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Boys and Girls in the Classroom

Is single-sex education fair? Is it effective?

This week's New York Times Magazine featured an excellent article on single-sex education, a topic that has shifted to the limelight in public debate after a Georgia school board unanimously decided last week to convert its public classrooms to single-sex next fall. While it's debatable whether their plan will go through (most of the county's parents and teachers decry their absence in the decision-making process), the idea has nonetheless raised new discussions about gender and justice in U.S. public education.

At the center of these discussions stands Leonard Sax, a family physician who began espousing the benefits of single-sex schools after studying the neurological differences between males and females. While Sax does not support the Georgia school board's decision (he believes parents should be given a choice to enroll their children in sex-segregated classrooms), he nonetheless continues to campaign for more single-sex classrooms across the country. Sax founded the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education in 2002, and claims that there are now 366 U.S. public schools that are sex-segregated. Many of these schools have significantly benefited from the set-up, seeing higher test scores, less misbehavior in the classroom, and more parental support and investment.

The primary benefit of sex-segregated classrooms, argues Sax, is that the classroom can be tailored to fit each gender's biologically based learning method. Sax has concluded that the environment of most public classrooms is not conducive to boys' intellectual growth; he points to the "feminization" of curriculum and teaching methods as one reason why so many young men drop out of the learning experience (a concern he popularized in his 2007 book, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men).

Another group of educators espouse the benefits of single-sex education, but do not root their arguments in what some have called Sax's "gender essentialism." Instead, people like the staff at the Young Women's Leadership School in Harlem say sex-segregated classrooms offer spaces where children are more easily able to develop their selfhood (and self-esteem) without the distraction, teasing, and competition of the other sex, especially while on the brink of adolescence. Young girls may be special benefactors of this set-up, as they can be encouraged to pursue stereotypically male areas of studies, such as math and science, without being ridiculed. The "social view" seems to have some credence: Since its beginning in 1996, every girl at TYWLS has graduated and been accepted at a four-year college, a feat rarely heard of in crime- and poverty-stricken Harlem.

Elizabeth Weil, author of the NYT piece, says single-sex education has divided feminists down the middle. Some, like the Huffington Post's Lenora Lapidus and Emily Martin, see in Leonard Sax's equation a "biological determinism" founded in shoddy scientific research that has young women getting the short end of the stick, neurologically speaking. They write,

The overgeneralizations that brain difference theorists promote have pernicious real-world effects. While boys' classrooms are being designed to engage students physically, to allow for hands-on learning, and to make education a game as often as possible, girls' classrooms are places where students are encouraged to sit quietly at their desks and to talk about their feelings. Girls lose when their education is based on the notion that their brains leave them unqualified for abstract thought or risk-taking, just as boys lose when teachers assume that their brains leave them unable to empathize or to nurture.

But there are other feminists who can't help but applaud the work being done at places like TYWLS, which offer a place where young girls grow academically and personally while more likely avoiding the "self-esteem plummet" that has been popularized in books like Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. They may have more opportunities to contribute to the learning process without fearing being "drowned out" by or "looking stupid" in front of boys. Only time will tell if feminists contributing to the conversation on public education will find a way to acknowledge differences between boys and girls' learning styles without compromising girls' opportunities to flourish intellectually and to enter the post-graduate world with the self-assuredness to want to change it.

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Posted:March 6, 2008 at 10:46AM
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