Single-Sex Schooling Gets New Showcase
South Carolina's top education official sees a statewide push for single-gender programs as a way to boost public school choice and scores. But critics question the effort's pace and wisdom.
In this small, mostly African-American, overwhelmingly poor town in rural South Carolina, Kingstree Junior High School’s new principal, Margie Myers, was desperate to boost dismal test scores and rein in severe discipline problems—without spending money she didn’t have.
So she did a simple thing: She split the boys and girls into separate classrooms.
Kingstree Junior High now is one of 97 schools in South Carolina that have embraced a new push to spread single-gender education throughout the state’s public schools—including to suburban and urban districts, to poor and wealthy areas, and to schools that are mostly white and mostly black.
Single-sex classrooms and schools are common in private education and have emerged as popular options in urban public school districts, such as New York City, particularly as a strategy for raising the achievement of African-American boys. But South Carolina is at the forefront of implementing such programs statewide.
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, who has made single-gender education a top priority, said that up to 25 percent of South Carolina public schools—about 300—could offer the programs by next school year. That would mean some 15,000 students or more attending schools with such a program.
In a state where the Republican governor, Mark Sanford, is pushing private school vouchers, single-gender programs are part of a broader counterattack by Mr. Rex, a Democrat who is championing public school choice. He has gone so far as to name a coordinator to serve as a statewide catalyst for single-sex initiatives in the public system.
“We want a choice-driven system here, but one that’s accountable,” Mr. Rex said in a recent interview in his Columbia, S.C. office. “We know there are lots of strategies to improve schools, but a lot of them cost money. Let’s get real about what’s practical now. Single-gender is a strategy that can make a difference now.”
Yet Gov. Sanford, while supporting increased public schools options, believes a more meaningful school-choice model would also include tax credits or taxpayer-funded scholarships to help students go to a private school, said his spokesman, Joel Sawyer. “Students need to have a wide degree of education options,” Mr. Sawyer said.
And even as South Carolina’s single-gender efforts expand, questions remain.
There is the issue of sustainability, especially when the programs are supported by an elected state superintendent who will leave office someday. It’s also too soon to tell if the programs make any long-term difference in student achievement, despite some initial reports of improved test scores.
State officials are also trying to figure out how to properly measure improvement on both state tests and the harder-to-measure variables of student engagement and discipline.
Meanwhile, women’s rights and civil rights groups are concerned that such programs will reinforce sex stereotypes and result in an unequal distribution of resources.
“We are watching this state,” said Emily J. Martin, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project. “There are real problems in segregated schools. And there’s little evidence that sex segregation, per se, has some magical effect on test scores.”
Nationwide, about 400 public schools in 37 states and the District of Columbia have at least one school with some single-gender classrooms, according to the latest count in November 2007 by the Poolesville, Md.-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education.
The number has been growing steadily since October 2006, when the U.S. Department of Education issued final regulations on how to make single-gender programs legal under Title IX, the law that forbids sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding. The department said it did so in response to growing research evidence and sentiment among educators that separating boys and girls, and teaching to what are often their different learning styles, may help students of both sexes perform better in school. ("New U.S. Rules Boost Single-Sex Schooling," Nov. 1, 2006.)
Before those guidelines were issued, single-gender public school classes were allowed under limited circumstances, such as for physical education. Now, as long as both sexes are treated equally, such as being taught the same subjects in similar facilities, such classes are allowed.
But single-gender education—done right—isn’t as simple as just splitting up girls and boys, proponents say. Teachers have to be trained in the research that shows which teaching strategies may be best suited to the different ways in which many experts say boys and girls most typically learn.
“If you simply put boys in one room and girls in another, and teachers don’t have the right preparation, then bad things can happen,” said Dr. Leonard Sax, the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.
At Kingstree Junior High, a class of girls learn storytelling techniques through fairy tales in classrooms with softer-spoken teachers. The desks are arranged in groups, and the girls are face to face. The temperature is set a little bit warmer and the colors are brighter—yellow and greens.
Boys spend their time in classrooms decorated in gray and blue. In some classes, they shoot basketball hoops as a reward for getting a question right, and take breaks to simply tap their pencils.
When social studies teacher Glen Matthews needs his 7th grade class of all boys to complete an assignment, he activates a stopwatch and counts down. “Boys perform better under stress,” he said.
At Kingstree, boys and girls are separated in the four core classes of language arts, math, science, and social studies. Since the program began in August 2006, no parent has asked to have a child put in a coed class. In just one year, school officials report improved test scores and fewer behavior problems.
“We needed to do some drastic things,” said Ms. Myers, the principal, who made sure her 7th and 8th grade teachers received single-gender training before the program started. “And some of the improvements we’ve seen can’t be measured. Their self-esteem is up. They’re enjoying class. They’re enthusiastic.”
Those results seem to echo a statewide survey the South Carolina Department of Education conducted in late 2007 of students in single-gender classes. The voluntary survey, done by students on computer, showed that three-quarters of the 1,700 students who completed the survey (boys and girls responded in nearly equal numbers) thought the single-gender classes had improved their performance. Four out of five girls—a slightly higher proportion than among the boys—thought those classes had raised their self-confidence.
At Killian Elementary School in Columbia, S.C., which has a boys’ class and a girls’ class in the 4th and 5th grades, the number of discipline incidents has dropped dramatically among boys since the beginning of the program in 2006. Boys in single-gender classes had 14 suspensions in 2006-07, and only two so far this school year.
Carol O’Conner, a math coach, said teachers have noticed a big difference when assigning group work. With boys, she said, “there are power struggles.” So instead of working in groups, as girls do, boys work with partners.
James Hearn teaches 5th grade boys and girls at Beech Hill Elementary School outside Charleston, S.C. He says he’s become more effective because he recognizes what works—and what doesn’t—with each kind of class.
“Girls are easy. They’re more traditional,” said Mr. Hearn. “They’re really into family relationships, so I try to make class more personal.”
“Boys,” he said, “are harder. They’re always wanting to move around. But they’re into sports, so I try to bring in news articles to make class more interesting.”
Across these three schools, girls and boys echoed many of the same thoughts about their single-gender classes.
Boys, especially in elementary school, said they liked being away from the girls because there’s “too much drama” when they’re around.
And girls said they worry less about being made fun of with just girls around.
“In math, the girls participate more and speak up more,” said Kingstree 8th grader Kadijah Houston.
The man behind South Carolina’s single-gender expansion is David Chadwell, believed to be the nation’s first state education official whose only job is to get schools to start single-gender programs.
A former lead teacher for boys in a single-gender program in the Richland 2 School District near Columbia, Mr. Chadwell met the state superintendent after Mr. Rex was elected in 2006 on a platform of increasing public school choice.
As part of the single-gender initiative, Mr. Chadwell travels the state providing free professional development for South Carolina teachers and helps schools that are thinking of starting a program.
But Mr. Chadwell said he hesitates giving schools a “model” program from which they can copy.
“No school should do this because it’s the next education fad,” Mr. Chadwell said. “Each school has to look at its data. Where are the discipline problems? Where are academic results sluggish? Where do we have energetic teachers? If you don’t do that, the programs won’t work.”
Within schools, the formula for success seems to involve two factors, Mr. Chadwell says: a principal who is willing to try something different, and even a bit radical, and teachers who are willing to do the same.
Research studies have indicated how the physiological and developmental differences between boys and girls may affect learning. Girls’ hearing is more acute than boys’, for example. The sequence of brain development is different, too. ("Concern Over Gender Gaps Shifting to Boys," March 15, 2006.)
Many single-gender advocates also argue that there are differences in how boys and girls learn best. For instance, boys may learn better under pressure and when allowed to move around, they say, while girls may perform better in group situations and with a lot of encouragement.
Even if such research holds up, knowing someone’s gender just gives teachers partial information about a student, said Rhonda Armistead, a school psychologist at Eastover Elementary School in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the president of the Bethesda, Md.-based National Association of School Psychologists. The group does not have a position on single-gender education.
“It applies a simple solution to complex individuals,” Ms. Armistead said. “Good teachers should be able to make instruction viable for each person.”
Regardless of the merits of the research on learning-related differences, concern about potential stereotyping is often at the root of debate over single-sex programs.
In Georgia, a school district’s plan to assign some or all of its students to single-gender classrooms outraged many parents and caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union. Although the 2,000-student Greene County School District has since abandoned the idea, the ACLU Foundation of Georgia sent a a letter to the district requesting public records on past or future plans for single-gender education.
The dust-up in Georgia, single-gender advocates say, shows how important it is to get parent support before unveiling a new program and to ensure such a program is voluntary.
“I want to give parents one more choice, but I also want them to buy into this,” said Eric Brown, the principal of South Carolina’s Killian Elementary School, in a suburb on the north side of Columbia.
Mr. Chadwell of the state education department said parents generally are enthusiastic about the option, but often have questions, such as how their children will learn to socialize with the opposite sex. For parents of boys, Mr. Chadwell said, a common question is, “Are you going to make my child gay?”
But Ms. Martin, of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, argues that such programs only further gender stereotypes. She pointed to sample lesson plans found on the South Carolina education department’s Web site that encourage teachers to use competitive games and technology to teach boys math, and colors and highlighting to teach girls the same subject.
“I would fully support training teachers to reach out to different learning styles,” she said, “but this ignores the many boys and girls who are not average.”
What’s more, Ms. Martin wonders whether the classes that remain coed will suffer in quality—especially if the best, most energetic teachers are in the single-gender programs.
But Mr. Rex sees such programs as part of an effort to increase choices, which also could take the form of more Montessori programs, or new magnet schools.
“The real power of choice is giving parents more choices in public schools near their home,” Mr. Rex argued. “And parents are going to start demanding more of these choices.”
Vol. 27, Issue 36, Pages 20,22