Myra Sadker and David Sadker, professors of education at American University, have been researching the behavior of boys and girls in elementary and secondary schools, as well as universities, for the past six years. They found that in virtually every kind of teaching situation, rural or urban, segregated or integrated, male or female teachers, male students received more attention from their teachers and more helpful classroom instruction.

In the March issue of the Phi Delta Kappan, they argue that this unequal treatment of male and female students goes a long way toward explaining what happens to the two groups of students by the end of high school: Little girls generally start out testing as well or better than boys do on standardized tests -- in reading, writing and math -- but by the end of high school, boys are scoring ahead of girls on Scholastic Aptitude Tests and National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

The Sadkers' first study, which was funded by the National Institute of Education, observed more than 100 fourth-, sixth- and eighth-grade classrooms in Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

The researchers found that male students were more likely to get "precise feedback." They also were significantly more likely to get praise, criticism and remedial help with an answer than were female students. The less stimulating responses of "uh-huh" and "okay," which they found accounted for more than half of teachers' answers, were more evenly distributed between male and female students.

"Although our research has made the inequities of classroom interaction more apparent," the Sadkers write, "the reasons why males capture more and better teacher attention remain less clear . . . . The majority of classrooms in our study were sex-segregated, and teachers tended to gravitate to the boys' sections, where they spent more of their time and attention.

"Another explanation is that boys demand more attention. Our research shows that boys in elementary and secondary schools are eight times as likely as girls to call out and demand a teacher's attention . . . . When boys call out, teachers tend to accept their answers. When girls call out, teachers remediate their behavior and advise them to raise their hands. Boys are being trained to be assertive; girls are being trained to be passive -- spectators relegated to the sidelines of classroom discussion."

The Sadkers subsequently received funding from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to see if the pattern persisted in colleges and, if so, to help college professors get rid of it. Forty-six professors in a wide variety of disciplines at American University volunteered for the project. Field research showed that males got significantly more attention. Subsequently, 23 professors volunteered to go through an educational program about inequity and "got rid of it," says David Sadker.

Numerous studies have found these differences in communications patterns persist into the work place and may affect women's abilities to get ahead. "One of the ways that men dominate professional meetings is through interruptions," the Sadkers write. "When men and women talk with one another, almost all interruptions are by male speakers. Males interrupt females more frequently than they interrupt other males. Men also gain verbal dominance by answering questions that are not addressed to them." When women are interrupted, they write, they typically do not try to regain the floor.

The Sadkers are currently working with teachers and administrators at Groveton Elementary School in Fairfax and Jefferson Intermediate School in Arlington to help them eliminate bias in their interactions with students. Among the devices they use is a film that shows male students getting twice as much interaction with the teachers and four times as many rewards as the female students. It's not a film the Sadkers developed to illustrate their point; it's a model teacher training film.

The bias against female students is unconscious, says Sadker. "It goes undetected because we're living in a sea of bias. We've grown accustomed to hearing people with deeper voices monopolize conversations so it's more difficult to see it."

That doesn't change the effect. Educational reformers who are urging a return to "basics" ought to pay attention to what the Sadkers and others have found. The entire student population might start doing better on test scores and in school in general if the half that started out ahead weren't systematically sidelined.