School Choice - A Look at Single-Sex Education

[Openeducation, 28-11-2008]

by Thomas

Over the past few months we have taken a look at some of the more popular school choice options, in particular the

career academy and charter school concepts. Today we take a look at yet another worthy option, that of single-sex schools.

The concept of single-sex public education has been receiving enormous interest in recent years. As but one example, recent concerns about college student completion rates in Boston has folks in that city calling for the development of single-sex choice options for students.

While there is a general sentiment that single-sex education has been of benefit to young ladies, there tends to be an assumption that the impact is not as positive for young men. Single-sex school experts disagree, insisting that “the gender-separate format can boost grades and test scores for both girls and boys.”

Data from the UK, particularly the work of researchers at Cambridge University regarding Morley High School in Leeds and the work of Graham Able of Dulwich College, is consistent with the notion that the format can work well for both boys and girls.

The “Boy Crisis”

At the heart of the single-sex school matter is the current performance of young men in the school setting. The

Boys Project, designed to help young males develop their capabilities and reach their full potential reveals some very troubling data (PDF) emerging regarding young men.

Young men’s literacy rates are declining, rendering them more likely to get D’s and F’s and less likely to be valedictorians or on the honor roll.
Young men’s overall lack of academic success in school means they are more likely to be suspended or expelled.

The combination of these events means that young men are also disengaging in greater numbers making them more likely to drop out of school.

As for those who make it through the K-12 system, the number of young men attending college has stagnated while the number of young women attending college has soared since the 1970s.

As a collective group, these facts serve as the basis for what many experts are calling the “boy crisis.” Hoping to accomplish what the Girls Project has done for young women, the Boys Project seeks to increase the academic skills of young men so as to be successful in college. As part of the message, the Boys Project site features a great deal of information related to single-sex schooling.
Single-Sex EducationResearch has determined, perhaps not all that surprisingly, that there are clear gender differences in how girls and boys learn. But such a statement tends to be immediately modified into yet another assertion, “all girls learn one way and all boys learn another way.”

Advocates of single-sex education insist that nothing could be further from the truth. Proponents of single-sex education acknowledge that there is great diversity among girls and among boys. One resource site, notes, “Some boys would rather read a book than play football” and “that some girls would rather play football than play with Barbies.”

In fact, in simplest terms, these basic stereotypes are often pervasive in coeducational school settings and therefore form the basis for why mixed settings may not work well for all youngsters. As but one example, in most coed public high schools a boy can be either a “geek” or a “jock,” but seldom both, while even fewer descriptors seem available for a young man who does not fit one category or the other.

However, proponents of single-sex classrooms and schools acknowledge that improvement will not happen by segregating students alone. One cannot simply put girls in one room and boys in another and expect that greater academic success will automatically be forthcoming. Instead, single-sex schools demand extensive teacher preparation to ensure that the format works in a positive manner.

Teaching in a Single-Sex School

Dr. Leonard Sax has authored two well-known texts on the subject of single-sex schooling. His first,

Why Gender Matters, is considered a basic primer on the topic, while his second, Boys Adrift, offers his key summary of the current status, Five Factors Driving the Decline of Boys.

The doctor insists that educators must understand some very basic facts. First, the “brains of girls and boys develop along different trajectories.” Sax notes that some differences are genetic and therefore present at birth but many other differences are shaped during the childhood years.

But the doctor insists we must forget our gender stereotypes, those that have us thinking that “boys are competitive” but “girls are collaborative.” Instead research demonstrates that the differences in brain development in each sex leads to certain tendencies. For girls, the language area of the brain develops before the areas of the brain used for spatial relations. On the other hand, for boys it tends to be just the opposite.

If school curricula are not designed so as to address these fundamental differences, then Sax insists that such classrooms will produce boys who cannot write well and girls who believe they are “dumb at math.”

Yet another major difference comes from how the brain is wired. For girls, the same area of the brain that processes language is utilized to process emotion. The result according to Sax is that it is “easy for most girls to talk about their emotions.”

For boys, different brain regions are involved; the areas of the brain used for talking are separated from the regions involved in feeling. Sax notes the toughest question for boys to answer is: “Tell me how you feel.”

Perhaps the most striking difference is the effect of stress on boys and girls. Here the stereotype tends to fit as Sax notes that “stress enhances learning in males” but it “impairs learning in females.”

Sax makes no bones about today’s current school setting and the inherent problems that have been created. He writes:
“Since the mid-1970’s, educators have made a virtue of ignoring gender differences. The assumption was that by teaching girls and boys the same subjects in the same way at the same age, gender gaps in achievement would be eradicated.

“That approach has failed. Gender gaps in some areas have widened in the past three decades. The proportion of girls studying subjects such as physics and computer science has dropped in half. Boys are less likely to study subjects such as foreign languages, history, and music than they were three decades ago. The ironic result of three decades of gender blindness has been an intensifying of gender stereotypes.”

Question of LegalitySingle-sex schools and single-sex classes were in theory legalized under the provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act. Under those provisions, single-sex schools or single-sex classrooms in particular subjects can be offered as long as there are clear counterparts that include offerings for each sex as well as a coeducational choice.

However, there are some who insist that move is unconstitutional. Cornell University Law Professor Gary Simson has authored a

piece asking just such a question.

And just two weeks ago, lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union

challenged single-sex classes at Hankins Middle School in Theodore, Alabama. The ACLU insists that such classes violate federal laws banning gender discrimination in the public schools.

Worthy of Consideration in a Broad ContextIn addition to the question of legality, there are a number of critics of the concept. Some appear to be a bit dated but there are questions being raised in many circles

The Trouble With Single-Sex Schools - The Atlantic (April 1998), California Study: Single-Sex Schools No Cure-All, and Single-sex schools: A good idea gone wrong?.

However, we noted earlier that folks in Boston have begun discussing the notion of single-sex schools. In a Globe editorial,
Give Single-Sex Schools a Try, the Boston Globe revealed for us one of the simplest of truths.
“Boston’s high dropout rate and its racial, gender, and ethnic achievement gaps are strong arguments for different education approaches that have shown promise elsewhere.”

While Massachusetts presently has laws on the books preventing such an option, the Globe goes on to state that the Legislature should repeal those laws. In doing so the Globe editorial staff recognizes the key fundamental, such schools should be available to children if those schools could help certain students learn better.

Like charter schools and career academies, single-sex schools or single-sex classes represent educational options for students. No one concept is a panacea or silver bullet for our educational ills.

But in a day and age when all data points to the fact students would do better with basic forms of school choice, single-sex options represent one more potential path for educational officials to consider.