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updated: 9/14/2012 10:18 AM

Editorial: We can still narrow school gender gap

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

It's nice to think that we've come a long way, baby, since the turbulent 1960s and '70s, when the women's liberation movement was burning at its brightest.

In many ways we have. Women have made tremendous strides in many arenas.

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Some of the credit for that can be attributed to Title IX, the federal legislation passed 40 years ago that prohibits educational programs that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex.

Largely viewed as a leveling out of the playing field in sports, Title IX is just as much about academics.

In Monday's Daily Herald, Presentation Editor for News Tim Broderick analyzed state report card data to see just how girls' scores compared to those of boys. He looked at data from all 70 high schools in the Daily Herald's coverage area. The study concluded -- in the most general terms -- that girls who meet or exceed state standards in reading do so at a greater rate than boys, as has been the case since standardized testing began. And boys do better than girls in math and science, just as they always have.

But in the suburbs, compared to Illinois and the Midwest, that achievement gap is smaller. Staff writer Larissa Chinwah's story that grew from the analysis explored how some of the top performing schools in the suburbs managed to reduce the disparity.

What she found was a mix of recognition of the long-standing issue and a concerted effort to combat it, along with a dose of serendipity.

In schools where a majority of math and science teachers are women, for instance, more girls are lured to the classes they teach.

Robert McBride, principal at Naperville's Neuqua Valley High School, has five female physics teachers and two males.

"It matters to students to see someone like them in the class," he said. "They've got to see people like themselves in activities, whether it's teachers or fellow students."

The educators Chinwah interviewed indicated that many girls need both an invitation to take classes that lead them down the path to science, technology, engineering and math as well as assurances that they'll succeed.

Not to be indelicate here, but once you lead a horse to water you sometimes need to further encourage it to drink.

If some school leaders were unaware of this philosophy and want to make a difference in the lives of the young women they mentor, this story provided the needed impetus. Stereotypes are very difficult to overcome. When girls see women succeeding in roles that 40 years ago seemed unusual or out of reach, more will flock to them. And with more women succeeding, still more will see math and science fields as desirable alternatives.

It'll just take continued effort on the part of parents and educators to see that through.

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