Like others who work in education, I was eager to see who President-elect Obama would select for his Education Secretary, and what that individual would represent. Obama’s selection of Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan was announced yesterday.

I am heartened by the fact that Duncan represents a both-and approach to school reform, recognizing that both teacher improvement and social support for children outside of school will play a critical role in taking the US education system to a new level of excellence (we can hope, right?).

But I’m left with an important question: Will we see federal leadership for curricular reform? Peggy McIntosh recently pointed out to me that the central structure of the American education system (math, science, English, social studies, etc.) has remained unchanged since the 18th century. To be sure, approaches to these subjects are updated and the curriculum has certainly changed over time. Yet I’m also convinced from experience that the more things change the more they stay the same, and that the status quo reinforces traditional gender stereotypes (along with stereotypes about race and class).

For example, I noticed that my daughter’s kindergarten teacher had divided the girls’ and boys’ workbooks by color-coded baskets (red=girls, blue=boys: hm, at least it wasn’t pink!). I notice when I pick my daughter up from her after-school program that the room is frequently segregated by gender and toys (girls playing with dolls while boys play with Legos).

No doubt you’ve noticed that my examples point to classroom arrangements rather than classroom content, and you might think I’m being too nit-picky. After all, they’re just colored baskets, right? No way! I’m convinced that the classroom arrangements and curricular content reinforce each other (see my previous post where I mention a sex-stereotyping book series that my daughter discovered thanks to her first-grade teacher). It may be red baskets now, but when women still have to fight for equal pay for equal work (among other things), I want to be sure I’ve done my part to make a difference.

When I mentioned my concerns about the color-coded baskets during a conference, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher was shocked to think that she might be perpetuating gender stereotyping. She gave me examples of ways she challenged the students’ gender stereotyping in the classroom (talking about her own love of math, “requiring” girls to play in the block corner). The next morning the baskets were changed, with the kids finding their workbooks based upon the first initial of their last name.
I’m sure that won’t be the last conversation I have with a teacher about gender inequality in the classroom, but I hope that we can expect national leadership and fresh thinking about what goes on in the classroom. Any word on whether Duncan is a feminist? And GWP readers, have you taken any steps to make your sons’ or daughters’ classrooms more feminist learning environments?

-Allison Kimmich