New York Times Article Points to Single-sex Debate Among Educators

Public educators in the United States are in the middle of a debate as to whether single-sex classrooms are a good idea.

On one side of the debate are people who can point to an increasing body of research showing that gender differences affect the way people learn. On the other side are feminists and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union that argue segregation of any kind is wrong and anti-American. They also assert that the new research is sketchy at best. Nevertheless, the idea of public single-sex education is catching on. In 2002, only a dozen public schools had single-sex classes; today, that number has climbed to over 350, with more coming in 2009.

In the March 2, 2008 issue of New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Weil interviewed many experts on both sides of the issue for her article, “Should Boys and Girls Be Taught Separately?” One such expert is Dr. Leonard Sax, a medical doctor turned advocate of single-sex education. He helps public schools set up single-sex classrooms, and even provides obscure information such as setting the room temperature at 69 degrees for boys and 75 for girls. Sax believes physical differences between the sexes mean teachers have to engage them in different ways. For example, boys enjoy studying maps of battles and science experiments with snakes. Girls, on the other hand, enjoy long discussions about the relationships between characters in a novel.

“You need to engage boys’ energy,” said David Chadwell, coordinator of Single Sex Gender Initiatives at the South Carolina Department of Education. “You need to get them up and moving.” In contrast, girls like to meet in circles and share details of their lives.

Many feminists believe this kind of talk brings back old stereotypes Americans have worked so hard to dispose of – notions that girls are passive creatures and boys are active doers.

“Every time I hear schools officials selling single sex programs based on brain research, my heart sinks,” said Rosemary Salomone, a professor at St. John’s University of Law.

Things have changed since the 1995 groundbreaking report “How Schools Short Change Girls.” Boys now seem to be the ones shortchanged. More boys drop out of high school and twice as many boys as girls are suspended. Boys fail and are held back a grade at a rate 1.5 times greater than that of girls, and two-thirds of all students in special education are male. Last year, 57 percent of those graduating from college were women.

Minority boys are particularly in trouble, which explains why single-sex public education experiments tend to occur in inner-city neighborhoods. In one inner-city school in Seattle, boys’ test scores went from the 10th percentile to the 35th in math, and from the 10th percentile to the 53rd in reading within the first year of male-only classes. Parents of minority girls often are eager to try single-sex classes, too, in hopes of removing their daughters from a sexually degrading “hook-up” environment in high school.

While Title IX forbids discriminating against children based on sex, public schools have avoided the issue by making all programs voluntary.

For complete information, see Elizabeth Weil’s article posted at the New York Times website,