Dr. Barbara Polnick, Dr. Dianne Reed, Dr. Sylvia R. Taube, Dr. Carrie Butler
What strategies are female principals implementing to promote gender equity on their campuses? Over 220 Texas female principals responded to this question in a state-wide survey. In this paper, we share five common themes that emerged from the perceptions and attitudes of women leaders from elementary, middle and high school campuses.
During the past three decades, there has been a significant increase in the number of women who hold positions as school principals, but little is known about how they view their responsibilities to equity policies and practices in public schools (Schumuck & Schubert, 1995). Addison (1982) predicted that female principals would promote greater sex equity because of their own experiences with discrimination. However, other researchers have found that quite the opposite happens. Funk (2000) found that women educators who rise quickly through the ranks of administration (“blue flamers”), are often not supported and even sabotaged by other women who work with them. Women who have been mentored by males (who traditionally do ban together and support each others’ moves up the ladder of administration) often remain “permanent protégés” of their male supporters, never understanding why other women say that they have experienced some type of discrimination when trying to enter the field of educational administration (Funk, 2004). Matthews (1995) noted that career patterns and sources of support may be two of the reasons why some women in administration view gender equity issues differently. Women who struggle over their personal and professional identities as they try to enter into the male culture, often deny any personal discrimination, disassociate from their own female identity, and perpetuate existing gender segregation in their schools (Schmuck & Schubert, 1995). These authors concluded from their research that “changing the gender representation of principals will not, alone, change equity practices in schools [since they] appear to adopt the prevailing norms of the administrative culture that ignores issues of equity” (p. 285).
As gender equity researchers, we struggled with these ideas and sought to find out through our study how women administrators would view gender equity on their campuses today and what specific interventions would be in place to address these and related issues.
Would these principals recognize the need for interventions to reduce the achievement gap between girls and boys in mathematics and science? If so, what interventions or strategies would they be implementing to promote gender equity on their campuses? We know that gender gaps do exist and are present on elementary, middle and high school campuses still today, especially in mathematics and science. In a 2006 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics journal publication, A Closer Look at Gender in NAEP Mathematics Achievement and Affect Data: Intersections with Achievement, Race/Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Status, authors McGraw, Lubienski & Strutchens (2006) published their in-depth analysis of the 2003 National Assessment of Education Progress. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas (Institute of Education Sciences, 2006).
The data revealed that White and Hispanic males did better than all groups of females at both the 4th and 8th grade level, particularly in the concepts of number operations and measurement. According to this report, there is a significant gap in 8th grade between all males and all females in total mathematics performance. Gender equity problems exist not only in the cognitive but also in the affective domains of instruction. On the student affect question, more 8th grade females than males responded “disagree” to the following statements: “I’m good at math” and “I like mathematics.” These authors (2006) also found that if you rank all the students who took the 2003 NAEP from low to high (percentile rank), there were significantly more males than females scoring in the upper end (80%ile and above). Even in 2006, NAEP scores revealed that male students scored higher on average in mathematics than female students at both grades 4 and 8 (Institute of Education Sciences, 2006). The next section describes how we organized the data collection and data analysis processes to find the answer to our questions.
Research Methodology and Data Sources
Participants in our 18 month study came from a stratified sample of female principals that were selected from the 1056 public school districts (PK-12 and K-12) in the State of Texas. Our participants were selected from 324 high school, 451 middle school and 1972 elementary campuses. In this qualitative-quantitative study, we surveyed 331 randomly selected female principals across the State of Texas to determine what they perceived as gender equity issues on their campuses and how they promoted gender equity on their campuses and in their districts. Of the 331 principals responding to the survey, 228 responded to the query, “Name the two most important steps that you are currently taking to make meaningful differences in gender equity at your school”.
A survey was developed from literature in gender equity and leadership and tested for construct and content validity to answer these research questions. This survey was administered to principals in the stratified random sample described above. The instrument included demographic information regarding age, years of experience as a principal, years since attending university/college, grades taught, ethnicity, number of daughters and/or sons, education level earned (bachelors, masters, doctoral degrees). The survey included 20 statements of action or steps related to promoting gender equity on a campus which were measured on a four-point Likert scale regarding “level of use.” In this paper, we only focused on responses to the item: Name the two most important steps that you are currently taking to make meaningful differences in gender equity at your school.
To analyze the data, we first created a database for each participant in the study and examined their responses, looking for common themes and patterns. Each researcher individually categorized the responses into their own themes. We then shared with each other our categorizations and debated both themes and placement of responses under themes. This triangulation was done by having each researcher look for patterns of convergence that corroborated the overall interpretation of the data. In order to compare all three grade levels (elementary, middle school and high school), categories were either re-named or combined to create common categories for all three grade level groupings. Based on the new categories, responses were re-classified by the research team and a frequency count was taken. The categories and the frequency count for the responses can be found in the data analysis section of this paper.
Of the 228 participants who provided comments when asked, “Name the two most important steps that you are currently taking to make meaningful differences in gender equity at your school”, 151 were elementary, 40 were middle school and 37 were at the high school level. Although each principal was asked to identify two strategies, some only gave one answer, resulting in a total of 261 strategies or steps. Twelve respondents (five elementary, three middle and four high schools) said that the question was not applicable to them or that they had no need for gender equity strategies, which we included as a category.
Using the qualitative technique described in the methodology section of this paper, we concluded that there were five major categories/themes: (a) not applicable/no need,
(b) curriculum and instruction, (c) professional development, (d) equal opportunity, and (e) role model/mentor. The participants’ response frequencies and percentages of strategies by categories/themes and school levels are included in Table 1 (elementary), Table 2 (middle), and Table 3 (high).
Frequencies and Percentages of Elementary School Participants’ Responses by Theme (N=179)
Not Applicable/ Curriculum & Professional Equal Role Model/
No Need Instruction Development Opportunity Mentor
5 (3%) 81 (45%) 24 (13%) 53 (30%) 16 (9%)
Frequencies and Percentages of Middle School Participants’ Responses by Theme (N=42)
Not Applicable/ Curriculum & Professional Equal Role Model/
No Need Instruction Development Opportunity Mentor
3 (7%) 27 (64%) 4 (10%) 2 (5%) 6 (15%)
Frequencies and Percentages of High School Participants’ Responses by Theme (N=40)
Not Applicable/ Curriculum & Professional Equal Role Model/
No Need Instruction Development Opportunity Mentor
4 (10%) 21 (53%) 4 (10%) 5 (13%) 6 (15%)
Since the 151 elementary principals participating in the study accounted for over almost four times the middle and high school principals, their response frequencies and percentages are naturally higher in most of the categories. However, most of the strategies used by female principals at all three campus levels fell into the same category, Curriculum and Instruction. This means that principal participants’ efforts to address gender equity in their schools were conducted either through the regular curriculum (i.e. representation of female political figures along with males), extra-curricular activities (i.e. bring a daughter to work day; athletic event opportunities), specific instructional interventions (analyze achievement data) or the resources used in the classroom (books about male and female trailblazers). In this study, 45 percent of the elementary principals, 64 percent of the middle school principals and 53 percent of the high school principals used strategies that represent this category/theme to address issues in gender equity.
Role Modeling/Mentoring was the second highest category of strategies used on middle school and high school campuses, with 15 % of the 40 high school strategies and 15 % of the 42 middle school strategies falling into this category. Role modeling was usually described in terms of the principal role modeling, but in some cases, principals said they encouraged their staff to be role models for males and females. Mentoring was implemented in a number of ways from formal to informal structures. Principals described their mentoring programs in terms of an adult helping or providing guidance to students either individually or in groups. Students (male and female) were usually identified as needing mentoring if they were identified as being “at risk”.
The second most popular category into which elementary participants’ strategies fell was Equal Opportunity. Fifty-three percent of the strategies implemented by elementary principals fell into this category. Equal Opportunity included activities such as making sure girls had just as many sporting events to participate in as the boys or ensuring that boys and girls were evenly distributed in classrooms, especially if leveling occurred. Some talked about recognizing girls and boys equally at assemblies and awards events.
Responses to the query for the most important steps being taken to make meaningful differences in gender equity ranged from 16 (9 %) in Role Model or Mentor to 81 (45%) in Curriculum and Instruction for elementary principals; 2 (5%) in Equal Opportunity to 27 (64%) in Curriculum and Instruction for middle school principals; and 4 (10%) in Professional Development to 21 (53%) in Curriculum and Instruction for high school principals.
Overall, middle school and high school principals’ strategies were similar and were evenly distributed among the other three categories.
Findings from the Study
Findings from the study indicate principals are implementing the following strategies around six themes: (a) not applicable/no need, (b) curriculum and instruction, (c) professional development, (d) equal opportunity, and (e) role model/mentor. Descriptions of these categories with example participant responses are included in this section.
No Problems Regarding Gender Equity
Gender bias is so subtle that we barely recognize it. In fact, it is so ingrained as to how we define ourselves, that it is essentially invisible (Koontz, 1997). In our study, several principals either responded with “no need,” or “N/A” (not applicable), or actually wrote statements such as “we do not have a problem with gender equity on our campus,” illustrating this concept.
Curriculum and Instruction
The discussion of the issues of gender equity or gender bias is to protect the rights and privileges of males and females so that both receive equitable and correspondingly fair treatment in the educational system (Reed, Fox, Andrews, Evenstad, Harris, Parker, Johnson, Johnson, Polnick and Rosser, 2007). This category included strategies related to extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, including interventions in science, technology, engineering and math, character education, and analysis of achievement and performance data. For example, co-curricular activities included field trips to university campuses and career day exploration. Under extracurricular activities, principals reported monitoring participation in sports and encouraging participation in clubs such as “Girl Scouts,” “Female Engineer,” and “Science Club.” Examples of extracurricular interventions included increasing participation and access to sports and making facility changes so that there is equal access to the fitness room. Strategies classified as co-curricular encompassed counseling and guidance into non-traditional college majors and careers such as science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).
Professional Development (Faculty and Staff)
Principals described programs such as problem solving for sexual harassment, decision making and conflict resolution. Training that included administrative/leadership professional development regarding gender equity issues, awareness training for staff, and training in peer coaching to support teachers’ attempts to implement changes in behaviors and classroom interactions.
In some schools, principals, as leaders of their organizations, have created extraordinary norms for instructional change (Hyde, Ormiston, & Hyde, 1994). Vehicles must be created that simultaneously make sense to the school people in their local context and transform their culture for professional development to become a sustained ongoing part of school culture (Putnam & Borke, 2000). They have introduced ideas into the culture of the school in gradual and systematic ways: stimulating teachers’ interests by sending them to conferences, buying new materials for teachers to try out, making substitutes available so that teachers can observe one another’s teaching, and arranging weekly schedules for teachers to have time to plan collaboratively (Hyde et. al., 1994). They have created school cultures that encourage talking about teaching, which allows ideas to develop over time on the job. Teachers get acculturated to new practices, fresh concepts, and changed norms gradually while serving students in their schools (Hyde et. al., 1994).
In this category, principals mentioned that they ensure equal access to participation in all programs in their school. Some of the programs included sports and music. In addition, we categorized principals’ responses related to equal treatment. These comments were mostly about how the principal treated everyone “the same” or “fairly,” regardless of race, background, or gender.
Examples of strategies related to role modeling and mentoring included monitoring student harassment of girls, leading by example such as expressing high expectations for all students, hiring more female coaches, hiring more male classroom teachers (elementary), mentoring female students, bringing in guest speakers and hiring qualified teachers from cultural minority groups.
Mentoring is an important aspect of modeling appropriate behavior and establishing healthy expectations for adolescents and young adults. Several theoretical perspectives can be applied to understanding the importance of role models and mentoring on behavior, such as social systems, social learning, and social control perspectives (Ekland-Olson, 1982; Winfree, Esbensen, and Osgood, 1986). These perspectives emphasize the significance of social influences on individual behavior.
Current mentoring research focuses on social learning principles and the adaptation of protective factors (Scales, 1999; Scales & McEwin, 1996). This research reveals positive effects of mentoring on adolescents’ prosocial expectations, perspectives, and behavior. The social orientation (positive or negative) of role models determines the outcomes of prosocial or antisocial behavior, especially for impressionable juveniles. Recent literature identifies the necessity to incorporate positive role models for adolescents. Teachers in particular can serve as vehicles to prosocial behavior for juveniles.
Summary, Conclusions and Recommendations
Principals in our study reported using several strategies aligned with best practices for achieving gender equity. Among those that we as researchers found significant were: (a) Analyze achievement and attendance data for gender equity for both regular and upper level courses in junior high and high school; (b) encourage girls to take honors classes and advanced placement (AP or Pre-AP) math and science courses in high school; (c) encourage girls who are having difficulty in math and science to persevere; (d) review class and course requests to ensure female representation in upper level courses; (e) requiring four math classes for all students in high school. Although these strategies were collectively generated from principals’ responses, we, as researchers, were disappointed that more of the principals were not employing all of these strategies, which we consider to be minimal for changing current gender inequity practices.
The 12 principals who felt they had no need for gender equity interventions, each described their behaviors and their campus procedures as “fair” and “the same for all.” There was no mention of implementing strategies to prevent gender equities or to evaluate whether their beliefs were indeed true; indicating a possible need for training on how to measure gender inequities in schools. It appears that principals may not be aware of what gender equity is and how the lack of it can affect the achievement and performance of their students.
Of the 331 principals responding to the survey, slightly more than one-third (115) did not respond at all to the query for what gender equity interventions were being implemented on their campuses. Since this was such a large number of the sample surveyed, we questioned why these principals failed to respond. A number of possibilities came to mind: principals were not aware of specific strategies because they had delegated these interventions to someone else to supervise; gender equity was not a significant, enough issue, and therefore no specific interventions were being implemented.
Implications for Future Programming
As our study indicated, most of the strategies being implemented by principals were in the areas of curriculum and instruction. This are important areas to focus on with the current and persistent gender gaps in mathematics and science, both subjects being pipelines to high paying jobs and interesting, challenging professions. Overall, the interventions listed by the principals have the potential to reduce a persistent gender gap in mathematics achievement, which still exists even after 30 years of research and discussion around issues of gender inequity. In this section, we offer recommendations to educational administrators and professors of educational administration, as well as state and national policy makers who affect gender equity in schools.
Use Scientific Measures to Study the Levels of Equity
Develop and use instruments to assess the degree to which gender equity exists on campuses. Principals could use strategies and interventions to describe the perceptions of students, parents and teachers. Analyze and report data for all grade levels. Finally, principals could use the analyzed data to develop and implement school-wide initiatives to address gender equity issues and continuously assess the progress of the initiatives.
Professional organizations and districts should develop policy or position statements clarifying the definition of gender equity with clear expectations for campuses to demonstrate gender equitable practices. Policy statements should include a summary of what these research-based practices are and how they can be implemented in a variety of instructional settings.
Make faculty, staff and other administrators aware of the need for research-based interventions that will provide opportunities for students to reach their full potential–not just the general expectations of society. According to Polnick, Taube, and Reed (2005), when a principal models a new strategy for the teachers or provides time for teachers to share ideas, or buys the resources needed for teachers to implement new strategies, the principal is creating support for professional development implementation.
School leaders can also support teachers by encouraging grade levels and departments to work together to communicate expectations. The verbal support from the school leader is a strong strategy for improving teacher performance. Successful implementation of campus-based strategies is at the heart of increasing student performance and leaders are at the heart of seeing that this implementation takes place (Polnick, Taube, and Reed, 2005).
In summary, this paper described a study conducted with Over 220 Texas female principals to determine what strategies they were implementing to promote gender equity on their campuses. Five common themes emerged from the perceptions and attitudes of women leaders from elementary, middle and high school campuses who responded to the survey. Specifically, these themes or categories were: (a) curriculum and instruction, (b) professional development, (c) equal opportunity, and (d) role model/mentor. A fifth category included those responses that stated “not applicable” or “no need.” In addition to the themes and categories of the survey responses, the researchers identified six significant, research-based practices from the strategies shared by the elementary, middle school and high school principals. The researchers recommend that these six strategies/practices would be appropriate for all campuses. Hopefully, these and other research-based practices to achieve gender equity will be implemented within the next few years and not become neglected…dreams deferred.
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Biographies of Authors
Dr. Barbara Polnick is an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership and Counseling Department at Sam Houston State University. She is the Coordinator of Instructional Leadership and Distance Learning. She holds a M.Ed. from Sam Houston State University and an Ed. D. in Educational Administration from Texas A & M University in College Station.
Dr. Dianne Reed is an associate professor and Coordinator of the Principal Preparation Program for the Educational Leadership and Counseling Department at Sam Houston State University. She earned a M.Ed. from Prairie View A&M University and an Ed. D. in Educational Administration from Texas A & M University in College Station.
Dr. Sylvia Taube is an assistant professor in the Curriculum and Instruction Department at Sam Houston State University. She teaches mathematics methods courses and has coordinated several professional development grants math teachers in area school districts. She is
involved in developing curriculum for mathematics teachers of English Language Learners (ELL).
Dr. Carrie Butler is an assistant professor in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. She extensively directs and evaluates grants from Texas Commission of Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA), Department of Justice, and Office of National Drug Control Policy in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). She earned a M.Ed. in Counseling and Human Services from Saint Lawrence University and a M.S. and Ph. D. in Social Work from University of Texas at Arlington.