Big test for single-sex public schools

The US is about to start an experiment to quell a gender war over whether schools favor boys or girls. The Education Department will soon issue rules to expand the number of single-sex public schools. But will such segregation really end this debate?

In the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Congress allowed students in failing public schools to have access to different learning situations such as single-sex education.

The coming federal regulations are really the result of a debate that began in the 1970s over whether traditional classroom teaching creates low self-esteem for girls. One classic claim has been that teachers favor boys because they tend to raise their hands more. By the 1990s, as schools began to cater more to girls, that debate swung back in favor of arguments that boys were the victims in schools, partly because of attempts to feminize them out of certain "boy habits." Both sides cited data to support their claims, with each calling for either "girl-friendly" or "boy-friendly" classrooms.

The latest salvo in this gender war came last week with a study by the progressive think-tank Education Sector. Researcher Sara Mead looked at national education data and concluded that boys are not doing worse than girls, but girls are simply doing better. "With few exceptions, American boys are scoring higher and achieving more than they ever have before," she writes. Her analysis, going back to 1971, is based on test scores and other academic data in the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress. [Editor's note: The original version misnamed Education Sector.]

What's more, she contends that the boy-vs.-girl debate distracts attention from practical ways to help both boys and girls, especially the many black and Hispanic children who are really the groups falling behind.

Single-sex public schools had all but disappeared by the 1980s, but they have slowly returned, with about 44 in the US this past school year. With many schools expected to adopt the idea, a constitutional challenge is likely over whether girls and boys can be offered similar opportunities for education when separated, and perhaps taught differently.

The larger issue, though, is whether such schools can provide better educational benefits. The research on that must be carefully tracked.

Many public schools simply try a variety of new ways to tailor teaching to each gender. More fathers, for instance, are being asked to read to sons at home. Such techniques begin to acknowledge that each student needs her or his own learning focus, based on the idea that both sexes can express masculine and feminine qualities in unique ways.

Grown-up expectations of children – such as young boys are hyperactive, or teen girls are mean-tongued – may tend to stigmatize children, limiting their potential. Such narrowing expectations are becoming stronger because of recent scientific research on the child brain that claims certain behaviors are "hard-wired." Such research should be used cautiously.

Single-sex schools, too, should be approached cautiously. Most of the time, children are just children, and that greater, shared experience of wonder and joy should be encouraged. Such schools may not be right for every child. And the ultimate goal of reducing all types of learning disparities should not be lost.

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