This morning I woke up and was greeted by the Washington Post Magazine, whose main article today is called “Separate but Equal: More Schools are Dividing Classes by Gender.” The article discusses how many public schools across the country are popping up with single-sex classrooms in an effort to tailor education to boys’ and girls’ distinct needs, partly in response to the “boy crisis” in reading scores (boys trailing behind girls), discipline issues (boys having more of them), and college aspirations (boys again with less) that people have been discussing for a while, and because laws passed in 2008 making it easier to open single-sex schools legally. It features the Imagine Southeast Public Charter school, and discusses how different teaching methods are used in the separate boy and girl classrooms to make the children more comfortable and engaged.
The article discusses Leonard Sax, a leading proponent of single-sex education and author of Why Gender Matters, bases his belief in single-sex education on studies that show that girls are easily distracted by boys, and that the two sexes have differences in hearing ability and response to teachers who yell. Lise Eliot, a neuroscience professor at Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, says that there is very little evidence from scientific research that gender differences are biological rather than societal—that a study in which parents were supposed to put their babies on an incline and crawl showed that parents expected their girls to perform worse than boys but that when girls were given the same climb they performed the same.
I was still curious after reading this article, so I was happy to see that in 2008, the New York Times Magazine did a feature on single sex-education. It discusses Sax more in-depth, and in doing so also contrasts the two reasons why people believe in single-sex education: the idea that gender causes inherent differences in learning style (such as Sax), and the belief that children of different genders have different social needs and experiences (such as Ann Rubenstein Tisch, founder of the Young Women’s Leadership School).
Much of what Sax, who created the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, bases his belief in single-sex education on is research showing differences in the rate of brain development and development of motor skills and differences in hearing ability, as the Washington Post article mentions. However, many people (like Eliot, above) have criticized him for citing these studies, as the study about hearing shows that girls and boys have hearing that is actually more similar than it is difference, exhibiting what many believe to be his tendency to selectively interpret studies to prove his point. Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, argues that gender is not an very effective way for sorting children: “Yes, you’ll get more students who favor cooperative learning in the girls’ room, and more students who enjoy competitive learning in the boys’, but you won’t do very well,” since “there are just too many exceptions to the rule.”
However, many students, such as those at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Harlem, or at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle, have benefited significantly from single-sex education: a rise in test scores, and in the case of TYWLS, an incredible college acceptance and attendance rate. However, when contrasted with single-sex classrooms that have not shown any identifiable improvements in education, many people attribute the successes of these classrooms to teacher quality, curriculum, etc.
One problem with research assessing single-sex versus co-ed education that many people have openly admitted to (even the principal of one of these schools) is that the parents and children who choose to be in the classrooms are self-selecting, for better or worse. In many cases, the highest achievers choose to be in the single sex classrooms, and in some cases, a school will put their lowest achievers into the classrooms in the hopes of motivating them; the selection process therefore makes it difficult to assess the single-sex classrooms in comparison to similar co-ed ones.
In 2005, the United States Department of Education, along with the American Institute for Research, tried to weigh in, publishing research comparing single-sex and co-ed schools. Of the 40 studies they analyzes, 41 percent favored single-sex schools, 45 percent found no positive or negative effects for either single-sex or co-ed schools, 6 percent were mixed (meaning they found positive results for one gender but not the other), and 8 percent favored co-ed schools—showing how difficult it is to come to conclusions about single-sex education. Cornelius Riordan, the Providence College professor leading the study, says that the lack of conclusions is not surprising because “so many variables are at play in a school: quality of teachers, quality of the principal, quality of the infrastructure, involvement of families, financing, curriculum — the list is nearly endless.”
So, I’m still not really sure what to think. I’ve always wondered what happens to these kids after they graduate—they have to go into the real world, which is clearly co-ed, and how well do they adapt? I don’t have the answer, clearly, but I’m not so sure that it will be so good for kids to raise them in an environment that is so different from the outside world. That being said, for the girls in Harlem, escaping the outside world served to turn their school into a kind of refuge and helped them to achieve much higher than kids in co-ed schools in their neighborhood, which points towards single-sex education providing a benefit that is not biological but social and societal, and that can help kids overcome sexualized classroom environments and societal pressure to perform a certain way. So there could be some benefits there, especially among populations that struggle with things such as teenage pregnancy, etc.
I’m also still a little skeptical of the idea of single-sex education because, as both articles mention, there is a risk that having single-sex schools will perpetrate gender stereotypes if they are not taught properly. And because there is little research to prove inherent biological differences based on gender to merit separate schooling, I’m not sure that teaching boys and girls differently is the way to go; perhaps there should be more of an emphasis on teaching to children’s individual learning styles in general, rather than just based on gender. I guess as more and more of these programs pop up, more research will be done and hopefully we’ll be able to see what the benefits are, if any; for now, I’m going to hold onto my skepticism but try and keep an open mind until I see more scientific proof that separating education by gender works.
Read Full Post »