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Education Opinion

It’s not the sex, silly, it’s the teachers

By Jessica Shyu — March 01, 2008 2 min read
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I read the illustrious The New York Times’ extensive article, “Teaching Boys and Girls Separately” once on Friday, again on Saturday, and twice more Sunday. I had to be sure that my sense of underwhelmed-ness and disappointment was genuine. It was. It still is.

Perhaps I’m asking too much from an article (I don’t think I am), but it could have easily been summed up as: A headline-grabbing theory that people claim makes a significant difference on student learning, but lacks actual hard proof. However, the theory does have with warm and fuzzy anecdotes about kids. And everyone love kids.

In fact, I think it could have more accurately used the same interviews and investigation to more explicitly say this: A headline-grabbing theory that may or may not work with all students. But it doesn’t really matter, because those warm and fuzzy anecdotes about kids and classrooms really just further prove that what we really need are good teachers-- not single-sex classrooms.

That’s what I got out of the article at least. All the positive examples they give about where single-sex education indirectly suggest that good teachers are the ones responsible for the gains. Sure, those classrooms saw great results in their students, but they also had already high-performing teachers vying for those classes, as well as schools with extensive support and much greater academic requirements and structure throughout the day. All those factors seem to be consistent across the single-sex classrooms described at Foley Intermediate School, the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem, and the Excellence Charter School in Brooklyn-- three schools described extensively throughout the article for their high student performance. My question is-- why couldn’t that have been discussed explicitly?

What makes me more anxious is the suggested silver bullet to close the achievement gap:

”...there’s no doubt that public schools are failing poor minority students in general and poor minority boys in particular. Despite six years of No Child Left Behind, the achievement gaps between rich and poor students and white and black students have not significantly narrowed. ‘People are getting desperate’ is how Benjamin Wright, chief administrative officer for the Nashville public schools, described the current interest in single-sex education to me. ‘Coed’s not working. Time to try something else.’”

Fortunately for the article (and unfortunately for reality), Wright goes on to explain that single-sex classrooms don’t all see significant results-- in part because of a lack of teacher engagement.

“Not all schools see great results from switching to a single-sex format. After transforming the Thurgood Marshall School in Seattle, Wright moved to Philadelphia to work on the district’s single-sex programs, and the results were rather modest, a fact Wright attributes to working both with middle- and high-school students and with less-engaged teachers. Other districts have started single-gender programs only to shut them down, as major logistical headaches outweighed the small academic gains. Lori Clark, principal at Jefferson Leadership Academies in Long Beach, Calif., which in 1999 became the first public middle school in the country to convert to a single-gender format, is in the process of reverting her school to coed. ‘We just didn’t get the bang for the buck we’d been hoping for with our test scores,’ Clark told me.”

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.