Educating Our Girls: views from the Vision 2020 White House Briefing

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By Cheryl Soltis and Catherine Ormerod

Leaders from across the country gathered at the White House on March 27, 2012 for a special Vision 2020 briefing on issues of concern to women.

“We believe that knowledge coupled with commitment and action leads to change,” said Lynn Yeakel, Vision 2020 founder and co-chair, welcoming the 150 women and men in attendance representing Vision 2020 Delegates, National Allies and supporters, who traveled from 24 states to Washington, DC to attend the briefing.

Denise Flannery, of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, noted that in three short years, Vision 2020 had blossomed from an idea to a movement.

In this and future posts you will find a recap on the topics that were discussed at the Vision 2020 White House Briefing.

Educating Our Nation’s Girls

Russlynn Ali, Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Dept. of Education, and Steven J. Robinson, of the White House Domestic Policy Council discussed college, STEM, the on-going impact of Title IX in academics and athletics.

Ensuring that America has, once again, the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020, is a major goal of the Obama Administration, said Steven Robinson.  The Administration’s introduction of “Race to the Top” competitive educational grants will help provide best practices to improve the public education pipeline to college, particularly for schools in distressed neighborhoods.

Robinson cited another factor in achieving that  goal by 2020:  making college more affordable. President Obama’s policies work to ensure students can manage their student loan debt.  He has introduced income-based repayment as a way to relieve some of the economic pressures on today’s students.

Robinson, a former high school teacher from Oregon, said his office was also engaged in steering students, female and male, toward the “STEM fields”– Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. These STEM industries create jobs and drive the U.S. economy, Robinson said. However, the former teacher observed that there was no greater misalignment between the education system and job opportunities than in the STEM fields.  Even worse, girls have not traditionally been encouraged to pursue interests or develop interest in the STEM fields.

“I am depressed by the progress of women in engineering,” said a Vision 2020 member, who identified herself as a chemical engineer.  She explained that 20 years ago when she was in college, the percentage of women in engineering was 20 percent.  Two decades later it is still 20 percent.  It was noted that women fill less than 25 percent of STEM jobs and that has been the case for past decade.  There are a lower proportion of women educated in the STEM fields or employed in STEM jobs than in any other field.

Robinson responded that change will occur by a coordinated strategy that includes setting girls on the pathway to STEM education, providing mentors/role models, and connecting students (female/male; all ethnicities and income levels) to job opportunities. Robinson pointed out several programs such as Educate to Innovate and other partnerships between Department of Education and the private sector work to bring together students, teachers and industry.

Secretary for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali said that Title IX, which ensures equal access to educational opportunities for girls and boys, is one of the most successful civil rights stories in our nation’s history.  In the recent past, enforcement of Title IX had slipped, she said, which led her department to reinvigorate its commitment to Title IX.  

Ali went on to note that sexual violence on campus is a concern her department is addressing. She said that one in four or five young girls will be subject to sexual violence in their post-secondary careers.  Title IX mandates that colleges and universities eliminate a hostile environment.  The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is using this to ensure that schools address the root causes of increased violence on campus.  She said guidelines were released to explain to university and college educators that a hostile environment can be created by single act of violence and that educators have a responsibility to spot it and stop it. 

Title IX, known primarily for its stunning impact on women’s athletics, covers all aspects of education.  Ali reported that her office has engaged in collecting data to determine if equal opportunity exists for all American students.  Ali cited two examples of data OCR is collecting: the percentage of students taking Advanced Placement classes, their gender, race and income levels; and the percentage of schools offering calculus.

While the data is sobering, Ali says she remains hopeful that the data will bring needed changes to the educational system and the students within it.

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About equalityinsight

Vision 2020 is a national coalition of organizations and individuals united in their commitment to achieve women’s economic and social equality. Join Vision 2020 today! http://www2.drexelmed.edu/vision2020giftsonline/Individual.aspx
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