Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Single-Sex Public Education

The New York Times Magazine carried a lengthy article about Single-Sex Public Education, an idea that has been gaining ground and a few converts (including me in certain circumstances) along the way in terms of education reform. However, the story is not really about how single-sex education works in practice or even in theory, but it is more about gender-based education, which is a totally different animal, as discussed by Sara Mead.

The problem with gender-based education, based upon research that shows that boys and girls learn differently, is that the leading proponents of gender based education such as Michael Gurian and Dr. Leonard Sax
exaggerate the neuroscience and get some of it flat-out wrong. Much of the science they do cite is primarily descriptive--it's not adequate to serve as a guide to making decisions about teaching or policy. And they ignore the fact that variation among both males and females often far exceeds average differences between the genders.


Actual neuroscientists--whose work Sax and Gurian claim to base their arguments on, though neither are themselves neuroscientists--aren't the ones banging the drum on gender-based education. In fact, many caution against trying to draw practical implications for schooling from their work. Much of what Gurian and Sax call "brain research" is still in its infancy, a long way from being able to support practical applications in education. Jay Geidd, one of the preeminent neuroscientists studying brain development in children (including gender differences) cautions that gender is much too crude a tool to differentiate educational approaches: the variation within each gender is often larger than the average difference between genders, and there's substantial overlap in the distributions.
The problem with this educational fad of gender-based education, is that like all other fads, there is little proof that they work. And in our desperation to improve education, we will try anything. The constant drumbeat of poorly educated boys and mis-educated girls or girls who don't get treated fairly in schools is that we will embrace an idea that is too far beyond what may be a resonable solution.

Single-sex education, that is sex-segregated classrooms or schools, can have some positive effects on the students, namely it appears to cut down on disciplinary problems, other sex based distractions distractions and appears to foster a more tolerant, or at least less confrontational, atmosphere. However, we should be careful to distinguish between a benefit of the environment from the supposed benefits of teaching students differently based on their gender. If a school has gender separated classrooms, but use the same cirricula, then I see little problem with single sex education. But to change the cirricula based upon research in its infancy is probably going to be more damaging in the long run.

Here's the thing, if there are only 360 single sex schools in America (out of more than 14,000 school districts and roughly 4,000 charter schools), we simply don't have enough information about the positive (or negative) long term effects of single sex education. Even fewer schools have implemented any gender-based education models. I would hope then that we can develop such a base of knowledge about single sex education (hold off on the gender-based education untill there is better science), by encouraging more single sex charter schools. District Schools can implement single sex classroom instruction, but it would be very hard to have sex segregated schools for traditional public schooling.

But one of the problems that I can see that may be possible is tilting to far one way or another. Let's assume that 360 number of single sex schools is accurate--how many are girls schools and how many are boys schools? My guess is that numbers skew a little toward the girls. The problem is that in our effort to help struggling girls, we have ignored the struggle of the boys.

1 comment:

atypicalheroine said...

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