School Choice & Charters Opinion

Impact of Science article on Single Sex

By Richard Whitmire — September 23, 2011 1 min read
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This article could shift the debate on single sex education, which over the past several years has enjoyed wide support among educators. Due mostly to the declining academic performance of boys, school districts have been ramping up their single sex offerings. The strategy is based on the conventional wisdom that boys and girls learn in very different ways -- a notion that has come under increasing fire.

Here’s the NYT on the report. And here’s the Washington Post’s take on the Science articlequestioning the logic behind single sex education. It includes a response from single sex advocate Leonard Sax, who comes under criticism in the article.

The authors cite as unfounded work by Sax that boys and girls, for example, respond to classroom stress differently because of differences in their autonomic nervous systems, which make boys thrilled by loud, energetic or confrontational teachers, such as "What's your answer, Mr. Jackson? Give it to me!" while girls prefer to be approached by a gentler touch, such as "Lisa, sweetie, it's time to open your book." Sax, a former medical doctor who has a doctorate in psychology, said he was looking for scientific explanations for differences in teaching styles he has observed in hundreds of single-sex schools, not offering fool-proof scientific justifications for single-sex education. The best arguments for single-sex schooling are social justice arguments, he said. "We live in a sexist culture," Sax said. "Writing poetry and keeping a journal is something girls do. Boys are going to need something different than what girls need . . . to deconstruct that."

As readers of this blog know, I have repeatedly questioned the strategy of offering single-sex education as an antidote to the ‘boy troubles.’ I saw too many schools launch single sex programs without any idea of how to do it well, which always leads to me ask: What’s the backup plan if single sex proves unable to help boys? (My observation is that single sex helps girls more than boys.)

One thing to keep in mind is that Sax himself questions the quality of many of the newly formed single sex programs. He, too, sees the potential problem of a backlash.

From his website at the National Association for Single Sex Public Education:

Since the founding of NASSPE in 2002, there has been an extraordinary resurgence of interest in single-sex public education. The regulations which were published on October 25 2006, which facilitate single-sex education in American public schools, have significantly stoked this interest. Unfortunately, this exuberance has led some school districts to plunge into experimentation with this format without a thorough grounding in the complexities of gender differences in how girls and boys learn. Advocates of single-sex education do NOT believe that "all girls learn one way and all boys learn another way." On the contrary, we cherish and celebrate the diversity among girls and among boys. We understand that some boys would rather read a book than play football. We understand that some girls would rather play football rather than play with Barbies. Educators who understand these differences can inspire every child to learn to the best of her or his ability. Conversely, educators and parents are recognizing that all too often, coeducational settings actually reinforce gender stereotypes via the process that researchers call "gender intensification." Boys at coed schools will tell you "poetry is for girls." Girls at coed schools will tell you that computer science is for boys. The good news is that the gender-separate format can boost grades and test scores for BOTH girls and boys. However, that improvement doesn't happen automatically. Just putting girls in one room and boys in another is no guarantee of success. As with anything else in education, adequate preparation in proven, evidence-based strategies is key.

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The opinions expressed in Why Boys Fail 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.