School Choice & Charters

Split Decision

By Mark Bixler — November 11, 2005 3 min read
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Deborah Roberts doesn’t run her room like a typical 5th grade teacher. Enthusiastically exhorting her students, whom she refers to as her “team,” she runs a loud, unabashedly “high-energy” class. Drilling the kids like a coach, she openly fosters academic competition. It’s a setup calculated to engage the boys in her Woodward Avenue Elementary School class, tapping into their natural competitiveness and boisterousness. This way of teaching could easily alienate the girls in the room, but her class at the DeLand, Florida, public school doesn’t have any.

The number of public schools offering single-sex instruction has risen from fewer than a dozen to 205 since 1997.

“It’s much better than being with girls,” 10-year-old Austin Cox says about his boys-only class—one of the small but growing number of such arrangements in public schools. “They used to annoy me with sissy talk.”

The sexes have been taught separately for centuries, usually in private settings. But recent research on gender-specific learning, new federal flexibility, and some eyebrow-raising test-score improvements are forcing public school leaders to rethink the hegemony of coeducational learning.

Woodward Avenue Elementary’s experiment started last school year in response to national statistics showing that boys were more likely than girls to drop out of school. Early results are promising: In the first year, 86 percent of boys in Woodward’s single-sex classes met state writing standards, compared with 33 percent of boys in the school’s coed classes, Roberts says. Among 4th grade girls, 75 percent in single-sex classes met standards, compared with 59 percent of girls in mixed classes.

A research review now under way by Cornelius Riordan, a sociology professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, seems to bear out the school’s success. Preliminary findings from his examination of 40 studies completed since 1960 suggest that single-sex schools in English-speaking countries improved academic performance, particularly among poor, African American, and Hispanic students, he says. But others warn against making too much of such results. Riordan’s study, for example, does not account for single-sex classes in coed schools. And at Woodward, participation in divided-gender classes was voluntary; the number of students tested was also not large enough to draw definitive conclusions.

But with score jumps so dramatic, some educators are concluding that they can’t afford to ignore single-sex classes’ potential benefits. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest district, plans to launch the state’s first completely gender- segregated school next year: a magnet “leadership academy” for girls in 6th through 10th grades, followed by one for boys in 2007-08.

The No Child Left Behind Act has opened the floodgates.

The number of public schools offering single-sex instruction has risen from fewer than a dozen to 205 since 1997, with classrooms sprouting up in places such as Atlanta, New York, and Philadelphia, says Leonard Sax, a psychologist and physician who directs the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, in Maryland. The increase is directly attributable to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which introduced new flexibility to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The statute had previously prohibited public schools from segregating classrooms by gender if they wanted to keep receiving federal money. While 205 still represents a tiny fraction of the 96,000 public schools nationwide, Sax foresees growth.

“There are fundamental, hard-wired, genetically programmed differences in how boys and girls learn,” he says. Generalizations are tricky, and other experts have highlighted exceptions, but many boys thrive on motion and noise, while girls often sit still longer and can work better in groups, adds Michael Gurian, author of The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life.

Not everyone believes separation is beneficial, though. “There is tremendous potential for harm when you segregate boys and girls from each other and make them feel like it’s their gender that’s creating the problem,” says Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2005 edition of Teacher Magazine as Split Decision


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