When segregated education works

Research shows girls do better in single sex classrooms. Research about boys is less clear.

kids at school 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kids at school 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One of the greatest moments in my son's educational life was when he brought his baby sister in for show and tell. And it may have never happened had it not been for an intriguing gender experiment in his school. When my son was in second grade and we were living in Melbourne, Australia, his school had a gender problem: There were three times as many boys in his grade than girls. The cause, related to the availability of quality all-girls' options versus the dearth of quality all-boys' options, was out of the school's control but created a serious issue. The girls' parents, reluctant to place their daughters in such an overwhelmingly minority position, threatened to pull the girls out en masse if a solution was not found. So the school responded by creating two classes, one coed class in which the girls were 50 percent of the population, and one all-boys' class. They divided the boys based on an interesting criterion: Boys who did not have any sisters were sent to the coed class, while boys who had sisters were sent to the all-boys, under the assumption that they learn all about interacting with girls at home. My son, who at the time lived with two girls (plus his mother, who happens to be a former girl, though none of us mothers was included in the equation), was placed in the all-boys' class. During that year, I gave birth to our youngest daughter (a third sister, as it were), and the proud big brother begged me to bring her to his class for show and tell. So there he was, this beautiful eight-year-old boy sitting in front of his class cuddling this tiny creature as 25 boys crowded around, all wanting a turn, one by one turning to mush. My son, a huge contented grin on his face as his friends pried him for information and a peek, was in seventh heaven. I thought to myself at the time, this would never have happened in a coed class. Had there been girls around, they would have dominated the childcare and emotions, and the boys would have stayed awkward and silent in their seats. The boys-only space afforded the boys an opportunity to access all aspects of their human experience, cuddles and all. I THOUGHT of this story as I read a recent New York Times article claiming that single sex education is the newest trend in public - yes, public - education in the US. According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, there are currently at least 445 single-sex classrooms in public schools around the country, following a 2004 federal regulatory change that allowed public schools to legally separate girls and boys. There are certainly advantages to single sex classrooms, but there are major pitfalls as well. Ample research demonstrates that girls do better in single sex classrooms - largely because they are free from boys' interruptions and harassment, and boys' domination of small groups and teacher attention. The research about whether boys do better is less unequivocal but seems to indicate that boys also do better among themselves. Whether this is because boys' hormones get a break or because the major social cause of masculine aggressive competition - the pressure to dominate women - is removed from the scene, remains unclear. Meanwhile, it is entirely possible that boys still do better in coed groups. Nevertheless, there is a huge problem in the kind of sex segregation advocated by some pro-boys-only spaces. Although some of the arguments promote offering boys access to the entire range of human experience - as happened in my son's class (though I'm not sure if it was intentional) - some of the arguments take us backward, accepting as innate the kinds of assumptions of gender differences that feminism has sought to unravel for decades. This "natural differences" approach to single sex education risks promoting some antiquated and unhelpful notions of sex differences, the very differences that traditionally held women back - such as women are emotional and men are intellectual, women are carers and men are sterile individuals. This is not only bad for women/girls, but is also bad for men/boys. This language of sex difference restricts men's access to emotional expression and human relationships. By saying that boys need to learn with aggression and competition and girls need to learn with softness and gentility, we are sending both boys and girls back by generations. I'm certainly in favor of advocating learning style differences. Kids are different - as are adults - and we all have preferences in the way we work. So all kids should have access to tasks and activities that require affect and collaboration as well as competition and individual performance. (See for example Barbara Prashnig's wonderful work on the subject.) But these learning style differences are not about gender. They just are. We are all just different, with different quirky variations to our personalities and needs. But when we link the issue of learning style differences with gender differences, we tread dangerous waters. What about the girls who like competition, or the boys who like hugging? They remain stuck in gender expectations - perhaps even more emphatically - and then we have achieved nothing. In fact, we have moved backward. THIS TOPIC IS of particular interest in the Jewish world, in which single sex is often seen as "old" while coed is seen as more progressive. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, for example, promoted the Maimonides coed Orthodox day school in the 1950s, as a "modern" answer to single-sex education. In practice, however, just because boys and girls are in the same building, and possibly even learning the same texts, they are not experiencing the same educational experiences and opportunities. The problems that exist in coed classes in public schools - boys dominating math and science, boys interrupting and harassing girls, boys dominating teacher attention - undoubtedly exist in Jewish schools as well. They may even be bigger problems in Jewish schools. We would not know because the subject of gender in the Jewish day school system has not been adequately researched. Single sex education may have a huge advantage for girls in the religious world. It is perhaps no accident that there is a high proportion of women from the state religious school system among the (minority) of women studying sciences academically. This matches the statistics about all-girls' schools around the world. Where there are no boys around, girls are more likely to study physics and computers - and in the religious school system, as well, this pattern seems to exist. But it's tricky. Girls separated out in order to be socialized as "women" are hardly in an advantageous position. In the local religious girls' high school here in Modi'in, girls were not given a computers track because, the principal told parents, "girls aren't interested in that kind of thing." However, when girls are separated out in order to be free of patriarchal oppression, to be given a safe space in order to grow, that's when single-sex schools have enormous potential. Religious girls schools can be places of empowerment, if such a goal were part of the school vision. Same with boys. When boys are separated because women are deemed "dangerous" or "sinful," nobody benefits. But when boys are given a space to freely develop all aspects of their beings, then we are really getting somewhere. Boys' schools can be places where boys experience emotional as well as intellectual engagement. But educators have to buy into such a vision for boys first. We need schools that offer avenues for learning style differences without cementing antiquated notions of gender. I propose single-sex classrooms that are built around dynamic learning stations and offer the range of learning styles. That way, rather than sending the message that gender is innately fixed and therefore restricts and inhibits us, we send kids the message that we are all equally competent and capable regardless of what gender we happen to be, and that we all deserve the same opportunities. That, to me, is a sound educational and societal vision.