The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #1490 on Education

October 11, 2001

October 11, 2001 | Backgrounder on Education

Wasting Education Dollars: The Women's Educational Equity Act

As Congress continues its work on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in conference committee, improving the academic performance of economically disadvantaged children should be a top priority. These children continue to fall behind their more advantaged peers on standardized tests in every academic subject.

The scattershot approach of the current ESEA law, with its 61 narrowly tailored and uncoordinated programs, has been largely unsuccessful in closing the gap between poor students and their more affluent peers. The absence of national priorities diffuses the effort to help those most in need. Authorization of duplicative and ineffective programs guarantees that funds will continue to be diverted from the most pressing issues. Of the programs of this sort that are reauthorized in the legislation now in conference (H.R. 1 and S. 1),1 perhaps the most troubling is the Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA)2 , the justification for which has repeatedly been refuted both by statistical evidence and by practical experience.

The facts belie the assumption of gender inequity--the rationale for the Women's Educational Equity Act. Nevertheless, Congress voted to reauthorize WEEA this year as part of the ESEA.

The Women's Educational Equity Act was enacted 27 years ago to promote "equity" in educational policies, programs, activities, and initiatives. It was based on the premise that "teaching and learning practices in the United States are frequently inequitable as such practices relate to women and girls."3 All told, programs created under this act have cost taxpayers roughly $100 million.4 Yet, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office, there have been no evaluations of WEEA projects,5 and thus "little evidence of their effectiveness in eliminating sex bias in education."6

There is evidence, however, that the problem that WEEA programs were created to address may not even exist. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released a congressionally mandated study, Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women. On the basis of an analysis of 44 indicators--including academic achievement and behavioral outcomes--researchers concluded that "By most of these measures, females are doing at least as well as males."7 This year, the Educational Testing Service came to a similar conclusion in a report on Differences in the Gender Gap :

Females have made dramatic progress in educational attainment, across all racial/ethnic groups, pulling even with (and in some cases, surpassing) males.... There is neither a pattern of across-the-board male advantage nor a pattern of across-the-board female advantage....8

In fact, with regard to most academic measures, girls equal or outperform boys, and their success continues into adulthood. The gender gap in language tests, drop-out rates, Advanced Placement participation, honors courses, and other indicators favors girls. The gender gap favoring girls in reading and writing is three times as large as the gap favoring boys in science and math.

As a number of studies have demonstrated, teaching and learning practices in the United States are not inequitable in their effect on women and girls. Girls do well academically. They are more successful in language courses, are more involved in school activities, have higher rates of graduation at both high school and college levels, and are less likely to participate in high-risk behavior. In fact, if anything, recent studies should raise concerns about boys. Specifically, the research indicates that:

  • Girls outscore boys in reading . On the 1999 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term trend reading assessment, girls outperformed boys on average scores in all three age groups (9, 13, and 17 years ).9 By age 17, the reading gap favors girls by 14 points.10 (See Chart 1.)
  • Girls outscore boys in writing . On the 1998 NAEP Writing Report Card for the Nation, girls had higher average scores than males at all three grade levels tested. In fact, twice as many girls scored in the "proficient" and "advanced" category than boys. Conversely, twice as many boys scored "below basic" in all three grades. By the 12th grade, the average score for girls was 19 points higher.11
  • Girls outscore boys in civics and the arts . On the 1998 NAEP Civics Report Card for the Nation, girls outscored boys at every grade level.12 Girls outperformed boys on the 1997 NAEP Arts Assessment in every category (music, theater, and visual arts) and in every category tested (creating, performing, and responding). Differences were greatest in the music responding category, where girls' average scores were 20 points higher.13
  • Girls hold their own in math . The 1999 NAEP long-term trend math assessment shows that there is little difference between scores for girls and scores for boys in all three grades.14 (See Chart 2.) The 2000 NAEP mathematics test also shows only a slight difference. The gender gap in writing and reading achievement favors girls three times as much as the gap favoring boys in science and mathematics favors boys.
  • Girls are more likely to participate in school activities . Girls outnumber boys with regard to membership in honor societies, school newspaper staff, debate clubs, and student government.15 More girls than boys participate in Advanced Placement courses.16 (See Chart 3.) Girls are also more likely to participate in community service.17
  • Girls are more likely than boys to graduate from high school and college .18 Girls are more likely to enroll in college right after high school and to complete a bachelor's degree within five years.19
  • Girls report high self-esteem and school enjoyment . The 1997 Metropolitan Life survey of gender and education found that, "Contrary to the commonly held view...girls appear to have an advantage over boys in terms of their future plans, teachers' expectations, everyday experiences at school and interactions in the classroom."20 A University of Michigan study echoes these findings: More boys than girls reported that they did not like school, thought their courses were "dull," and seldom or never considered schoolwork meaningful or important.21
  • Boys are twice as likely to be enrolled in special education programs . Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with disabilities such as dyslexia, autism, and stuttering.22
  • Boys are more likely to experience academic or behavioral problems . Boys are more likely to repeat a grade.23 They are more likely to be suspended or to be involved with crime, drugs, and alcohol.24 Boys are more likely than girls to report violent victimization at school.25

An unwarranted focus on the purported problem of gender inequity diverts funds and attention from the real--and critical--problems in America's educational system, such as striking disparities in academic performance among different racial and economic groups and an overall decline in student educational achievement.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 26 percent of American 4th graders are proficient in math, and only 32 percent are proficient in reading.26 American 8th graders ranked 19th out of 38 countries on the most recent international comparison, the Third
International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (TIMSS-R) of 1999, falling behind Malaysia, the Russian Federation, and Bulgaria.27 On the TIMSS 1995 study that tested 12th graders, American students were ranked 18th out of 21 countries.28

As troubling as these statistics are, the situation is even worse for economically disadvantaged children. Of 4th graders from low-income households, only 9 percent were proficient in math, and just 14 percent were proficient in reading on the NAEP assessment. Over half of disadvantaged 4th graders scored below the basic level in both subjects.

Given such grim reports regarding the academic performance of the nation's students, funding and support should no longer be used for questionable programs such as those generated by the outdated Women's Educational Equity Act. It is time to reform the federal education system to focus on the most critical problems in American education.

As Congress concludes its work on the ESEA reauthorization in conference committee, the focus should be on what can be done to improve the educational performance of all students. This was the intent of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform plan, which sought to focus the ESEA on key national priorities, including programs that effectively boost the academic performance of economically disadvantaged children.

In line with the President's recommendations, the conference bill should seek to consolidate funds previously designated for duplicative, ineffective, and unnecessary programs (including the Women's Educational Equity Act) and channel these resources to several broadly defined, flexible funding streams. Funds within general categories could be used by states and school districts to support programs that best meet their needs. This consolidation would provide greater flexibility and decision-making at the local level, which would help to ensure that funds--previously directed to 61 separate ESEA programs--are used most effectively and where they are most needed. In essence, there would be a free market of approaches that educators could choose within national priority guidelines.

Incorporating free-market principles into the federal education system would allow educators to target funding to areas they believe will be the most helpful in improving the academic achievement of children in their schools. As the rationale for the President's plan explains:

Over the years, Congress has created hundreds of programs intended to address problems in education without asking whether or not the programs produce results or knowing their impact on local needs. This "program for every problem" solution has begun to add up.... [T]here are hundreds of education programs spread across 39 federal agencies.... Yet, after spending billions of dollars on education, we have fallen short in meeting our goals for educational excellence. The academic achievement gap between rich and poor, Anglo and minority, is not only wide, but in some cases is growing wider still.29

To reform the "program for every problem" system, President Bush concluded that it was necessary to consolidate existing programs and focus the funding on national priorities with flexible guidelines. While detailing his reform plans during the campaign, the President pledged:

I don't want to tinker with the machinery of the federal role in education. I want to redefine that role entirely.... I will begin by taking most of the 60 different categories of federal education grants and paring them down to five.... Within these divisions, states will have maximum flexibility to determine their priorities.30

While Congress provided for some consolidation during the initial stage of the ESEA reauthorization process, the system was resistant to reform, and programs were resurrected wherever opportunity allowed. The House version, the No Child Left Behind Act (H.R. 1), contains 47 ESEA programs and five non-ESEA programs. The Senate version, the Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (S. 1), authorizes 89 ESEA programs and 12 non-ESEA programs for a total of 101 programs.31 In spite of some initial progress toward reform, Congress continued the practice of enacting a new program for every purported problem; even worse, it even authorized at least one program without a problem to address--the Women's Educational Equity Act.

On most indicators of academic achievement and student behavior, girls perform as well as or better than boys. According to the Educational Testing Service, "[The evidence] supports neither the view that the educational establishment systematically discriminates against females, nor the view that the system is conspiring to wage a war against boys."32 Without the gender inequity that served as the rationale for the gender programs, there is no justification for retaining the Women's Educational Equity Act in the final ESEA bill.

The objective of education reform should be to improve the academic performance of all of America's children, with particular emphasis on key concerns such as boosting the educational achievement of economically disadvantaged children as proposed by the President in his No Child Left Behind plan.

Such reform enjoys wide support. According to a recent study by George Washington University's Institute for Education Policy Studies, for example:

Respondents generally concluded that the Bush Administration's proposal for program consolidation, if applied to the smaller programs, could strengthen education in low-income communities because it would decrease the current fragmentation of education programs. It also would permit those closest to the situation to set priorities for the use of funds.33

It is time to stop scattering funds among a plethora of programs, many of which are duplicative, irrelevant, and wasteful, and to channel our education resources where they will be most effective. The real achievement gap is not between genders but between what American students have learned and what they need to know to have the prospect of a successful and fulfilling future.

Krista Kafer is Senior Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation.

1. H.R. 1, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, sponsored by Representative John Boehner (R-OH), was passed on May 23, 2001. The Better Education for Students and Teachers Act, sponsored by Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT), was passed on June 14. A conference committee of Members from each chamber will produce a combined bill to present to the President.

2. Authorized by P.L. 93-380 in the Education Amendments of 1974 and subsequent ESEA legislation, the program was included in H.R. 1 in Title IV, Part C, Sec. 422, and in S. 1 in Title XVI, Part F, Sec. 11701. H.R. 1 authorizes $3 million for 2002 and such sums thereafter. In the Senate bill, WEEA and several other programs under the Local Innovations for Education Fund receive an unspecified level of appropriations.

3. Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (S. 1), "Education Programs of National Significance," Title XV1, Part F, Section 11701(b)(3).

4. Evan Gahr, "Oink! Oink!," The Women's Quarterly , Spring 2001, p. 25.

5. U.S. General Accounting Office, Women's Educational Equity Act: A Review of Program Goals and Strategies Needed, GAO / PEMD-95-6, December 1994, p. 25.

6. Ibid .

7. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (cited hereafter as OERI), Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women, NCES 2000-030, March 2000, p. 11.

8. Educational Testing Service, Differences in the Gender Gap: Comparisons Across Racial/Ethnic Groups in Education and Work, Princeton, New Jersey, 2001, p. 50.

9. The NAEP long-term trend test results are reported for students aged 9, 13, and 17 in mathematics, reading, and science and grades 4, 8, and 11 in writing. NAEP national and statewide tests assess 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students in these and other subjects.

10. 1999 NAEP Trends in Academic Progress, at /static/reportimages/F4DA776801A15A9F3178AF0151EF1162.pdf.

11. National Center for Education Statistics, "1998 NAEP Writing Report Card," at

12. National Center for Education Statistics, "1998 Civics Report Card for the Nation," at /static/reportimages/9FE28C4C1FC257807C62F9E731AB64D0.pdf .

13. National Center for Education Statistics, "1997 NAEP Arts Assessment," at /static/reportimages/E111CFEACBB7D198B40ED32AE30958D8.pdf.

14. OERI, NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance , NCES 2000469, August 24, 2000, at

15. OERI, Trends in Educational Equity , p. 7.

16. Ibid , p. 27.

17. Ibid , p. 47.

18. OERI, Degrees and Other Awards Conferred by Title IV Eligible, Degree-Granting Institutions : 1996-97, NCES 2000-174, November 1999.

19. OERI, Trends in Educational Equity , p. 11.

20. Louis Harris, The Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher 1997: Examining Gender Issues in Public Schools , New York, Louis Harris and Associates, 1997.

21. OERI, Trends in Educational Equity , p. 52.

22. R. D. Nass, "Sex Differences in Learning Abilities and Disabilities," Annals of Dyslexia , Vol. 43 (1993), p. 62.

23. OERI, Trends in Educational Equity , p. 41.

24. Christina Hoff Sommers, "The War Against Boys," The Atlantic Monthly, May 2000, p. 60.

25. OERI, Trends in Educational Equity , p. 39.

26. See NAEP 2000 Reading Report Card, at , and 2000 Mathematics Report Card, at /static/reportimages/C2339CA9C27C2C3E22CA6A3C987B3219.pdf.

27. 1999 Third International Math and Science Study-Repeat (TIMSS-R). See TIMSS 1999 International Mathematics Report , International Study Center, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, December 2000, p. 32.

28. 1995 Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). See TIMSS Highlights from the Final Year of Secondary School , International Study Center, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, February 1998, p. 1.

29. The White House, Executive Summary, No Child Lef Behind, at (February 26, 2001).

30. George W. Bush, "A Culture of Achievement," speech delivered in New York City, October 5, 1999, p. 4, at (June 11, 2001).

31. Congressional Research Service, "K-12 Education Funding: FY 2002 Authorization of Appropriations Proposed in H.R. 1 by the House and the Senate," RL31047, July 13, 2001.

32. Educational Testing Service, Differences in the Gender Gap , p. 51.

33. Iris C. Rotberg, Kenneth J. Bernstein, and Suzanne B. Ritter, "No Child Left Behind: Views about the Potential Impact of the Bush Administration's Education Proposals," George Washington University, Institute for Education Policy Studies, July 2001, at .

About the Author

Krista Kafer Senior Education Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies