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Back to November Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 250 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS NOVEMBER 2006

Single-Sex Education Making Inroads in Public Schools

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By Michael J. Gerardi

To help combat low levels of achievement in public schools, especially among boys, more and more school districts are experimenting with single-sex classrooms and academies, despite criticism from feminists and civil liberties groups claiming that the schools reinforce negative stereotypes.

Since 1998, the number of public school districts that either run single-sex schools or offer single-sex classes within coeducational institutions rose from 4 to 228. Students in these classes often improve their academic performance. For example, in DeLand, Florida, an elementary school that introduced single-sex classes alongside its co-ed classes reported in 2005 that 91% of boys and 83% of girls in the single-sex classes scored at grade level or higher on Florida's standardized tests, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Only about half of the students in the co-ed classes achieved comparable scores. Positive outcomes have also been reported in South Carolina, Mississippi, Ohio, and other states.

How to explain the improvement? Dr. Leonard Sax, whose 2005 book Why Gender Matters brought the single-sex education debate to the forefront, said that neurological research over the last ten years has unearthed "hard-wired differences in the ways girls and boys learn" in an article for Education Week. Male and female brains develop in different orders at different rates; for instance, when learning math, a 12 year-old girl's brain resembles that of an 8 year-old boy. The gender advantage is reversed when reading and writing tasks are presented. There are also empirically established differences in boys' and girls' eyesight, hearing, and response to aggression and risk. These findings suggest that the ideal classroom environment and curriculum for boys and girls may be radically different. Single-sex classes are the best way to accommodate each sex's unique needs.

The movement for single-sex education has resonated in light of the poor academic performance of boys relative to girls, a phenomenon dubbed the "gender gap." The Maine Sunday Telegram/Press Herald recently completed a four-part investigation of the "gender gap" in Maine, where the problem is especially pressing. In 4 out of 5 Maine middle schools, eighth grade girls score better than boys on standardized tests in reading and writing. Girls have erased or significantly reduced the traditional edge boys had over them in science and math. The "gap" exists at both ends of the achievement spectrum — boys compose two-thirds of special education classes in Maine, while girls take the overwhelming majority of spots among the top ten students in high school class rank. Once they arrive at college, women graduate at higher percentages than men and matriculate to graduate school more often.

Some experts believe that boys' struggles in school can be attributed to a classroom environment in public schools that compromises their particular needs in favor of girls. Co-ed classrooms tend to gravitate towards a more "feminine" learning environment, if for no other reason than most teachers are female. The Sunday Telegram reported that females outnumber males in Maine's public school teaching ranks by a 3 to 1 margin. Many boys may be discouraged from school simply because the classroom is stacked against them from the start.

However, groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) remain opposed to any experimentation with single-sex classrooms. In response to a package of bills in Michigan's legislature that would allow schools to experiment with single-sex education, NOW president Kim Gandy said, "We strongly oppose these bills because the separation of boys and girls, and the underlying (and false) assumption that girls and boys are so different that they shouldn't even be educated together, introduces harmful gender stereotypes into public education." The ACLU is assisting NOW in challenging the first of these Michigan laws, which was recently signed by Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Dr. Sax finds much of this opposition ironic. In co-ed schools, boys are afraid of playing the flute and girls shy away from studying physics, but in single-sex schools they embrace these activities wholeheartedly. Claude Monet and Leonardo DaVinci went to boys' schools; Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut, wasn't interested in science until she transferred to an all-girls high school. "That's the irony of co-education," Dr. Sax said in an interview with Canada's Globe and Mail. "It reinforces gender stereotypes."

Despite its momentum, single-sex education is still a fledgling idea. Not all districts that have tried it have succeeded, and Dr. Sax himself admitted in Education Week that "a set of well-established best practices for gender-specific education" does not yet exist. However, the strong evidence of substantive difference in the ways boys and girls learn and the promising results in many single-sex classrooms suggest single-sex education will be part of America's education debate for the foreseeable future.

Michael J. Gerardi is a senior electrical engineering major at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana). He writes about film and other cultural topics for his web blog, "Just an Amateur" (http://justanamateur.blogspot.com). He may be contacted by e-mail at mgerardi@nd.edu.


 
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