Tuesday, December 09, 2003

the benefits of single-gender education

With thanks to Edwin Thomas for pointing out this Yahoo! article on the positive effects of single-gender education. Quoted here in its entirety:

Preliminary results are in from a Denver evaluation of single-gender classrooms for seventh-grade students in a public school, and they show more than just better grades. The tests going on at Sheridan Middle School resulted in math scores for both boys and girls increasing more quickly than for classmates in mixed-gender classes.

But teachers also are reporting better attendance in the single-sex classrooms, particularly by girls, and there is more leadership being developed among students.

"We're definitely starting to see some leaders emerge among the girls," said math teacher Steve Beaudoin, one of two teachers that got the assessment going. "In the beginning, I would have to say, 'Somebody in the class has to answer the question.' Now I say it less often."

This fall 28 boys and 32 girls at Sheridan volunteered to try the yearlong pilot program set up by Beaudoin and science teacher Melanie Fuqua. The teachers started out believing that some students do better in single-gender classes.

"In class, boys and girls definitely show off for one another," Fuqua said. "Girls will definitely sit back and not know anything, afraid the boys will laugh at them."

The two teachers, with social studies instructor Linnie Boteler, also said the two groups need different teaching styles.

"Boys want more hands-on activities. They like to get the explanation and then try it on their own. Girls want more explanation. They want more detail before doing it themselves," said Fuqua.

Sheridan Principal Vernita Mickens approved the pilot and it was not challenged by federal officials who manage Title IX requirements, the 1972 law that prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sex.

"The key is students get the same teachers, the same curriculum and are held to the same standards," said Mickens.

"I thought I would learn more, "said Aryssa Rodriguez, 12, on her reason for volunteering. "Most of the boys always like to goof off. They talk too much and tease too much."

Beaudoin will present results to other Colorado teachers at a research conference in April.

I took pedagogy classes in college in the late 1980s, early 1990s on the road to becoming a high school French teacher. Some of our coursework covered issues in single-gender programs, and the effects described in this article, like higher concentration and greater female initiative, were cited back then as well. But arguments were also made in favor of mixed environments, especially regarding social maturity.

Call me old-fashioned, but social "maturity" may be overrated, especially when you think about teen pregnancy rates and elementary/middle schoolers engaging in oral sex in class. Long-time readers of this blog know quite well I'm orally fixated and anal-expulsive. Since I know this myself, it'd be dishonest for me to pass myself off as a frothing advocate of prudery and probity à la that paragon of moderation, William "The Book of Virtues" Bennett. No, I'm no such advocate. Not a strict one, anyway. But like Bowen of Cobb, I'm Old School about some things, especially regarding public behavior. So as an adult, I find there's much to recommend all-girl and all-boy classes: the cultivation of female initiative and empowerment, the greater focus it gives boys on their studies, etc.-- these are all positive things.

But there are still reasons to believe the single-gender paradigm isn't always perfect. For one thing, the notion that both girls and boys will always be "held to the same standards" requires serious examination, especially if you're trying to make a broad statement about a wide-ranging curriculum covering topics and skill sets in which one sex will obviously perform better than another. This is most pronounced in military schools, where an issue like upper body strength will naturally create a stratification in standards (there's a reason why most men's and women's professional sports aren't combined). There are also cognitive issues we've only begun to address in our biological studies: real differences rooted in the physical structures of our brains and the action of our body chemistries that cannot be glossed over by gender-equality idealist rhetoric. I'm not a biological determinist, but I'm also not about to live in denial of physical reality.

And here's an educated conjecture: the "same standards" issue will come up again when you perform cross-gender comparisons after boys and girls have spent many years in single-gender education. And this brings us back to part of what's entailed by "social maturity": assume that single-gender courses, like mixed-gender courses, will offer elective options. It's likely that girls' and boy's choices in the elective phases will skew in gender-determined directions. The results of single-gender education are therefore less likely, I think, to yield what these educators want: "equalized" results across many subjects. And why? Simply because girls and boys will have made, over the course of time, choices reflecting their femininity and masculinity-- a reality rooted in biology but also culturally reinforced-- perhaps more so in single-gender environments. Not equalized results, but balkanized results. And that, to me, is a very strong argument in favor of mixing classes: girls and boys shouldn't grow up with formative backgrounds that risk making them overly alien to each other.

I'm not arguing that single-gender education is therefore wrong. I taught French at a private Catholic school in Arlington, Virginia for two years, and often wonder how different my life might have been had classes been single-gender instead of mixed (if you haven't guessed, life has hell, which is why I was happy to switch to adult ed, where I've done much better). I also agree with the observations in the Yahoo! article that, in a mixed environment, boys and girls are showing off to/for each other. This is manifestly true: hormones play an enormous role during those volatile teen years, and I saw much plumage on display-- the swaggerers, the "I think I'm Jim Carrey" types, the girls who constantly stapled their pleated skirts up to expose more thigh for the guys, the class-conscious, etc. The mixed-gender environment fosters mixed-gender behavior issues.

So while the article's conclusion is one I generally agree with (not having done any deep research of my own and relying on only a few years' teaching experience), experimental results need to be viewed with caution. We've only begun to explore the issues systematically.

I don't know whether single-gender public schools still exist in the US. If someone would care to write in with some info about this, I'll gladly slap it up on the blog.


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