More schools willing to try splitting students by sex
The discussion was lively and animated as the sixth-grade girls chatted with their teacher about search for identity, racial tension and other themes in the book they were reading: Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Were the boys quiet through it all? Not exactly. They were next door, discussing a history lesson with another teacher.
This year, the two-year-old Hope Community Charter School in Washington, D.C. separated its sixthgrade boys and girls throughout the school day, except for Spanish class and lunch. The 10 boys and 10 girls trade time with Edwin Caldie, who teaches history and math, and Vanessa Kalter-Long, who teaches English and science.
Administrators and teachers are pleased with the arrangement and plan to expand it to grades five through seven next year. “This was our first year doing it and it has just been a great success,” said Principal George Sanker. “We just saw real growth” in both groups, he said.
Single-sex schooling is hotly debated in academic circles. Since more lenient regulations were created under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and finalized last fall, researchers on both sides of the issue have been reporting a renewed interest in single-sex classrooms across the country. Guidelines are even more flexible for public charters such as Hope.
According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), the number of public schools in the United States offering single-sex education rose from three in 1995 to 262 in March this year: 52 single-sex schools and 210 coed schools with single-sex classes.
Leonard Sax, founder and executive director of NASSPE and author of “Why Gender Matters,” argues that a single-sex environment, if introduced correctly, can break down stereotypes and empower both sexes far better than a coed setting can. Girls in single-sex education are more likely to take math, science and computer classes and boys are more likely to take art, music and foreign languages, Mr. Sax said.
“The benefits are quite diverse,” he said. “The key issue however [. . . ] is choice. We’re not saying every child should be in a single-sex school. But why not offer parents a range of choices?”
Critics say single-sex schooling is warranted only in limited situations and can reinforce harmful sex stereotypes if not implemented properly. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Women’s Law Center and the American Association of University Women said the new federal regulations have not ensured that safeguards are in place.
“There’s no accountability whatsoever,” said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women.
“All the indications we have gotten is that schools have become emboldened to experiment with sexsegregated education in circumstances that may end up being a disservice to students and may violate statutory and constitutional law,” said Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center.
Ms. Maatz cited as an example a school where an all-girls math class counted birds and charted the results, while the all-boys math class produced small-business models. The groups said they will be observing single-sex education programs and taking legal action where needed.
Meanwhile, NASSPE noted that a six-year Australian study of 270,000 students found that boys and girls educated in single-sex classrooms scored on average 15 to 22 percentile points higher than their coeducated counterparts.
A 2002 study in England, also cited by NASSPE, found benefits for boys and especially girls educated separately in high school. Discipline problems plummeted while boys’ writing and reading test scores spiked after Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle switched to single-sex classrooms in 2000, according to the NASSPE.
A comprehensive report issued by the Department of Education in 2005 was largely inconclusive. The report said many studies supported same-sex education, but others found better results in coed settings and some found no difference.
More evidence is forthcoming. Using a grant from the Department of Education, Providence University sociology professor Cornelius Riordan is conducting a large study of public single-sex versus coed schools for at-risk children.
Rosemary Salomone, a law professor at St. John’s University, said many of the newer public single-sex schools are in low-income, urban areas and are “very clearly focused on academic achievement.”
She doesn’t recommend singlesex schooling for every child said that for some “it gives them the opportunity to find themselves and develop their self-confidence.”
At Hope — a public charter elementary school where 89 percent of students are black and 51 percent come from low-income families — administrators haven’t fully analyzed annual test data for the sixthgraders. Mr. Sanker said, however, that he has seen growth in confidence levels, wider interest in different subjects and increased motivation. He said the boys have taken an interest in literature in a way that is “not the norm,” and the girls are competing more over their grades than over the attention of boys.
“It’s easier for a boy to get up and express himself in a class of all boys than he would in front of girls,” and vice versa, he said. “You’re no longer shaped by the presence of the opposite sex.”
Single-sex schools well-known for their success include Western High School in Baltimore and Philadelphia High School for Girls. New York City has several such schools and Septima Clark Public Charter School, the first all-boys public charter school in the District, opened last fall.
Critics said it’s often hard to measure the true success of singlesex education because many of these schools have other factors: smaller classes, motivated teachers with professional development and involved parents.
Hope has many of those qualities too, most notably small classes with ample opportunity for the teachers to interact with each student.
The sixth-grade teachers, both of whom are teaching in a single-sex setting for the first time, praised the arrangement.
“Positives outweigh” negatives, said Miss Kalter-Long. “Their focus is on their intellect,” she said, adding that girls ask her questions in class that there is “no way” they would ask in front of boys.
Although the lesson content is the same, the presentation sometimes differs, the teachers said. Reward systems are structured differently: Boys compete with one another for reward points while the girls work together as a unit to earn reward points.
Mr. Sax said boys and girls learn differently, partly because of variations in the brain and the way they hear.
Ms. Salomone dismisses that notion and said schools should not cater to stereotypes. “You don’t want to teach math wrapped up in pink ribbons,” she said.
The sixth-graders at Hope said they are pleased with the arrangement.
“You can talk about stuff that you wouldn’t with the boys,” said 12year-old Brianna Butler.
James Foote, 11, acknowledged, “I kind of always want the girls around,” but said he still enjoys the boys-only class discussions.
Jalia Inman, 11, said boys in class make it hard to focus, and she would accept single-sex classes in higher grades as well. “I actually wouldn’t mind,” she said.
Boys only: From left, Michael Jones, Marquise Lightfoot and Tim Hursen are sixth-graders at Hope Community Charter School in Washington, D.C.