As the information age rapidly envelops every facet of our society, it is imperative that our schools not only integrate technology into the classroom but also ensure that girls and young women don't become bystanders in the computer-driven 21st century.
According to a new report, "Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children" by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, girls have gained ground in math and science, but they are falling behind in technology.
For example, more girls enrolled in Algebra I and II, geometry, precalculus, trigonometry and calculus in 1994 than in 1990. On the other hand, girls make up only a small percentage of students in computer science classes. And, as recently as 1996, only 17 percent of Advanced Placement test-takers in computer science were girls.
Boys enter the classroom with more prior experience with computers and other technology than girls. Girls are less interested in and less comfortable with computers than boys, consistently rating themselves lower on computer ability. Girls encounter fewer powerful, active female role models in computer games and software. Thus, it should come as no surprise that girls of all ethnicities consistently rate themselves lower than boys on computer ability.
So what's keeping girls from computer science? Computer labs certainly aren't locked and don't have signs on them that say, "No Girls Allowed."
Geoff Jones, principal of one of the nation's top public science and technology high schools in Fairfax County, Va., says that even in a school like his, where all students are required to take basic computer science, many girls steer clear of advanced courses in computer technology. According to Jones, the widespread perception that computer programming is a "boys' thing" starts at a very early age.
That is why the AAUW report recommends that our schools take strong steps to prepare girls and young women for the Information Age. States should make Algebra I and geometry -- the gatekeeper classes for college admissions and advanced study in mathematics, science, engineering and computer science -- mandatory for all students.
Schools should make sure that their software programs and classroom experiences do not send girls and young women subtle signals that computer technology is not really for them.
Teacher training, too, should be improved. Teachers need to integrate technology into the curriculum in a challenging and equitable way to encourage both girls and boys to be "power users" of technology. Moreover, School-to-Work programs need to encourage girls to explore fields such as engineering so that they can compete in fields traditionally not open to them.
Since the AAUW Educational Foundation's landmark 1992 report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," public schools have made remarkable progress in targeted programs to help girls and young women improve in math and science. As a result, the gender gaps in math and science are narrowing.
Now, our schools need to make similar efforts to prepare girls and young women to compete and succeed in the highly technical fields that will define the 21st century. What's at stake is not only the future of our daughters and granddaughters but of our nation itself.
MAGGIE FORD is president of the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.