Single-sex classes are on the rise

Separate classes for boys and girls are making a comeback in public schools, according to the New York Times.

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — In one third-grade classroom, the walls are bordered by cheetah and zebra prints, bright pink caddies hold pencils and glue sticks, and a poster at the front lists rules, including “Act pretty at all times!”

Next door, cutouts of racecars and pictures of football players line the walls, and a banner behind the teacher’s desk reads “Coaches Corner.”

The students in the first class: girls. Next door: boys.

. . . Here at Charles Drew Elementary School outside Fort Lauderdale, about a quarter of the classes are segregated by sex on the theory that differences between boys and girls can affect how they learn and behave.

Teachers “recognize the importance of understanding that Angeline learns differently from Angelo,” said Angeline H. Flowers, the principal.

Social scientists disagree, notes the Times.  Critics say segregating by sex encourages stereotyping. The ACLU has sued to prevent single-sex programs. In response, the Obama administration has issued new guidelines.

Schools may set up such classes if they can provide evidence that the structure will improve academics or discipline in a way that coeducational measures cannot. Students must have a coeducational alternative, and families must volunteer to place their children in all-boys or all-girls classes.

But the guidance says that “evidence of general biological differences is not sufficient to allow teachers to select different teaching methods or strategies for boys and girls.”

“I am very concerned that schools could base educational offerings on stereotypes,” Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, told the Times.

Research hasn’t shown significant academic benefits — or drawbacks — from single-sex education, says Janet Hyde, a University of Wisconsin psychology professor.

Segregating by sex is based on a “zombie idea,” writes Dave Powell in Ed Week. Lack of evidence can’t kill the “specious claim that boys and girls simply learn differently.”

People cite “fake brain science” to support sex-segregated classes, writes Lise Eliot in Slate.

I don’t have a problem with letting parents choose a single-sex class, if they think it will benefit their child. I believe there are no significant brain differences between boys and girls, but there are behavioral differences. And we’ve got to figure what kind of elementary teaching works best for boys, who are falling behind their female classmates. Still, I wouldn’t have chosen an “act pretty” class for my daughter.

No red flags in single-sex classes

The ACLU is sending “cease and desist” letters to schools and districts that offer single-sex classes, reports Ed Week.

“We all want to fix failing schools, but co-education is not the problem, and single-sex education is not the answer,” said Galen Sherwin, a staff attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, in a press release. “Over and over, we find that these programs are based on stereotypes that limit opportunities by reinforcing outdated ideas about how boys and girls behave.”

Single-sex classes are popular with parents, teachers, principals and students, writes Sandra Stotsky, who studied single-sex classes in two Arkansas public elementary schools. She found “no academic downside” to giving parents and students what they prefer.

In one school, single-sex students — especially boys — did better in reading than students in a mixed class. In another school, boys in the mixed class did better on one reading test than boys in the all-male class.

The teachers, parents and principals agreed that single-sex classes seem to provide less distraction for both sexes, better accommodation of each sex’s interests, better learning environment for shy or quiet children, more opportunity to use examples for academic concepts and class readings tailored to each sex and more opportunity for leadership skills of each sex to emerge.

On the other hand, a few teachers and parents perceived them as causing girls to become chattier and boys less polite and too competitive.

Girls were more likely than boys to request single-sex education, Stotsky notes.

More research should be done before banning the single-sex option, she argues.


Science vs. single-sex classes

Science Doesn’t Support Single-Sex Classes, argue Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers in Education Week.

The loud, hissing sound you hear may be the air coming out of the tires of a much-hyped vehicle for improving American public education: the single-sex classroom.

. . . A consensus is emerging among scientists that single-sex classrooms are not the answer to kids’ achievement issues. This fact appears to be true even for students of color, who are often seen as those most likely to be helped by sex-segregated classrooms.

In The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling, published in Science, eight psychologists and neuroscientists “found the rationale for setting up separate classrooms for boys and girls ‘deeply misguided’ and ‘often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence’,” Barnett and Rivers write.

Schools try separate classes for boys, girls

More schools are dividing classes by gender, reports the Washington Post, looking at Imagine Southeast Public Charter School, a D.C. elementary school that separates boys and girls starting in first grade.

“I need the cleanup crew here,” shouts (Soheila) Ahmad, a 23-year-old first-time teacher, sweeping her arm around the central area of the class, where a few books lie scattered on the blue rug, and six blue beanbag chairs are arranged in a reading circle. Three boys hop to it, hoisting and heaving the beanbags into a pile against the far wall. A fourth boy collects the books and reshelves them. It is 10:30 a.m. and time for math.

“Let’s practice counting by 10s to 100,” Ahmad says.

The boys, standing behind their chairs, begin to chant, jumping in place as they say each number: “Ten, 20, 30, 40, … ” they sing, as their jumps and hops get bigger.

“Now let’s count by 2s to 100.”

The boys find their rhythm. Some do scissor jumps. Some do jumping jacks. One pounds his thighs. Another dances wildly, huffing out the numbers as a breathy backbeat. Yet another channels Michael Jackson, moonwalking backward, each sliding step punctuated by his counting. The decibels rise — a stampeding herd of elephants racing toward 100 — and the pace quickens. Ahmad doesn’t blink an eye.

She quizzes them for 15 minutes on their addition facts and divides them into their math groups: Persevering Penguins, Ferocious Foxes, Eager Eagles. The Penguins test each other with addition flashcards. The Foxes play math games on three computer terminals in the corner. The Eagles sit on the floor and have a math lesson with Ahmad. When it is time for the groups to trade places, Ahmad asks, “All set?”

“You bet!” the boys shout, swapping places in a raucous bustle.

Ginene Pointer’s first-grade girls sit quietly at their desks till their math group is called.

“Strawberry Shortcake House,” she says, as four girls stand quietly, push their chairs in and walk to the carpet, where they sit in tidy rows at her feet. “Unicorn House. SpongeBob House …”

When all the girls are seated, Pointer, 31, who has taught for nine years, gives three of them plastic baggies with their supplies: small white boards, construction paper and markers. The leaders distribute the materials and return to their spots on the floor, crossing their legs with military precision. The girls carefully arrange scraps of construction paper on one corner of their slates, sock erasers on their laps and markers in their hands. They are ready for the game.

“Six plus unknown partner equals 15?” Pointer asks.

The girls scribble furiously on their boards. A student named MaKayla raises her hand.

“Nine!” she says softly when the teacher calls on her.

“What?” Pointer asks. “Use your big girl voice, please.”

“Six plus nine equals 15,” MaKayla responds firmly.

“Yes,” Pointer says. “Let’s give her a round of applause.”

The girls clap.

“You go, girl! You go, girl!” one chants.

The boys are allowed to move around during lessons and teachers introduce competition through games. The atmosphere for girls is more relaxing, though they like games too.

Like students nationally, Imagine’s girls do better than the boys in reading and about the same in math.

According to the DC Benchmark Assessment System (DC BAS), which measures students’ progress annually in reading and math, 100 percent of Pointer’s girls scored “advanced” in reading, compared with 50 percent of Ahmad’s boys. Almost the same percentage of girls and boys scored “advanced” in math (40 percent and 38 percent, respectively), but 60 percent of the girls were “proficient” in math (the next step down from “advanced”), compared with 38 percent of the boys.

I’m not persuaded that single-sex classes are more effective. Once the boutique effect wears off, kids seem to do about the same. And the research on boys’ and girls’ brains is sketchy, as the story indicates. But it’s the sort of option that may work well for some students in some schools. If the parents want it, why not try it?

Boys and girls, living together… it'll be anarchy!

When I went off to college some 18 years past, I knew that the dorm hall was going to be co-ed.  I didn’t know that the bathroom would be.

This was quite a shock.

But I got used to it.  To this day I’m not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I got used to it, but I did.  And people will get used to same-sex dorm rooms, too.

Although the number of participants remains small, gender-neutral housing has gained attention as the final step in the integration of student housing.

In the 1970s, many U.S. colleges moved from having only single-sex dormitories to providing coed residence halls, with male and female students typically housed on alternating floors or wings. Then came coed hallways and bathrooms, further shocking traditionalists. Now, some colleges allow undergraduates of opposite sexes to share a room.

Pitzer, which began its program in the fall of 2008, is among about 50 U.S. schools with the housing choice, according to Jeffrey Chang, who co-founded the National Student Genderblind Campaign in 2006 to encourage gender-mixed rooms. Participating schools include UC Riverside, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Cornell, Dartmouth, Sarah Lawrence, Haverford, Wesleyan and the University of Michigan.

Frankly, I think more choice is probably a good thing.  But more choice means more choice — I rather think that schools should be hesitant to do away with traditional sex-segregated halls.   To the extent that gender-neutral housing might become the new default and could actually be a move in what often seems to be a ceaseless argument for the absolute fungibility of the sexes, I think I would object.  But I’m not sure were anywhere near that point yet.

Tennessee tries single-sex classes

A Memphis high school credits separate classes for male and female students for a jump in test scores.

MEMPHIS — In “Romeo and Juliet,” the plot thickens along slightly different lines for male and female students at Booker T. Washington High.

For boys, the story advances in the fights between the Montagues and the Capulets; for girls, it’s the timeless love story.

. . . “Boys like nonfiction. They like gory, bloody stories. They like protagonists who look like them, sound like them and act like them,” (Principal Alisha Kiner) said. “We know from research that girls are more comfortable with other girls. That’s why we all go to the bathroom together.

“We’re not afraid to compete and share our opinions as we are when we are in rooms with boys.”

An all-girls’ charter school is opening in a low-income Chattanooga neighborhood for middle and high school students: Applicants must test below proficiency in math or reading or attend a low-performing school that’s failed to make progress.