Should single-sex classes be an option?

Should public schools offer single-sex classes?

In an American Enterprise Institute debate, AEI scholar Christina Hoff Sommers said single-sex schooling could help close the growing education gap between boys and girls. Sommers, who authored the book The War against Boys, thinks schools are becoming “hostile environments for young boys.”

Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, argued that single sex schooling is bad for boys and girls and should not be an option.

Don’t segregate boys and girls in school, argues Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University. Single-sex classes reinforce harmful stereotypes about boys and girls, he writes.

Sex-segregated education is “often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence,” a 2011 article in Science concluded.

The boys at the back

“Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college, writes Christina Hoff Sommers in The Boys at the Back in the New York Times.

Elementary teachers give boys lower grades than their test scores would have predicted, according to a study in The Journal of Human Resources. Boys can’t keep up with girls in “attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently,” the researchers say.

. . . one critic told me recently, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers. But unproductive workers are adults — not 5-year-olds. If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to?

In a revised version of her book, The War on Boys, Sommers hits “boy-averse trends like the decline of recess, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the tendency to criminalize minor juvenile misconduct and the turn away from single-sex schooling.”

As our schools have become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, collaboration-oriented and sedentary, they have moved further and further from boys’ characteristic sensibilities.

Male underachievement in school is a global phenomenon. The British, the Canadians and the Australians are experimenting with ways to  help boys do well in school, Sommers writes. That ranges from “boy-friendly reading assignments” to single-sex classes.

At Aviation High School in New York City, students spend half their day learning traditional subjects and the other half on aviation mechanics.

. . .  I observed a classroom of 14- and 15-year-olds focused on constructing miniaturized, electrically wired airplane wings from mostly raw materials. In another class, students worked in teams — with a student foreman and crew chief — to take apart and then rebuild a small jet engine in just 20 days.

The school’s 2,200 pupils — mostly students of color, from low-income households — have a 95 percent attendance rate and a 90 percent graduation rate, with 80 percent going on to college.

. . . “The school is all about structure,” an assistant principal, Ralph Santiago, told me. The faculty emphasizes organization, precision, workmanship and attention to detail.

Aviation High is co-ed, but only 16 percent of students are girls. The school has received the district’s “A” rating six years in a row.

“Vocational high schools with serious academic requirements are an important part of the solution to male disengagement from school,” Sommers concludes.

Ilana Garon couldn’t control a nearly all-male special ed class, until her female co-teacher was replaced by a male teacher, she writes on Ed Week‘s View from the Bronx.

Researchers: Single-sex ed is ‘pseudoscience’

Single-sex education is based on “pseudoscience,” charge a team of neuroscience and child development experts in a Science article. There is “no empirical evidence” that segregating students by sex improves education, they argue. There’s plenty of  evidence it can increase gender stereotyping among students and adults.

The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education estimates more than 500 schools separate boys and girls for at least some classes, reports Inside School Research.

A new curriculum may yield a short-term gain because it’s evaluated by true believers, the scientists said.

“Novelty-based enthusiasm, sample bias, and anecdotes account for much of the glowing characterization of [single-sex] education in the media. Without blind assessment, randomized assignment to treatment or control experiences, and consideration of selection factors, judging the effectiveness of innovations is impossible.”

“There are some definite brain differences in boys and girls as children, but there are a lot of overlaps, and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that they learn differently,” Claremont McKenna Psychology Professor Diane Halpern told Inside School Research. “The underlying biology of learning is the same.”

Students in single-sex classes don’t perform significantly better than those in mixed-gender classes, once the students’ prior performance and characteristics are taken into account, the critics said.

Update: If there’s no evidence single-sex education is any worse than mixed classes — and there isn’t — then let parents decide, responds Paul Peterson on Ed Next. Many parents like the idea for a variety of reasons, he writes.

Brains are the same for boys, girls

Boys’ brains and girls’ brains are the same, according to neuroscientist Lise Eliot in Springer’s journal, Sex Roles.  There’s no scientific basis for sex-segregated classrooms, she writes.

Although there is no doubt that boys and girls have different interests which shape how they respond to different academic subjects, neuroscientists have had great difficulty identifying meaningful differences between boys’ and girls’ neural processing — even for learning to read, which has been the most studied to date. And although research shows that men and women — not boys and girls — tend towards different self-professed learning styles, there is no evidence that teaching specifically geared to such differences is actually beneficial.

Eliot is the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain.

ACLU fights single-sex classes

A Louisiana middle school’s single-sex classes are being challenged by the ACLU, which will be in court Wednesday arguing that mandatory sex segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

Rene A. Rost Middle School, a middle school in Vermilion Parish, offers both single-sex and coed classes.  However, parents sued when both daughters were placed in all-girl classes and told the coed classes were full.

It seems like there should have been an easy fix for this. But it will be interesting to see if the court thinks access to coed classes is an equal rights issue.

Boys and girls together in Alabama

Unwilling to fight the ACLU, Mobile County, Alabama schools have agreed to end mandatory single-sex classes. According to the civil liberties group, the sex segregation included a ban on boys and girls talking in the hallways or at lunch.

. . . at Hankins Middle School this year, teachers had been instructed to treat boys and girls differently. At a teacher training, teachers were informed that boys should be taught about “heroic behavior” but that girls should learn “good character.” Teachers were told that male hormone levels directly relate to success at “traditional male tasks” but that when stress levels rise in an adolescent girl’s brain, “other things shut down.”

A story in the Mobile Press-Register reported that a language arts exercise for sixth grade girls involved asking the girls to use as many descriptive words as possible to describe their dream wedding cake, while the boys were asked to brainstorm action verbs used in sports.

According to Mark Jones, whose son Jacob attends Hankins Middle School, the school principal told him that the changes at Hankins were necessary because boys’ and girls’ brains are so different that they needed different curriculums.

If true, that’s sounds awfully extreme. I wonder if the crackpot “Crockus” is involved.

While the Press-Register bemoans the loss of the single-sex program, the solution seems simple: Let parents choose single-sex or coed classes for their children and study the results.

Update: Education Gadfly flags a report on how to do single-sex education effectively.