School & District Management Opinion

Segregating Brains: Do Boys and Girls Learn Differently?

By Dave Powell — December 02, 2014 5 min read
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The New York Times is reporting that an old “tactic” is back on the rise. It might be one you wouldn’t suspect of still carrying weight among professional educators. It’s segregation.

Theoretically, this is not racial segregation, which was declared unconstitutional, as many of us know, in 1954. It is segregation by sex, and it’s based on the specious claim that boys and girls simply learn differently. You can find all kinds of support for this idea with a simple Google search, much of it apparently emanating from a source called the “Gurian Institute” and repeated in such scholarly venues as Reader’s Digest. (Did you know South Carolina had a “coordinator of single gender education,” by the way? Neither did I.) You can also find plenty of support for the idea that learning is a social process, as is our definition of it. So, yeah, maybe boys and girls learn differently—but this may have a lot less to do with the physical structure of their brains than it does with the way we define learning, what our expectations are for students in school, and how we define boys and girls differently from a cultural standpoint.

So let’s get something straight: segregating boys and girls into different classrooms is a terrible idea. It’s a terrible idea because we profess to believe in democracy and equal opportunity and because we say we want schools to teach critical thinking skills, which are really hard to develop when you spend all your time around people who are just like you. But let’s assume for a second that it’s true that boys and girls “learn differently” because of how their brains are structured. Is that a reason to segregate them by gender into separate classrooms?

It is if you have a single-minded goal to “raise student achievement,” and that, of course, is exactly what the architects of these plans are after. As the author of the piece in the Times puts it:

Single sex education, common in the United States until the 19th century, when it fell into deep disfavor except in private and parochial schools, is on the rise again in public schools as educators seek ways to improve academic performance, especially among the poor.

And there’s more:

Advocates of single-sex classes often cite the struggles of boys, who persistently lag behind girls in national tests of reading comprehension and are much more likely to face disciplinary problems and drop out of school. Educators also argue that girls underperform in science when compared with boys and benefit from being with other girls. And school officials say that children can be easily distracted by the opposite sex in the classroom.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. First, it should be noted that this zombie idea, discredited over a hundred years ago, is making a comeback because of our obsession with academic performance. We could begin and end right there. Worse, though, the experiment is taking place, as so many of our educational experiments do, in classrooms full of poor kids; as the article later states: “Many of the schools that offer single-sex classes have struggled with student academic performance and are in high-poverty neighborhoods dominated by racial minorities.” This is not a minor point. We have consistently subjected our most vulnerable kids to untested experiments in education and done it under the guise of saving them from the dysfunctional conditions they were born into—as if we are not responsible for those conditions, too. The deep-pocketed supporters of charter networks primarily exist to support urban schools; Teach for America focuses its reform efforts on urban schools; mass firings of school staff most often occur in urban schools. It seems it’s okay to experiment on other peoples’ kids, especially if those kids are poor and disenfranchised. Who’s going to believe them when they say what a disaster that experiment was?

But what about those learning differences? Boys, according to “advocates of single-sex classes,” persistently do worse on tests of reading comprehension than girls do, and they don’t behave in class. We might begin to think differently about these problems if we thought more carefully about how we teach reading comprehension, not what the gender makeup of a class of learners is; it might also be fruitful to take a look at the gender makeup of the teaching profession, which is overwhelmingly tilted toward one sex. In 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 18.6% of the teachers employed in American elementary and middle schools, where reading comprehension skills are first developed and sharpened, were men. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything, but maybe it does. Maybe if we spent more time trying to diversify the teacher workforce we would feel less inclined to narrow the experiences of the kids who almost never get to choose their teachers to begin with.

And then there’s the claim about female students and science achievement. I guess I can imagine that being around other girls could prevent “underperformance” in science class if the boys that would otherwise be in class are anything like this guy. But other than that, the claim that somehow women are unfit biologically to “achieve” scientifically without special help is no less offensive than the idea that we should be “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because black people simply do not have the intelligence that white people do. You can spout that nonsense even as a Nobel Prize-winner and not be taken seriously these days, thankfully.

At best, this kind of tinkering is grasping at straws; at worst, it’s social engineering and experimentation carried out on the students who most need coherence and consistency in their school experiences. Not to beat a dead horse, but it’s not surprising to see cockamamie schemes foisted on kids in schools when there are no real standards for teaching effectiveness to point to as these plans are put into place. And it raises the question: who thinks this is a good idea?

The answer to that question probably lies somewhere between “people worried about losing their jobs over test scores” and “people who can’t wait to see public education privatized.” The second group has been extraordinarily adept at manipulating the first and taking advantage of the insecurity that forty years of deregulation has brought to our economy. Together, they pack a powerful punch that threatens everything that American public education is supposed to stand for.

What it stands for, to me, is increasing opportunity through social mobility and for breaking down established stereotypes and hierarchies in the service of the greater good. It should stand for raising expectations and teaching people in a diverse society how to live with, and help, people who are not like them. And it should stand for something more than lowering our sights by focusing only on numbers spewed out on a test score printout. Catherine Lhamon, quoted in the article, said it best: “No school should be teaching students to live down to diminished expectations for who they can be.” I don’t blame parents for trusting the “experts” who tell them that separating the boys and girls will raise test scores and open doors that might otherwise remain closed. But I do blame those “experts” for, as Galen Sherwin put it in the article, selling such options as a solution “with inflated, unsupported supposed evidence.” We can do better than that.

So, no, I’m not buying it. Tracking of any kind—by skin color, by sex, by socioeconomic status, by hair color, eye color, perceived ability, actual ability, disability, age—none of it passes the smell test for me. Even if we do learn differently, we ought to learn together.

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