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Published: Monday, 3/21/2005

Educators concerned by growing gender disparity in classrooms

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
AND KIM BATES
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Rogers High School senior Nicole Brady never gave much thought about statistics that show more females graduate from high school and attend college, but she had a simple answer when asked about it.

"Duh! Girls are smarter," the 17-year-old student quipped.

It's a brief answer for a simmering, complicated national issue often called the gender gap - a trend in learning that has caught the attention of elementary teachers to college admissions counselors. The matter came to a boil again this year when Harvard University President Lawrence Summers suggested natural-born differences were a major reason why men continue to dominate in science and engineering. On Tuesday Harvard's arts and sciences faculty approved 218-185 a "lack of confidence" vote on Mr. Summers' leadership.

But the fact is females are outperforming males on many tests, and they're more likely to graduate from high school and to make it through college quicker. Women make up 56 percent of all college undergraduates nationally.

In northwest Ohio, females represent the majority of local high school valedictorians and 67 percent of the entire student population at Bowling Green State University's Firelands campus in Huron, Ohio.

Some experts say women still have gains to make, specifically in the areas of engineering, math, and science. Women also tend to enter lower-paying fields, studies indicate. But others fear the issue of females outdoing males academically could have serious future social and even economic implications, like a lopsided work force or an uneven marital pool.

"We have to care about this, and we're not at that point yet," said Tom Mortenson, a scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. "And even if we reach some national consensus that this is a problem, I don't think we'd be able to fix it."

He started studying the issue nearly a decade ago before there was any real momentum on the topic. Now, study after study is producing similar results about female students outdoing males, including one last month by the National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing education-related data.

Across the country, school districts including Toledo and Columbus have tried to address the gender problem by establishing single-gender classrooms and even school buildings. Dayton is in the same process.

Leonard Sax, director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, said more than 155 public schools in the country now offer single-gender education in some form. One factor of the gender gap is that boys are falling behind in reading and writing, Mr. Sax said.

"Even in recent years people say teenage boys and teenage girls have a lot of hormones, so [by] separating them, you can allow them to concentrate on their studies. But that is not the motivation behind these new schools," he said. "People realize that they are wired differently."

Some issues appear in the K-12 classrooms, including boys who are typically diagnosed with higher rates of learning disabilities.

In Toledo Public Schools last school year, for example, 11 percent of boys had a learning disability - double the rate of girls. At the Penta Career Center, 14.1 percent of boys had a learning disability, compared with 6.7 percent of girls.

Female students also complete high school more often than males. In each of Ohio's large urban school districts, males are more likely to drop out.

In Toledo's class of 2003, 74.3 percent of girls received diplomas, compared with 66.8 percent of boys.

Cynthia Beekley, superintendent of Springfield Local Schools, said the disparity between the sexes in graduation rates is disconcerting but not surprising because of the educational focus on little girls.

"I think we have left boys behind as we focus on women," she said. "In general, boys are more likely to be in special education, drop out, and have disabilities."

A key indicator of the strides females have made in kindergarten through college are the increasing number of them who hold leadership positions in school.

Miss Brady, who is president of Rogers' student council, is in the majority nationwide. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 27 percent of high school girls are involved in student government, compared with 19 percent of males.

"If you look at our [student] council, out of 30 members, there are only about three boys," Miss Brady said. "One reason could be that girls feel they need to prove that they can do it or that they are looking more long term."

A review by The Blade of last academic year found a higher percentage of sixth-grade girls were proficient in Ohio's reading exam in 28 out of 31 school districts examined. In Genoa, for example, 79.7 percent of girls passed, compared to 59.7 of boys.

The same analysis in those districts also showed boys tend to do better in science and math.

Women are still the minority in fields like engineering, but the U.S. Department of Education reports they are closing the gaps in medicine, law, and other traditionally male-dominated areas on college campuses. They're also leading men in receiving veterinary medicine and pharmacy degrees.

In about three months, Hoangha Dao will contribute to national statistics that show women are catching up with men in medical careers. And she'll inadvertently help prove wrong the president of Harvard University, who suggested there were natural-born differences between men and women, something he termed "intrinsic aptitude."

Miss Dao, who has a 4.6 grade-point average and is Bowsher High School's valedictorian, plans to attend the University of Toledo and major in bioengineering and premedicine.

"When I took a tour of the bioengineering department, they said a lot more women were joining the medical field," Miss Dao said. "Plus there were mostly women on the tour."

When she arrives at UT, she'll also find she's among the majority on campus.

Undergraduate women at UT last fall outnumbered men by several hundred students, but the margin between women and men was higher at other area colleges, including Bowling Green State University.

Women at those schools also outpaced men in receiving bachelor's degrees, something that's in keeping with national trends.

For the last decade at BGSU, women have represented at least 59 percent of the bachelor degree recipients every year. Last year at Defiance College, women made up 63 percent of the college's graduates.

While many college leaders said the enrollment phenomenon is not new to their schools, and often is related to niche programs that traditionally attract females, it's still an issue that's caught their attention.

"I think everyone's wondering what's up. In an ideal world, things would be 50-50," said Catherine O'Connell, academic dean and vice president for academic affairs at Defiance College.

"We'd like [gender enrollment] to be equal, if at all possible," she said.

But that desire hasn't prompted area colleges to alter admissions practices in favor of men - at least for now.

Alberto Gonzalez, vice provost for academic services at BGSU, said leaders are not seeing other trends with men - such as a drop in their applications or a decline in their graduation rates - that would prompt them to enact a gender-specific admissions focus.

What they should address, though, is the issue of male success while in college, he said. At BGSU last semester, the average undergraduate female carried a 3.05 GPA, while men had a 2.69 GPA.

"We are going to have a limited amount of influence on social and economic factors, but we can focus on their academic success," Mr. Gonzalez said.

Roger Dudley, 21, a student majoring in recreation at BGSU, said he's noticed the gender imbalance on campus.

"There are quite a few more girls, but I don't see a problem with it," he said.

Mr. Dudley said he and fellow members of the Interfraternity Council at BGSU take the matter of academic performance seriously. And to help their fraternity brothers, they've debuted a "letters at the library" event, in which members of both fraternities and sororities can win prizes for studying together every Monday night.

Mr. Dudley said the push has been a success so far, one they're hoping to see results from this year.

Achievement and retention of college males also is a focus of the national Student African-American Brotherhood, which is based at the University of Toledo. Recent NCES figures showed women account for 63 percent of all black college students, meaning the gender gap is even greater among African-Americans.

Not all colleges have a higher enrollment rate of women.

At Ohio State University, male undergraduate enrollment is slightly higher, but applications for this fall are neck and neck, said Mabel Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at OSU. She attributed the university's enrollment figures in part to the presence of a college of engineering, a field that's still heavily dominated by men.

While no local colleges say they have special admissions or recruiting efforts in place for men, some note that the presence of things such as strong athletic teams automatically work as recruitment tools.

At Bluffton University, for example, the college's female enrollment figure dropped by 2 percentage points to 56 percent this year because of the football team. It also marked the first time recently that more males than females were in a freshman class, said Eric Fulcomer, vice president of enrollment management.

"When football has a good recruiting year, we do better," he said.

Claire Van Ummersen, director of the Office of Women in Higher Education for the American Council on Education, predicted that the recent trend will continue to be a focus on college campuses, with many schools seeking out men as they see fit.

"I think most institutions are extremely creative and they have found ways over time to not only follow the rules and regulations but to figure out how to develop a class of diverse individuals," she said. "Before we bemoaned the fact that we were not using the talents of women and minorities. Now we're saying we're not using the talents of men.

"I think we need to use all the talent."

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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