A cure for low test scores. A panacea for teen pregnancy. A way to cut down on bullying. Or, a return to the dark ages? Single sex schools have been called all of the above. Separating kids by gender isn’t a new concept. It’s been a staple practice at private and parochial schools across the country for years. But recently, it’s been catching on like wildfire in public schools. Leonard Sax, a family physician and author of the books Boys Adrift (Basic Books, 2007) and Why Gender Matters (Doubleday, 2005), says that’s because single sex education makes biological sense. As head of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, he’s been crisscrossing the nation, extolling the virtues of teaching boys and girls differently. While Sax is clear to point out that single sex classrooms should always be an option and never mandatory, he says girls and boys have distinct needs in the classroom; separating them allows those needs to be met. What kind of differences? Well, for one, males and females have different cognitive and emotional responses to light and color, says Sax. Boys learn more effectively when they’re allowed to get up and move, when they engage their bodies by tossing balls during discussions, or jumping up to answer, rather than raising a hand. Girls learn better when they’re allowed to make connections—when they discuss things in more of a roundtable format, comparing notes with other students and collaborating, rather than competing in the classroom. The idea that boys and girls have different needs in the classroom is not a new one. Gender equity was initially raised on a national level with the release of a report from the American Association of University Women called “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America”, back in the 1990s. The study warned that America was raising an entire generation of girls with low self-esteem, girls that were discouraged from science and math, girls whose needs weren’t being met by public school classrooms. Ah, how times change. Now, it’s the boys who are the center of national media attention. With so much of the curriculum being pushed down to ever-earlier grades, due to No Child Left Behind legislation, many experts say that classrooms are rigged in a way that dooms boys to fail. “A combination of social and biological factors is creating an environment that is literally toxic to boys,” Sax says. For example, boys are simply not ready at age 5 for the rigors of the modern day kindergarten. Nor are they wired for the sit and listen environment prevalent in most schools today. Instead, Sax says, boys respond to more action-filled learning environments. All of this makes it easy to understand why boys are way behind when it comes to high school graduation rates. So should classrooms across America bow to biology and start sticking girls in yellow-walled classrooms with warm light, while their male classmates roughhouse down the hall in classrooms with cooler boy-centric color schemes? Not so fast, says Cornelius Riordan, Professor of Sociology at Providence College. Riordan, who has studied the effects of single and mixed sex education for more than two decades, recently helmed a three-year research study on single sex schools, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Riordan acknowledges that single sex classrooms are on the rise, but warns parents to question biology as a reason for sending their kid to a gender-specific classroom, “Obviously, there are some bio/physiological and neurological differences between boys and girls. We knew this long before the CAT scans arrived. But this is where the facts end. There is virtually no academic peer reviewed scientific evidence to support a credible connection between these bio/physio/neurological sex differences, gender differential instruction, and improved learning or socio-emotional development,” he says. “Until this evidence arrives, it is unwise to provide or advise gender specific pedagogy.” In other words, while there are certainly biological differences between boys and girls, there’s no research that says that single sex classrooms are the solution. Case closed? Not quite. True, Riordan isn’t a fan of single sex classrooms in otherwise co-ed schools, but he does see value in turning an entire school single sex. And that’s ironic, because there’s much more support for single sex options within co-ed public schools, than there is for turning a whole school boy-only or girl-only. Still, Riordan says, “There is real scientific peer reviewed evidence that separating boys and girls in "stand alone single sex schools creates an academic climate that is conducive to learning. I emphasize that this evidence is limited to stand alone schools and should not be applied to single sex classrooms in otherwise coeducational schools.”  Single sex schools succeed where single sex classrooms fail because they allow for a complete change in environment, according to Riordan. “There is a reduction of youth culture, anti-academic values and gender posturing that dominates the coeducational school rooms and the school yards of coeducational schools, especially inner city schools.” Kathleen Ponze, Director of Education for The Young Women’s Leadership Foundation and Principal Emeritus of their school in East Harlem, agrees. The reason to establish single sex schools is not because of biological differences, Ponze says. In fact, one of the main benefits of single sex schools is that they help counter gender stereotyping. She points to a 2002 study of 979 primary and 2,954 secondary schools in Great Britain. “The study concluded that girls in single-sex schools perform better than girls in co-ed schools, regardless of socio-economic and ability levels,” Ponze says. Studies also show, according to Riordan and Ponze, that kids with previously poor grades and test scores who are moved to single sex schools, do better on standardized tests than similar kids in co-ed schools, both in math and in reading. Riordan says single sex schools are particularly advantageous to disadvantaged students. In addition to higher test scores, “they show higher levels of leadership behavior in school, do more homework, take a stronger course load, and have higher educational expectations. They also come to have higher levels of control over their environment, more favorable attitudes towards school, and less sex role stereotyping.” Not surprisingly, they also admit to a less satisfactory social life. Better reading scores, but less dates? That may not fill your child with desire for single sex education, especially your teenager. But it can be a good thing, says Ponze. Single sex schools like The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem “provide a personalized, focused, whole child education in an environment that minimizes toxic negative cultural stereotypes and provides the opportunity for maximum self actualization, especially during the vulnerable and critical years of adolescence,” Ponze says. At a time when girls are at their most delicate in terms of self-esteem, “the benefits of attending an all girls school include ample opportunities for leadership development, strong academics, individual attention, and a focus on healthy female adolescent development,” she says. A love for science and math, two subjects not typically coveted by young girls, is a common bi-product. Girls at single sex schools are also more likely to participate in competitive sports than girls at co-ed schools. They’re more likely to take classes in information technology or computer science. Similarly, boys in single sex classrooms are more likely to explore their artistic side—taking classes in drama, visual arts, and the like. In other words, contrary to what you might think, kids in single sex classrooms tend to dip their toes more readily outside the waters of gender stereotype.   “When our students come to us—often from the mean streets and generally from public co-ed elementary school—it is extraordinarily satisfying to see how they thrive in the all girls environment,” Ponze says. But whether you live in the heart of Harlem, or the hills of suburbia, single sex education may be coming to a school near you. Although there are different motives that spark certain districts to consider single sex education, there’s no question that the trend is on the rise. In 2006, the Department of Education passed legislation making it easier for public school systems to consider single sex programs without fear of being penalized for segregation. In 1995 there were only 2 public single sex schools in the country. By 2007 there were 49. Sax says that by September 2008, there will be more than 360 public schools offering some sort of single sex academic offering. For parents, this is good news. Single sex schools and classrooms might not be the best option for every kid out there, but they are increasingly becoming an option. And when it comes to education, the more choice, the better.  

March 28, 2008