The perils of single-sex thinking

Single-sex schools are hot these days. A few years ago, separating the sexes was supposed to help girls preserve their confidence; now the concern is focusing on boys’ needs. AP quotes Leonard Sax, director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, who says the number of public schools offering single-sex classes has risen from four in 1998 to 223 today. New federal regulations due this summer should make it easier to offer single-sex programs.

I’m very nervous about some of the ideas behind single-sex education. It’s one thing to try to shield middle schoolers from raging hormones. It’s quite another to treat boys and girls as different species.

Backers of single-sex classes say that in elementary school, girls’ vision and thought processes have developed to respond better to color and detail, while boys’ brains are more apt at processing motion and direction.

“If you don’t understand those differences and you teach boys and girls as if they were the same, the end result is a kindergarten classroom where the boys tell you drawing is for girls and a middle school classroom where girls tell you computers are for boys,” Sax said.

Under the proposed federal rules, it would be possible to create a single-sex schools for boys, for example, without creating a comparable school for girls.

When I was in Philadelphia plugging my book, I met David Hardy, who’s trying to start a rigorous college-prep charter school for boys, focusing on improving the dismal academic performance of black males. The web site says:

Teachers in an all boys’ school can teach effectively in ways which reach boys and appeal to their learning style. This allows a young man more ease in developing his full potential.

The charter proposal was rejected in January, even though Philadelphia has two all-girls public charter schools.

I think it makes sense to focus a charter school on students who share specific needs or interests. But I worry about many of the theories of gender difference that are out there. Would directing more teaching to active, assertive, competitive students be so bad for girls? I have a feeling girls and boys would benefit from a rethinking of the elementary curriculum. What about Lisa Simpson?

Via Alexander Russo, who also links to an influential New York Times column on gender differences.

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  1. Single sex schools is a very interesting phenomenon in today’s public schools. I completely agree that it is essential for both boys and girls to have an opportunity to attend single sex schools. I recently wrote an entry about single sex schools on my blog:

    Andy Pass

  2. I went to a single-sex girls school.

    It definitely didn’t wimp out on the academics.

    While I was there there was a gradual shift going on in the courses us students chose to take from languages to sciences. Which was causing some conflict internally as science teachers prefer longer classes less frequently so they can fit more into labs, while language teachers prefer shorter classes more frequently so the students get more frequent practice. The dux kept being someone in the sciences, and my year was the first year to have more students heading off to engineering school than teachers’ college. (Girls had gone to engineering school regularly enough before, it was just becoming more and more common).

  3. Mike, a diag in Texas says:

    I have two sons that started in the public school system and finished in an all male high school.

    Both were very successful because of the peer group that were more focused on academics. (We sent them to a Catholic school.)

    One’s at UT-Austin, the other at the University of Chicago. They told us the academic environment was totally different and much more comprehensive. Even in the AP classes….

    I understand the differences between private and public schools, in terms of structure and discipline, but based on their reports, the all male atmosphere was a significant factor.