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Single-sex schools help children thrive

Bleaching out gender differences hampers the education of both girls and boys.

By Michael Gilbert / September 20, 2007



Los Angeles

The educational performance of boys has generated much notice of late. They are falling behind girls at just about every grade level and dropping out of school in ever greater numbers. Young men who manage to get to college find themselves in the minority, outnumbered almost three to two by women. As school doors swing open again, thoughtful educators – as well as the nation's concerned parents – want to know why.

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One answer may lie in a fundamental assumption dear to the hearts of academic planners and school superintendents in the 1960s. Fearing that separate meant unequal, and seeking to break down sexual stereotypes, they decided to mix the sexes together at the earliest possible age. In 1965, a majority of America's public school classrooms were single sex; by 2000 barely a handful survived.

Co-ed schooling imposes the need for sex-blind instruction material and uniform testing and standards of behavior. As a result, on the way to a perfectly balanced sexual universe in our schools, "equal to" was turned into "the same as." But there's a problem when you bleach out gender differences: boys and girls are not the same. They do not develop in the same way or at the same time. For example, most parents who have them know boys develop more slowly in everything from vocabulary to penmanship, even the simple ability to sit still.

When young boys arrive at school today they enter a world dominated by women teachers and administrators as the percentage of male teachers in the nation's public schools is at the lowest level in 40 years. The girls around them read faster, control their emotions better, and are more comfortable with today's educational emphasis on cooperative study and expressing feelings. Boys favor visual processing and do not have the hand-motor control that girls readily achieve in early grades. There's hardly any of the physical action, competition, or structure boys so often crave. And they'd rather do just about anything than express their feelings.

For these and other reasons, boys have trouble paying attention in class. They often ignore instructions and generate sloppy work. They are three to four times more likely to suffer from developmental disorders, and twice as likely as girls to be classified as learning-disabled. Many are punished for physical outbursts, controlled and medicated simply for behaving like boys (1 in 5 Caucasian boys spends time on Ritalin). They may not even be allowed to run during recess. This means that boys often get off to a bad start, fail to catch up, and frequently develop an aversion to school.

According to a comprehensive report by the Education Department, elementary school boys are 50 percent more likely than girls to repeat a grade and they drop out of high school a third more often. Boys from minority and lower-income families fare the worst. In the end, America's K-12 educational system turns out legions of young men ill-prepared or disinterested in advancing their education, even though its dramatic impact on future earnings is well documented. This is bad for men, women, the country's economic future, and all of society.

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