Sunday, March 02, 2008

New York Times on Single-Sex Education

The New York Times Magazine's cover story today is all about single-sex education. The article highlights the sharp growth in single-sex classrooms in public schools (one estimate in the article is that there were approximately 12 public schools offering single-sex programs in 2002, compared with approximately 360 today), citing a number of factors: the Department of Education's 2006 decision to promulgate regulations making it easier for districts to create single-sex classrooms without running afoul of Title IX; scientific research showing that males and females have different patterns of brain development, which some argue implicates a different learning style based on sex; the need for a more supportive environment for girls to become stronger leaders; and the sense that public schools are not doing enough to address the problem of boys failing out of school, and that perhaps single-sex education is worth a shot to see if boys' achievement improves.

Countering these arguments are numerous criticisms: that the Bush administration's encouragement of single-sex education undermines one of the primary goals of Title IX, which is to eliminate sex-based stereotypes in education; that any sex-based differences in brain development is minimal compared to individual learning preferences, and should not be interpreted in essentialist terms which would designate all boys as one type of learner, and all girls as a different type of learner; and that both boys and girls would be better served in co-educational settings by getting the individualized support necessary to be confident and to succeed academically.

I will admit to feeling conflicted about the utility of single-sex education: on the one hand, I understand the appeal of trying different techniques to encourage different types of learners, and the argument that in certain limited circumstances, a single-sex learning environment which the students (and their parents) opt into, may provide more support for certain students, and may help the students feel freed from gender stereotypes that would affect them in a co-educational setting. (This may be particularly true in the case of African-American boys, who, frankly, have been failed by public education in a number of ways).

On the other hand, the biological essentialist argument is extremely disturbing to me. One of the single-sex education proponents cited in the article, Leonard Sax, argues that human development is gendered to its core and, therefore, that boys and girls do better when separated into different classrooms. Jay Giedd, a critic of Sax's argument, points out that the biological differences between boys and girls are there, but that Sax blows their significance out of proportion. Giedd uses a good analogy: boys are, after a certain age, more likely to be taller than girls of the same age. If you decided to divide students by height, assigning the tallest 50% to use the boys' locker room, and and the shortest 50% to use the girls' locker room, "you'd end up with a better than random sort, [but] the results would be abysmal, with unacceptably large percentages of students in the wrong place."

A second problem with single-sex education is the perpetuation of gender stereotypes in how lessons are given (not the breaking down of gender stereotypes that Title IX mandates): the article discusses how in one school in Foley, Alabama which offers opt-in single-sex classrooms, an all-girls' fourth-grade class sings a song together called "Always Sisters" and then does a "tidy" experiment in measuring the relative density of oil and water, and then "confirm[s] their results with the firsthand knowledge that when you’re doing the dishes after your mother makes fried chicken, the oil always settles on top of the water in the sink." Meanwhile, their counterparts in the all-boys' classroom are discussing a story about a boy who survives a plane crash and needs to survive near a lake. Where to start with these choices on lesson plans? Why not teach the story of the plane crash AND the oil density/washing the dishes experiment to ALL of the students? Instead, the division seems to encourage boys and girls to think that they are fundamentally different, that they should care about different things in life and that they should focus on different aspects of their life outside of school as potentially helpful in the educational environment.

The story about the Foley, Ala. schools highlights the difficulty with establishing even an opt-in program: that some school districts and parents will feel entirely comfortable in perpetuating gender stereotypes in education. How to distinguish this kind of classroom from that of a different model of single-sex classroom that is able to assist in breaking down gender stereotypes is, in my view, one of the greatest challenges to establishing a potentially useful single-sex educational environment.

Under the pre-2006 Department of Education regulations, with more safeguards in place to protect against the promulgation of gender stereotypes, the Foley, Ala. curriculum might have been easier to challenge under Title IX. Under the current regulations and the attitude of the Bush administration, that's simply not the case.