Is single-sex education all it's cracked up to be?

Examining culture and the arts.
Nov. 15 2006 12:43 PM

Single-Sex Ed 101

Welcome to the latest educational fad.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Not long ago, the idea that American public schools should offer separate classes for boys and girls would have been regarded as retrograde; in the late 1980s, single-sex public schools had almost disappeared. But during the last decade, single-sex education has come to seem cutting-edge once again, backed by a startling rise of bipartisan support. In October, the Department of Education announced new federal regulations making it easier for public schools to become single-sex institutions, provided that "substantially equal" opportunities are available to the other sex. Part of the impetus behind the new rules is simply Americans' love of choice. As a Department of Education spokeswoman told me, single-sex schools will aid families by adding "one more tool to the toolbox." But part of it is the belief that single-sex schools will be a panacea for struggling boys and girls: Some of the staunchest advocates of alternatives to co-education are preaching new approaches based on magnifying, rather than trying to overcome, gender differences.

Behind what has been billed as a pragmatic decision lurks a more programmatic (and pseudoscientific) agenda. Invoking murky neurobiological data about innate gender differences, these advocates leap to cut-and-dry classroom prescriptions—ones that may ultimately provide less pedagogical variety for students themselves. It's one thing to offer students the option to learn the same things in separate classrooms. It's quite another to urge that all students learn in programmatically gender-tailored ways—and possibly even learn different things.

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Among the most influential of the lobbying groups, the National Association for Single Sex Public Education is headed by an MIT-educated psychologist named Leonard Sax. Extrapolating rather freely from neuroscientific studies—many with small sample pools—Sax argues that, paradoxically, treating students in a gender-neutral manner tends to reinforce stereotypical weaknesses in the classroom, leading to declines in aptitude for both genders. His remedy is to urge educational techniques that cater to the unique "boy" brain and unique "girl" brain. Girls, Sax believes, don't enjoy abstraction; they have more sensitive hearing than their male peers; and they work better than boys do in groups. For them, using more context in math class is useful. Boys, on the other hand, relish abstraction and are bored by context. They benefit from moving around constantly. Therefore, Sax claims, "It's not sufficient just to put girls in one classroom and boys in another. In order to improve academic performance and broaden educational horizons, you need to understand how girls and boys learn differently."

Consider a typical example from the NASSPE Web site: "Girls have a sense of hearing which is two to four times better than boys (depending on the frequency tested) … if you have a male teacher speaking in a tone of voice which seems normal to him, a girl in the front row may feel that the teacher is practically yelling at her. Remember that she is experiencing a sound four times louder than what the male teacher is experiencing. The simplest way to accommodate these differences in a coed classroom is to put all the boys in the front and the girls in the back—just the opposite of the usual seating pattern that the children themselves will choose." Sax's best-selling book, Why Gender Matters, is full of similar illustrations.

The trouble with this type of reductive emphasis on group identity is that it contributes to the very problem the other single-sex education promoters aim to combat: pedagogical practices that unwittingly enforce gender stereotypes. First of all, group differences between the genders, as psychologist Elizabeth Spelke at Harvard University emphasizes, should not obscure the wide overlap in capacities among individual boys and girls. Second, what differences do exist rarely dictate one clear-cut pedagogical response. A good teacher is, or should be, fine-tuning classroom chemistry, not proceeding on the basis of simplistic biology. Putting all the girls in the back, for example, might result in the queen bees distracting each other, and more than a few boys turning around to look at them. Third, we still don't fully understand the import of the neuroscientific studies Sax cites, or what, precisely, "blood flow" to different areas of the brain means. Leaping to sweeping, untested conclusions is hardly scientific.

That's not to say that single-sex education should be dismissed out of hand. Numerous studies do show that students from Hispanic and black single-sex Catholic schools score significantly better on cognitive tests than their peers at co-ed Catholic schools do. Others have found that girls at single-sex institutions demonstrate more interest in math than their co-educated peers do. And one laudable goal of single-sex educators is simply to get kids to enjoy school. You're more likely to practice things you enjoy, and you're more likely to learn when you're engaged. It's no service to students when schools push one didactic approach above all others—an emphasis in kindergarten, say, on fine-motor and academic skills and lots of sitting activities that slower-developing boys tend to find more frustrating. Finally, more than a few parents and kids themselves will attest that single-sex schooling can help focus an adolescent hopelessly distracted by the other sex.

But whatever advantages might ultimately derive from single-sex schools, the gender-specific approach all too easily devolves to formulaic teaching that promises to narrow (rather than expand) learning options for kids. When it comes to English, for instance, single-sex-education advocates tend to disparage what they believe is a "feminized" verbal curriculum and approach, arguing that it plays to boys' weaknesses and handicaps them. Sax suggests, then, that girls and boys be asked to do different exercises in English. The girls would read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and engage in a role-playing exercise about the characters. The boys, meanwhile, would read Lord of the Flies and then create a map of the island, demonstrating that they've read closely enough to retain key details. Neither exercise sounds particularly useful. But the latter simply doesn't accomplish the most essential work of an English class. It's a test of reading for information—and a reaffirmation of boys' good "spatial skills"—rather than an exploration of the thematic complexities of William Golding's classic. Even well-intentioned prescription easily becomes a form of zealotry, as when Sax declares that "Ernest Hemingway's books are boy-friendly, while Toni Morrison's are girl-friendly" and adds, "some teachers suggest that we need to stretch the boys' imaginations … surely such a suggestion violates every rule of pedagogy."

There's a curious paradox here: Sax's goal is to get kids to feel more comfortable with skills that don't come easily to them. Yet his recipe for doing so is to segregate them with similarly challenged kids. In this, the NASSPE ethos scants another central goal of school: learning how to work with those who have different aptitudes from your own. In the right circumstances, a classroom can profitably expose kids to diverse thinking and aptitudes. A friend who teaches at a private school recently told me a story about asking his students to compose a list of metaphors. In his English class is a kid—let's call him J—who fits the stereotypical "male" learning model. He is remarkably good at abstract concepts and at logic, and it's hard for him not to blurt out answers to math problems (which can lead to quiet girls being overlooked). But his verbal skills are less honed. In class, J read his list out loud; most of his metaphors were highly logical but somewhat literal. Then a few girls read theirs, including a student of remarkable verbal talent. After listening to her, J said, "I think some of my examples weren't really metaphors; they were more like comparisons." If you buy the gender-specific line of thinking, J might never have arrived at that insight.

Proponents of single-sex education would protest that their approach gives children more latitude to carve out a distinctive identity. Removing "the other" from the classroom can help kids conceive of themselves as individuals rather than as members of a gender. But the risk is that the more didactic—and "scientifically" justified—the campaign for single-sex schools becomes, the more the idea of "essential" gender differences will filter down to kids themselves. And as psychologist Carol Dweck and others have shown, the way we think about how we learn has a profound effect on the way we actually learn. Claude Steele's work on "stereotype threat" has shown that students who absorb others' ideas about their group's handicaps exhibit further declines in aptitude in the contested areas. (And a 2001 study of pilot single-sex programs in California demonstrated what can happen when programs are badly implemented: In this case, unconscious teacher bias inadvertently accentuated more trivial stereotypes as well, with girls encouraged to be "concerned with their appearance," and boys encouraged to be "strong.") What is designed as an escape from gender-based thinking—boys are better at math than girls—could, in the end, only reinforce gender-based thinking, if a more nuanced form of it: Girls aren't as good with abstraction as boys are. That's a result that even those who believe in innate differences, like Sax, shouldn't be in favor of accentuating further.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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