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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Why Science Doesn’t Support Single-Sex Classes

By Rosalind Chait Barnett & Caryl Rivers — February 17, 2012 7 min read
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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.

Gender-segregated classes have been promoted in best-selling books, warmly embraced by the media, praised by school officials, and endorsed by politicians. It’s argued that the brains of boys and girls are so different that students need separate classrooms to learn and thrive. This mantra has been repeated so often that it has become the conventional wisdom.

That wisdom is fast unraveling. 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.

Pedro A. Noguera, the director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, notes the growing popularity of single-sex classrooms aimed at children of color.

A consensus is emerging among scientists that single-sex classrooms are not the answer to kids’ achievement issues.”

He writes in the Feb. 3 issue of Phi Delta Kappan that such classes are often “spurred by a desire to address the underachievement of boys,” but notes that, unfortunately, they are too often “justified by highly questionable research that suggests boys learn differently than girls.” After looking at the data, he is decidedly skeptical about the notion that single-sex classrooms are a magic bullet to solve the problems in urban schools.

“The need to act on the problems confronting black and Latino males is apparent,” Noguera writes, “but no research supports the notion that separating young men is the best way to meet their academic and social needs.”

Also, a new study of public schools in the Caribbean republic of Trinidad and Tobago did not find strong support for the efficacy of gender-segregated classrooms. The data show that while sex-segregated classrooms may benefit a subset of girls, they don’t automatically benefit all girls and boys. (The girls who did well were those who wanted to have an all-girls class.)

The research team was headed by C. Kirabo Jackson, a labor economist at Northwestern University, who analyzed data on 219,849 students from 123 schools to find out whether single-sex schools improved student performance between 6th and 10th grades. The study found that students in all-girls schools were slightly less likely to take math or science courses. Given the fact that such courses open the door to lucrative careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields, this fact is disturbing.

More and more, researchers are agreeing that the data do not make a strong case for single-sex schooling. That was our conclusion when we looked at the international research for our 2011 book, The Truth About Girls and Boys. Our findings dovetailed with those of eight prominent psychologists and neuroscientists who authored an article in the journal Science last September, titled “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling.”

They 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.”

The authors of the Science article have published widely on sex roles and gender issues. The lead author is Diane Halpern, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and the past president of the American Psychological Association.

However, a small group of advocates continues to lobby hard for single-sex classrooms in public schools. Leonard Sax, the head of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and best-selling author of Why Gender Matters, and Michael Gurian, the author of The Wonder of Girls, repeatedly make the brain-difference argument. Last year, Sax even called the authors of the Science article “The Angry Eight,” and he continues to claim that the differing brains of girls and boys call for separate classrooms.

But that claim has been debunked in three recent and important books. In Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Lise Eliot, an associate professor in the department of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, conducted an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence. She concluded there is “surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.”

Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist and professor at Barnard College, also rejects the idea that that the differing organization of female and male brains is the key to behavior. This narrative, she says, misunderstands the complexities of biology and the dynamic nature of brain development. “As a folk tale, it’s a pat answer, a curiosity killer. And the data doesn’t fit the tidy male-female brain patterns anyway. Why keep trying to fit the data into a story about sex?” she asks.

Jordan-Young doesn’t simply critique the “science” of sex differences; she shows how far off track it’s wandered. “We’ve reached the end of that road—in fact, we’ve gone way off the road into the woods and are now stuck in the deep mud of ‘innate sex differences.’ ” In her comprehensive and thoroughly researched book Brainstorm, she concludes that although sex-linked traits play a role in human development, they do not determine most of our behavior.

Cordelia Fine, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne, agrees. In her book Delusions of Gender, she writes: “Male and female brains are of course far more similar than they are different. Not only is there generally great overlap in ‘male’ and ‘female’ patterns, but also, the male brain is like nothing in the world so much as a female brain. So why focus on difference? If we focused on similarity, we’d conclude that boys and girls should be taught the same way.” Fine calls many of the “difference” arguments by a term she coined: neurosexism.

But despite the growing scientific consensus, in our survey of media coverage of the single-sex argument, we found that most reporters accepted uncritically the theories of such people as Sax and Gurian. For example, on Dec. 9, 2009, CNN’s “American Morning” featured a segment on middle schools in Virginia that base their curricula on Sax’s theories of brain differences between boys and girls. The CNN story did not note that Sax has an economic interest in promoting such classrooms, since he runs educator-training programs and conferences to promote sex segregation in public education. David Sadker, a professor of education at American University and an expert on these issues, got a tiny sound bite that, he said, gave him no time to rebut the flawed science promoted by Sax.

Many of the other stories we examined had similar problems. Reporters presented theories served up by advocates as settled science, often with no opposing point of view. And if critics were quoted, it was in a throwaway sentence or two late in the story that made them seem to be ill-informed or merely carping.

The media is still so enchanted by gender differences that it too often reports with little skepticism—or data. For example, the book The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine, got incredible media play, including on ABC’s “20/20” and “Good Morning America” television shows, a Q-and-A in The New York Times Magazine’s “ideas” issue, a San Francisco Chronicle front-page article, and pieces in Newsweek and many other media outlets. Few stories mentioned the fact that the authoritative British journal Nature savaged the book, saying it “fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance,” is “riddled with scientific errors,” and “is misleading about the processes of brain development, the neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general.”

Brizendine referred to another favorite of the single-sex-classroom advocates: hormones. She wrote: “When boys and girls enter their teens, their math and science abilities are equal. But as estrogen floods the female brain, females start to focus intensely on emotions and communication, girls start to lose interest in pursuits that require more solitary work and prefer interaction with others.” This, she explains, is why girls don’t do well in math.

If these statements were true, we’d see boys’ scores at this age soaring ahead of girls’. But in 2001, sociologists Erin Leahey and Guang Guo, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, looked at 20,000 math scores of children age 4 to 18 and found no age-related differences of any magnitude, even in areas that are supposedly male domains, such as reasoning skills and geometry. This finding astonished the researchers, who said, “We expected large gender difference to emerge as early as junior high school, but our results do not confirm this.”

So, there is a veritable mountain of evidence, growing every day, that the single-sex classroom is not a magic bullet to save American education. And scant evidence that it heightens the academic achievement of girls and boys.

President George W. Bush’s administration relaxed provisions of the federal rules barring the unequal distribution of resources in education based on gender to allow more single-sex public classrooms. Today, many researchers are calling on the Obama administration to rescind those changes.

And they have data on their side.

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