WASHINGTON — HIGH school teacher Chris Mikles says she is still taken aback when students in her Algebra II class ask her question after question about math. She says it is unusual for girls, who are often reluctant to ask questions in front of boys, to be so vocal about math symbols on the blackboard.
But her class is unusual: It is all girls.
And it is not in an all-girls private school either. Ventura (Calif.) High School where Ms. Mikles teaches is a coed public school experimenting with alternative teaching methods.
Her all-girl math class, she says, is helping girls learn more math and feel confident in a subject they traditionally have been discouraged from excelling in.
Such experimentation is not confined to California. The idea of a single-sex classroom has, in the last two years, gained ground with public school officials in other states as well: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, and Maryland.
``We're not talking about a return to the all-girl or all-boy school model but an experiment that's testing whether boys and girls should be separated in certain classes within a coeducational school if they learn better that way,'' says Anne Bryant, executive director of the American Association of University Women.
Return to tracking?
But even as all-girl math and science classes gain support from women's groups, critics say such gender segregation is demeaning and suggests that girls require special handling to keep up with boys - something they see as a return to the much-discredited practice of ``tracking,'' separating students according to levels of achievement in a subject.
``This has nothing to do with tracking,'' Ms. Bryant says. ``We're not separating in terms of levels of achievement but in terms of learning styles.''
Single-sex classrooms gained momentum two years ago after the American Association of University Women published a report on how girls were being shortchanged in public education, particularly in math and science.
The AAUW study showed that girls get significantly less teacher encouragement than boys. Subsequent research also showed that girls enter school ahead of boys in every academic area except science, and that high schools worsen the gender gap in math and science. For instance, on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, boys typically score about 50 points higher in math; on national achievement tests, boys outscore girls in 11 of 14 subjects, with the largest gaps in math and science.
``It's not because girls are less intelligent or slower than boys in these subjects that they're behind in math, it's because girls learn in different ways than boys, and, up until now, educators have failed to recognize that,'' says Mikles.
However, it is the idea of tailoring to different learning styles that is getting the most criticism. Girls are said to learn better cooperatively, by working in groups and sharing information, while boys learn ``competitively,'' preferring to work alone rather than with other students.
``Almost all classes in schools were and still are geared toward the aggressive white male,'' says David Sadker, who, with his wife Myra, has written the book: ``Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Treat Girls.''
``Boys have always held center stage in school in the coeducational schools, but the single-sex classroom will change that,'' he adds.
But critics say the move toward single-sex classes to secure equality in the classroom is extreme and raises several legal questions. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the federal civil rights act, which prohibits discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal funds.
``Single-sex classrooms not only send out negative messages to girls that they are not good enough to be in the same classroom with boys, but [single-sex classrooms] are also unconstitutional,'' says Sara Mandelbaum, acting director of the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU has also raised questions along racial lines regarding a 1992 Supreme Court decision that ruled that Detroit's all-male schools were unconstitutional when the state attempted to establish all-male academies to rescue boys, primarily from black districts, who were at risk of becoming dropouts.
``The aim of these programs wasn't and isn't to separate boys from girls or blacks from whites for the sake of separating, but to help African-American boys - who typically enter school behind girls their age - to catch up,'' says Kevin Mercer, project site coordinator at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Proponents of all-male programs say all-male classes might help provide boys with black role models and an education more tailored to their needs.
But federal officials and several civil rights activists say the Detroit case was different because it barred girls from attending classes within the male academies, and because all-black, all-male schools came too close to the notion of ``separate but equal.''
Furthermore, experts say research on the benefits of single-sex education is inconclusive. If separating girls from boys helps anyone, it is girls who, when separated from boys, tend to do better in science and math. And educators who are teaching single-sex classes for girls are posting positive results.
``The girls in my class are much more willing to speak out when they don't understand something, much more willing to participate in class, and are more excited about math,'' says Suzanne Nuckolls, a math teacher who teaches single-sex classes for boys and girls. ``I think this experiment is working.''
There are studies that show that the availability of single-sex education is more crucial for girls. Valerie Lee, a researcher at the University of Michigan, and Anthony Bryk of the University of Chicago, released a study in 1989 that showed that girls from single-sex high schools were more likely to enjoy math, do more homework, have higher test scores in vocabulary, reading, math, and science, and have more ambition than girls in coed schools.
However, the gains of boys attending single-sex schools were insignificant compared with their counterparts educated in a coeducational environment. The study was based on research on about 2,500 students in 75 schools.
Follow-up research of the same 2,500 students once they went to college showed that the gains girls made in their single-sex schools continued even though most of them attended coed colleges. For instance, the alumnae of girls' high schools went to more selective colleges, were more interested in politics, and were more apt to apply to graduate schools and choose nontraditional careers.
``Critics have said that single-sex education, whether it applies to specific classes or a whole school, produces shy, socially inept people,'' Bryant says. ``But the results speak for themselves.''