A few years ago, when I was looking at middle schools for my daughter, I heard about a school that sounded lovely except for one thing: it had a policy of separating math classes by gender. Having reported on a vogue for single-sex classrooms in the nineties, I knew the rationale: girls and boys distract one another; girls need extra ego boosts and a gentle approach when it comes to studying math and science. I’d never found the arguments especially persuasive. But what really brought me up short was imagining how I would explain the policy to my daughter, whose best friends were boys. Everything I could think of saying sounded offensive or deflating or dumb: math is hard for girls; they—that is, you—need special treatment; boys’ and girls’ brains are different; pre-algebra with boys in the room is just too exciting—you won’t know what hit you! If we’d chosen an all-girls’ school, that would be one thing. Those schools weren’t founded on the premise that men and women have incompatible intellects, but in recognition of what were often limited educational opportunities for women. Their origin stories belonged to the past, and their traditions continued, Hogwarts-like, under their own steam. This was different. This was saying we believe in coeducation, because we live in a coed world, but in this one particular area we’re giving up. “Math class is tough!” as that infamous talking Barbie complained.
I remembered all this last week when I read about a new trend toward single-sex classrooms. Only about a dozen public schools were trying them in 2002, but since the Department of Education relaxed its rules on gender-segregated classrooms, in 2006, about five hundred public schools across the country have adopted them, according to an A.P. story. In May, the A.C.L.U. sent cease-and-desist letters to school districts in Alabama, Maine, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Virginia that have been separating boys and girls for academic instruction.
Back in the mid-nineties, when I was reporting on single-sex classrooms, evolutionary psychology was hot, and “hardwired” was the new buzz word, injected like a vitamin shot into weak arguments. Men were hardwired for sleeping around and math, women for monogamy and English. Most people didn’t know much about brain science, but that didn’t stop them from trotting out vaguely recalled findings based on a handful of M.R.I.s showing that men and women thought differently.
In one way, the fashion in single-sex classrooms has not changed at all. The evidence wasn’t very good then for a gap between the genders’ learning styles so significant that it would mandate separate instruction, and it hasn’t gotten any better. Of course there are psychological and intellectual differences between men and women, but meta-analyses of the best studies show that those differences are relatively small, that there is a great deal of variability among individuals, and that, as the neuroscientist Lise Eliot writes, “fundamentally, men and women are more similar than different.” In an article called, bluntly, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” which was co-authored by Diane Halpern, a research psychologist at Claremont McKenna college, and published in Science magazine this fall, Halpern et al. conclude that “there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance.” As Halpern and her co-authors point out, there are some excellent single-sex programs, and some can point to real gains, but often these can be attributed to selection bias—the children involved were more committed students—and to the motivation and sense of mission among teachers and staff. When I was reporting on single-sex education experiments in the nineties, one of the things I noticed was that teaching methods enthusiastically billed as better for girls, like hands-on science demonstrations, or mixing word problems in with more standard equations, would be better for anyone without a natural bent for math or science. A woman whose daughters attend one of the West Virginia middle schools with boys’ and girls’ classes contributed an article this week to the A.C.L.U. Web site in which she pointed out that her school’s all-male classes operated on the humane assumption that many kids concentrate better if they’re permitted to move about a bit. In the boys’ classes, students could lounge in beanbag chairs and run around outside sometimes to “blow off steam.” She thought, reasonably enough, that some girls might benefit from a little of the same freedom.
What has changed since the nineties is the notion of who single-sex education is supposed to help most. In the nineties, it was girls. The reformers’ talk was all about “How Schools Shortchange Girls” _(_the title of a much-discussed report from the American Association of University Women) or were “Failing at Fairness” (the title of a 1994 book) for young women. Girls were said to be hitting a self-esteem barrier in junior high, when they would droop like Ophelias in need of reviving. But that did not turn out to be the long-term problem. Increasingly, girls have been besting boys’ performance across the board: G.P.A.s, school leadership, graduation rates, college attendance. Now segregation by gender is more often an intervention for boys—a switch in target that makes you wonder a little about the reliability of the justifications for the policy. “The goal was to address the struggles boys were having with reading,” the A.P. story explains of the effort in an Idaho school. “In the single-sex classes, teachers used microphones that allow them to electronically adjust the tone of their voice to match the level that research suggests is best for boys. When preparing for a test, the boys may go for a run, or engage in some other activity, while the girls are more likely to do calming exercises, such as yoga.”
And there’s the real trouble with this single-sex approach. The presumptions behind it are fusty and often plain silly—which might make them easy for kids who don’t conform to them to dismiss, except that their teachers and principals are repeating them so earnestly. Girls thrive on team projects and collaboration; boys on bright lights, loud voices, and competition. Girls like reading; boys don’t. Girls do calming exercises; boys run. And on and on. I’ll state the obvious: some boys do; some don’t. The same goes for girls. Hearing yourself say some of this gobbledygook aloud to your kids, though? That’s likely to be good for all of us, regardless of gender. It has a way of sharpening the mind.
Illustration by Kris Mukai.
Disadvantages Of Single Sex Schools Essay
"Girls bring a lot to a school that boys don't and vice versa. If you go to a mixed school you will have a bigger wealth of experiences, and those who do not may feel as though they are 'missing out'" (Danish). Elizabeth Danish, a mother with first hand first hand knowledge of the way single-gender schools are run, believes that a child in school needs those experiences to be well rounded and prepared for the real world. Many people, like Danish, have opinions about these schools. Even though many believe that single-gender schools are beneficial, evidence proves that the basic philosophy of single-gender schools is flawed. Therefore, the nature of single-gender schools promotes inequality and does not prepare students for short-term or long-term success.
From the beginning of this issue, people have agreed that when schools segregate by gender it promotes inequality in the classroom. Many would say that single-sex classrooms and schools defy the United States Constitution because they believe that all school children should be granted the same learning advantages (Piechura-Couture & Gandy). The Constitution was referring to racial segregation, but the same message can be applied to gender segregation. Part of the reason people feel that single-gender schools are unequal is because of opinions shared by Leonard Sax. He feels that girls and boys need to be taught differently to perform better. He gave the following examples; girls do not test as well under stress so they will not be given timed tests, and boys who enjoy reading and are closer friends with girls, should be pressured to interact with the "normal" boys so they will do better. In a current Science magazine it proves that Sax's research was incorrect. It states that the human brain has very few differences between male and female, suggesting that the approaches Sax was using are not accurate (Frietsche & Rose). An example of a parent who found Sax’s statements incorrect was a Mother from West Virginia. Her feelings were brought up in a lawsuit between the the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the US District Court. The mother stated that she felt that her daughters were being discriminated against in single-gender classes. She gave the example of one of her daughters has attention deficit disorder, and the child was scolded for fidgeting in her seat. She felt that was unfair because boys are encouraged to move around as a way of helping them learn (Porter). The ACLU agrees with the numerous amount of people discounting Sax’s argument, as stated in this quote. It reads, "Single-sex education is illegal and discriminatory,…states the American Civil Liberties Union. In May 2008, the ACLU filed suit in federal court, arguing that Breckinridge County Middle School's practice of offering single-sex classrooms in their public school is illegal and discriminatory" (Standberry). The lawsuit was commenced because of how parents believed their children were put at a disadvantage...
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