The Boston Globe, Tuesday, November 7, 2000
Eye on Education
The Globe's Eye
on Education series focuses on education overhaul
Targets Classroom Gender Gap
Equity in math, science is goal
By Anand Vaishnav
A quick peek into Toni Harrison's kindergarten class at the Blue Hill
Avenue Early Education Center in Roxbury reveals nothing out of the
Her 16 pupils work on counting skills while sitting in four small
groups, writing their answers with crayons grasped in their chubby
hands. Harrison moves among the tables to help, and afterward, she
asks pupils to explain their work in front of their peers.
But there's more to it. Boys and girls are sitting together, instead
of self-segregating in groups of just boys or just girls, as younger
children often do. And Harrison tries to draw responses from her quieter
pupils, boys and girls alike. Most important, she said, the pupils
are working with each other.
"If they're counting wrong, one of the kids will point that out
to them and recount it," Harrison said. "They're sharing
That's no accident. Harrison is among the first Boston public school
teachers to use a unique grant aimed at bridging gender achievement
gaps - including increasing girls' participation in math and science.
This is the second year of the $250,000 grant, awarded to public schools
in Boston and Cambridge by the Caroline and Sigmund Schott Foundation,
a philanthropic foundation in Cambridge. The Education Development
Center in Newton is coordinating the grant and providing teacher training,
said Susan J. Smith, the grant's project director.
In Boston, the initiative is concentrated in seven
elementary schools in "Cluster 7," all located in Dorchester
and Roxbury. This fall marked the first year of the grant for Cluster
The MCAS exam scores of those elementary schools trail the district's
scores when it comes to mathematics, a big focus of the grant. About
percent of the fourth-graders in Cluster 7 failed the math portion
of the state-required MCAS test, compared with 44 percent of the district.
The grant's impact will be measured by comparing scores of students
who were in the program against those who weren't.
The goal of gender equity sounds fuzzy, but it can be as simple as
tweaking classroom teaching. Harrison calls on boys and girls equally
when she asks them to stand in front of their class and explain their
That method promotes confidence - rather than the more typical scenario
of the teacher asking for who wants to show their work, which encourages
talkative pupils to raise their hands, but ignores quieter ones.
Building pupils' confidence in math early - especially girls - will
help them down the road, educators said. Although about three-fourths
of jobs over the next few years will require the use of computers,
only one-third of students in computer courses and related activities
are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"At this level, we're creating habits that children need for
the rest of their lives," said Valerie Gumes, principal of the
Blue Hill Avenue Early Education Center. "If we don't engage kids
in a manner that's open, they learn from us."
The existence of a gap between boys and girls in achievement is hotly
debated. A federal study released in April showed that girls are faring
as well as or better than boys in schools, although they lag behind
boys in math and science achievement. But critics have said the problem
is largely imagined, and that shifting the focus to girls shortchanges
Harrison, a 14-year veteran, said her philosophy is to make sure both
boys and girls aren't hemmed in by stereotypes of how they're supposed
to act - or what careers they're supposed to follow.
"I try to create an environment where everyone does everything," Harrison
Bridging the math gap
Twenty-four schools in Boston and Cambridge are involved in the Gender
Healthy Schools Project aimed at boosting math and science achievement.
In Boston the seven schools that are the focus of the project look
Students: 3,541 in grades K-5.
Racial makeup: African-American, 68 percent; Latino, 19 percent; Asian,
8 percent; white, 5 percent.
Number eating a free or reduced-price lunch: 75 percent.
MCAS failure rate for fourth grade math: 1998,66 percent; 1999, 54
Eye on Education is a partnership of WGBH and The Boston Globe, with