Same-Sex Education: The Separation DebateS

An increasing number of public schools are experimenting with single-sex classrooms. Some critics worry it reinforces stereotypes, but is it worth it?

The New York Times profiles one school in the Bronx which, after experimenting with a number of different initiatives, has tried separating fifth-grade classes by sex. Anecdotally, the approach - which results in two very different classroom atmospheres - seems effective.

"Before it was all about showing the girls who was toughest, and roughing up and being cool," said Samell Little, whose son Gavin is in his second school year surrounded only by boys. "Now I never hear a word from teachers about behavior problems, and when he talks about school, he is actually talking about work."

The article describes the stricter boys' classroom (in which the teacher now gives a brief lesson on personal hygiene and hands out deodorant samples) and the more nurturing girls' class, in which issues like cliques are addressed. Although the test scores haven't shown a noticeable difference, the article notes that this may be because the school tends to put struggling students in the single-sex classes, and so such numbers may be misleading. "While test scores might not show it, Mr. Cannon and his teachers said there have been fewer fights and discipline issues, and more participation in class and after-school activities, since the girls and boys were split up." However, the program gives some people pause.

But Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said separate classrooms reinforce gender stereotypes. "A boy who has never been beaten by a girl on an algebra test could have some major problems having a female supervisor," she said. While some advocates believe that girls are more likely to participate in class when no boys are present - and that boys, particularly those from low-income families, tend to focus better without girls around - academic research is inconclusive.

I do know that when I was a kid, I loved being in class with boys: I wasn't interested in them romantically at the age of ten or eleven, but I did take special relish in besting them academically and making them eat their bragadoccio. I know coed classes spurred me, personally, but then, I was also lucky enough to attend a progressive school where educators had the luxury of considering the philosophical dynamics of the class breakdown. The school described in this article is not trying single-sex ed as a means of empowerment so much as a last resort, one in a series of try-anything experiments in a desperate attempt to improve these kids' academics. And if it works, great. I get what Gandy's saying, of course, but I'm guessing the alternative, at Eagle School, would not be an educational idyll, and someone with a good education and fewer disciplinary problems is more likely to end up with a female supervisor - or a supervisor, period - than otherwise.

Then too, kids are more sexualized than they were a generation ago: if you look at the numbers for Eagle's neighborhood, you'll see that it's not uncommon for kids of just this age to become sexually active. By high school age, most of the academic building blocks are in place, or not. At fifth and sixth grade age, they're still being built - and it's easy to see how mixing that crucial period with sexual awakening could do a kid's academics some serious damage. Which is not to say that single-sex is the solution, or that Gandy's objections won't turn out to be valid ones. But I do see why the school is willing to try. Let's hope the result is kids of either sex who are indeed competitive at Algebra; that's more than I can say for myself.

Boys And Girls Together, Taught Separately In Public School [NY Times]