Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Reform Case Study: Gender Inequities at Harvard

October 01, 2013 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

Even inside the walls of Harvard, you can’t escape educational inequity.

Setting aside all of the equity concerns in the K-12 system and the Harvard admissions process determining who gets in, the hallowed university has still confronted equity problems within its own programs. One in particular that’s received attention recently has been gender inequity. When leaders grew concerned about gaps in grades between male and female students, they launched a series of interlocking efforts to address the problem. Within their efforts are several lessons for K-12 education.

Admit There’s a Problem
Harvard was not required to start the long, difficult process of addressing educational inequities by gender. No state or federal department of education was going to yank their funding or fire their staff. However, once the pattern of inequity became apparent, leaders at Harvard took responsibility for addressing it. As I’ve written before, recognizing that there is a problem is one of the major barriers to educational equity.

Assume Student Ability
Because we’re talking about Harvard (and Harvard’s assessment of itself), this part doesn’t get called out in the articles about the reform process. The default assumption was that all students at Harvard were capable of achieving at the same levels, and the school has an active screening process to guarantee it. In K-12, it can be more challenging to ensure everyone’s on board with that assumption (and to guarantee we have standards, curriculum, instruction, and social supports that reflect it).

Don’t Confuse Measures for Outcomes
Here I’ll quote directly from Professor Robin Ely, one of Harvard’s leaders, as quoted in The Atlantic: “[W]e treated the gender grade gap as the canary in the coal mine -- a signal that our culture may have been more supportive of some students than others. We neither considered grades to be an ultimate measure of a student’s success nor eliminating the grade gap to be our primary goal, but rather grades were one possible indicator of a student’s ability to fully thrive at our school.”

K-12 policymakers and advocates are often guilty of treating measurements as the problem, not the symptom. This is true not only in the test score obsession, but also in areas like discipline, where school or system leaders will point to harmful racial inequalities in suspension rates. This often leads only to pressure on teachers and administrators not to suspend anyone, when what’s also needed is a focus on cultural responsiveness, social supports, and other areas.

Change Instruction Without Blaming
I’ve written before about the subtle ways that bias can creep into the behavior of good people. Harvard could have looked at its gendered grade gaps, chastised its faculty for their sexism, and hoped that the blame and shame would be enough to change how instruction worked. I doubt such an approach would have been particularly fruitful (especially considering that teachers afraid of being seen as racist sometimes end up lowering their standards for students of color, and those concerns seem transferable to sexism).

Instead, the school focused on using other staff and technology to give instructors the real information about how they were calling on and responding to students. That information guided change and progress. This doesn’t excuse the subtle biases at work, but it does provide a path to moving past them.

Involve Students
One of the more uncomfortable pieces of the reform process for Harvard was involving students in the process and discussion. After all, students aren’t just passive objects in a system; they’re active participants in the creation, preservation, and reformation of school climate and culture. Creating productive ways for students to participate meaningfully in K-12 reform will be both procedurally difficult and emotionally uncomfortable for pretty much everyone involved, and it will have to be intensely local. It should also be a major priority.

Keep Working
Harvard did not stop with the creation of policies and processes. It continues to monitor this area, both to sustain its gains and to identify new areas for broadening and deepening its impact. In K-12 education, passing a law or implementing a district policy shouldn’t be seen as the end of a process, but the beginning of one.

There’s a lot to be learned from the Harvard gender equity case, and hopefully looking at reform in an institution of higher education removes some of the toxicity that seeps into K-12 discussions. The Harvard process was not perfect, as the New York Times article clearly demonstrates. Nonetheless, many of its good points are transferable to K-12 policy.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.