By Michael Alison Chandler and Maria Glod, Washington Post Staff Writers
Mrs. Demshur's class of second-grade girls sat in a tidy circle and took turns reading poems they had composed. "If I were a toucan, I'd tweet, I'd fly," began one girl. When she finished, the others clapped politely.
Down the hall, Mr. Reynolds's second-grade boys read poems aloud from desks facing every direction. A reading specialist walked around with a microphone. "If I were a snow leopard, I would hunt, I would run," began one boy. One classmate did a backbend over his chair as he read. Another crawled on the floor.
So went a language arts lesson at Washington Mill Elementary School last month, with boys in one room and girls in another. The Fairfax County school, in the academic year that is ending, joined a small but fast-growing movement toward single-sex public education. The approach is based on the much-debated yet increasingly popular notion that girls and boys are hard-wired to learn differently and that they will be more successful if classes are designed for their particular needs.
With encouragement from the federal government, single-sex classes that have long been a hallmark of private schools are multiplying in public schools in the Washington area and elsewhere. By next fall, about 500 public schools nationwide will offer single-sex classes, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, based in Montgomery County. That's up from a handful a decade ago. The approach is especially attractive to some struggling schools in the market for low-cost reform.
The 2002 No Child Left Behind law cites single-gender classes as one "innovative" tool to boost achievement. But anti-discrimination laws banned widespread use of such classes, allowing them only in certain instances, such as sex education lessons. A change in federal regulations in 2006 gave schools more flexibility, allowing boys and girls to be separated as long as classes are voluntary and "substantially equal" coeducational classes are offered.
Several Washington area public schools have tried single-sex classes or plan to begin them. Woodbridge Middle School in Prince William County on Friday ended the first year of a two-year pilot program that offers single-sex instruction in core academic classes for some students. In Prince George's County, Drew-Freeman Middle School students will be split by gender for most classes starting in August. In the District, two new charter schools offering same-sex classes are set to open in August.
As the movement grows, so does debate over whether boys and girls really do learn better separately. Research remains slim on whether single-sex education boosts achievement in public schools. Most studies have examined private schools.
Proponents of same-sex schooling argue that girls and boys are too often shortchanged by coed classrooms and that students from lower-income families deserve access to learning environments once exclusive to private schools. Advocates also cite emerging research that indicates gender differences in brains and cognitive development.
"We as a nation do not understand gender difference and . . . regard it as politically incorrect to discuss it," said Leonard Sax, founder of the single-sex education association and author of "Why Gender Matters." As a result, he said, schools are not helping students reach their potential. "We are unintentionally pushing girls out of computer science, and pushing boys out of subjects" such as arts and languages. He contends that single-sex schooling can reverse the trend.
But many feminists and civil rights leaders cite a long history of separate and unequal education for girls, and argue that segregation will perpetuate damaging stereotypes. The American Civil Liberties Union and five Kentucky families with middle school students filed a lawsuit in May against the U.S. Department of Education and others alleging that the school's single-sex program violates federal anti-discrimination law and is unconstitutional.
"Single-sex education isn't the best preparation for a coeducational world," said Emily J. Martin, deputy director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.
Washington Mill Elementary Principal Lizette "Tish" Howard said uniform state standards and teacher quality requirements ensure parity for all classes. She said all-boys and all-girls classes could help remedy long-standing inequities she has observed in her career, such as overrepresentation of boys in special education.
Howard asked parents last year if they were interested in single-gender classrooms for core academic subjects. To her surprise, "I couldn't fill the classes fast enough," she said. She chose to start with sixth-graders because the adolescents were starting to "fall in love with each other" every spring, and second-graders because she wanted to follow their progress over time. Next school year, the initiative will expand to fifth- and third-graders.
To help teachers prepare for the new format, Howard bought them copies of "Boys and Girls Learn Differently!" by family therapist Michael Gurian. The book cites brain studies showing, among other things, that boys don't hear as well as girls and that girls are more sensitive to light. Boys often need to fidget and move to stay alert, Gurian writes, while girls are more likely to behave and pay attention. The book suggests teaching techniques to address such differences.
David Sadker, an American University professor and co-author of "Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls," said Gurian's findings are "stereotypes of the first order" that will limit children's creativity and options.
But many teachers say the findings match what they see on a daily basis. More than 40,000 have received training from Gurian's Colorado-based institute in learning differences between boys and girls.
Teacher Jean Demshur sometimes dims the lights in her all-girls class, and she said she gives students frequent chances to work in pairs or groups to cater to their social strengths. The extra X chromosomes influence her classroom, with potted flowers on the windowsill, a closet full of pink backpacks and a notebook paper cut-out heart taped to a desk inscribed in pink Crayola script: "I like your hair."
Demshur said her students were more relaxed than in previous school years, and more likely to share opinions or volunteer for challenges. Rhys Spencer, 8, threw her hands in the air and exclaimed, "It's paradise!" to be with only girls.
Teacher Todd Reynolds tried giving boys hacky sacks to help them release energy and stimulate thinking. But after the room became "a popcorn popper," Reynolds said, he took them away. His room's sprawling seating arrangement gives boys space to move around. Reynolds said the layout occurred to him in part because the boys, exhibiting what's often considered a female trait, were "chitchatting" all day.
Reynolds said boys were more likely than in previous years to ask for help, and some often-shy students "seemed to shine." He said he's excited to see a contingent of boys excel at writing, sharing ideas and "feeding off each other."
The school has no test data yet by which to judge the experiment, but Howard noted that grades for children in same-sex classes improved in many subjects. A parent survey found that almost half the boys and almost two-thirds of the girls in the classes had better attitudes toward school.
Some schools have given single-gender classes a try without success. Twin Ridge Elementary School in Frederick County began offering all-boys classes in 2004 but phased them out last year because of lack of parent interest. Students in the school's all-boys classes did no better on tests than boys in coed classes.
Frances R. Spielhagen, an assistant professor of education at Mount Saint Mary College in New York who has studied same-sex classes at a public middle school for three years, said she found some gains for boys in language arts and for girls in math. But as the movement expands, Spielhagen said she is concerned about whether teachers thrust into the new programs will have more than a superficial understanding of how boys and girls are different.
"You can't simply separate kids by gender and think magic is going to happen," she said.