rate. Further, although 40 percent of girls who drop out are pregnant or getting married, the majority of girls who drop out are not (WEEA, 1989).

Many members of society have become complacent with their attitudes toward the drop out phenomenon in the nation. Some educators believe that there is little that can be done to prevent dropouts, but one only has to talk to student dropouts to learn that the obstacles they encountered were deep and began long before marriage or pregnancy.

Students’ Perspectives

In 1996, students in an adult education class conducted a survey of other adults. For this article, I analyzed a sample of 38 subjects (33 females and five males) who were interviewed in Brownsville, Texas, by Brenda Pimental and Mike Standeford. All of the subjects were identified as high school dropouts and were involved in a state-funded adult education program.

Out of 38 interviewees, only five reported pregnancy as the reason they left school, and 10 said they left school to get married. Other reasons included: working to support the family; being an immigrant or migrant worker; unfair treatment from teachers, administrators or parents; language barriers; peer pressure; and self-made decisions.

One woman reported that although her pregnancy was the reason she left school, the treatment she received as a pregnant student forced her to make that decision. In her own words she wrote:

I dropped out of school when I was pregnant. The P.E. coach made me run when I was 2½ months [pregnant]. I told him that I was pregnant. He told me to run but not fast (Hispanic female).

This young woman did not want to endanger herself or her child’s health. She was not offered prenatal care information about her pregnancy, instead she was told what to do, and there was no concern for her well-being.

Another woman indicated that sexism directly affected her future because her parents focused on educating the boys only. They said boys need to have an education because men support the family (Hispanic female).

At least 15 of the subjects said that the majority of the teachers, counselors and administrators were not nice or good to them, and 11 did not feel that they had been given the same opportunities that other students were given. The study showed that pregnancy and marriage as reasons for school noncompletion occur at a lower rate than typically perceived. Furthermore, students received little or no support from the school or community.

One of the major goals of the Intercultural Development Research Association has been to help decrease the number of student dropouts. IDRA has initiated several research projects that explore reasons students drop out and programs to implement dropout intervention strategies. IDRA research has found the following.

  • Expectations and success in school are directly related.
  • Organizational operations can be structured in order to facilitate the success of all students who are at risk of dropping out.
  • Curricular and instructional approaches that are integrated, yet varied and flexible enough to engage each student, facilitate the success of children.
  • Feelings of isolation contribute to dropping out of school. Schools can develop a sense of belonging.
  • Students require a broad range of services to meet their socio-mental, health and nutritional needs.
  • Schools can increase their holding power by responding to the economic needs of at-risk students who must work.
  • Preschool experiences can contribute to the academic success of at-risk students (Robledo Montecel and Montemayor, 1990).

This research was specifically designed to study low-income and at-risk students, but each finding can be held true for all students, including at-risk girls. Essentially, girls and boys that are at risk of dropping out need to be valued by the school system, teachers, administrators and parents. The progress of each individual student is closely related to the amount of support he or she receives from the school community.

Janice Earle has 10 recommendations for taking a pro-active approach toward making true changes for girls a reality in schools.

  • Instruction should include cooperative work and should be sensitive to female cognitive development.
  • Girls with academic problems should be offered extra assistance (e.g., peer tutoring).
  • Mentors and female role models in various occupations should be sought out and shared with students.
  • Extracurricular activities should enable girls to participate as actively as boys.
  • Girls’ self-esteem should be boosted with counseling and/or other activities.
  • Counseling and educational activities should involve parents and encourage them to be more involved in their children’s education more effectively.
  • Partnerships must be formed with outside agencies and organizations to provide students with social services.
  • School environments must be flexible enough to accommodate students’ individual learning and service needs.
  • Staff development should explore strategies for bias-free student-teacher interactions.
  • Girls should be encouraged to pursue nontraditional careers and enroll in math, science and technology courses (Earle and Roach, 1989).

The recommendations made by the WEEA program and other education advocates are not new. Similarly, the problems that female dropouts face are not new. Yet while studies have proven that there are effective intervention programs, few school districts have adopted these schoolwide reforms. Until these practices are adopted, we can expect that the situation will worsen and that the number of female (and male) dropouts will increase. The only way to truly decrease the number of dropouts is to become pro-active leaders and follow the advice of the numerous studies that have proven the value of these recommendations.

What Makes Girls at Risk

Socialization Girls are taught to be unassertive and to expect that a man will take financial care of them in the future.
Cognitive Differences The teaching structure of most classrooms reflects a bias toward the way boys learn, placing girls at a disadvantage.
Teacher Interaction Teachers’ responses to students favor male academic development, confidence and independence.
Curricular Choices


Girls limit their potential by the courses they select. They also choose vocational training for traditionally female jobs with lower pay and prestige.

Which Girls Drop Out?

Background Female dropout rates are more sensitive to variations in socio-economic status and to the number of their siblings than male dropout rates.
Characteristics African American and Hispanic females are more likely to drop out of school due to socio-economic factors than White females
Pregnancy, Parenting and Dropping Out Teen pregnancy is increasingly viewed as an indication of low self-esteem, low basic skills and a general lack of life options. In this sense, the pregnancy itself is not the essential problem.

School Structure and Dropouts

School Structure Many pregnant and parenting girls do not have and Girls adequate support systems outside of school; therefore, schools must provide more than the education “basics.”
School Structure and
At-risk Youth
As currently structured, schools do not work well for at-risk students.

Female Dropouts: A New Perspective

Academic Consequences


Evidence suggests that females – especially those who are minorities in urban areas – suffer more serious academic consequences when they drop out. After dropping out, they are less likely to return to complete their education.
Economic Consequences


Evidence suggests that females suffer more serious economic consequences when they drop out.
Source: Earle, J. and V. Roach. Female Dropouts: A New Perspective (Massachusetts: WEEA Publishing Center, 1989).


Earle, J. and V. Roach. Female Dropouts: A New Perspective (Newton, Mass.: WEEA Publishing Center, 1989).

Fernandez, M. Barrio Teacher (South Pasadena, Calif.: Mystical Adventurer Press, 1992).

Orenstein, P. Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1994).

Pimental, B. and M. Standeford. Dropout survey (Brownsville, Texas: Adult Education Development 501 – General Administrative Theory and Practice, 1996).

Robledo Montecel, M. and A. Montemayor. “Successful Schooling and At-Risk Youth: Research Findings and Recommendations,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1990).

Anita Tijerina Revilla is an education assistant in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1998 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.]