Thursday, November 16, 2006

Is Single-sex Education Simply The Latest EduFad?

Slate Magazine doesn't think much of single-gender classrooms and schools:
Not long ago, the idea that American public schools should offer separate classes for boys and girls would have been regarded as retrograde; in the late 1980s, single-sex public schools had almost disappeared. But during the last decade, single-sex education has come to seem cutting-edge once again, backed by a startling rise of bipartisan support. In October, the Department of Education announced new federal regulations making it easier for public schools to become single-sex institutions, provided that "substantially equal" opportunities are available to the other sex. Part of the impetus behind the new rules is simply Americans' love of choice. As a Department of Education spokeswoman told me, single-sex schools will aid families by adding "one more tool to the toolbox." But part of it is the belief that single-sex schools will be a panacea for struggling boys and girls: Some of the staunchest advocates of alternatives to co-education are preaching new approaches based on magnifying, rather than trying to overcome, gender differences.

Behind what has been billed as a pragmatic decision lurks a more programmatic (and pseudoscientific) agenda. Invoking murky neurobiological data about innate gender differences, these advocates leap to cut-and-dry classroom prescriptions—ones that may ultimately provide less pedagogical variety for students themselves. It's one thing to offer students the option to learn the same things in separate classrooms. It's quite another to urge that all students learn in programmatically gender-tailored ways—and possibly even learn different things.

Among the most influential of the lobbying groups, the National Association for Single Sex Public Education is headed by an MIT-educated psychologist named Leonard Sax. Extrapolating rather freely from neuroscientific studies—many with small sample pools—Sax argues that, paradoxically, treating students in a gender-neutral manner tends to reinforce stereotypical weaknesses in the classroom, leading to declines in aptitude for both genders. His remedy is to urge educational techniques that cater to the unique "boy" brain and unique "girl" brain. Girls, Sax believes, don't enjoy abstraction; they have more sensitive hearing than their male peers; and they work better than boys do in groups. For them, using more context in math class is useful. Boys, on the other hand, relish abstraction and are bored by context. They benefit from moving around constantly. Therefore, Sax claims, "It's not sufficient just to put girls in one classroom and boys in another. In order to improve academic performance and broaden educational horizons, you need to understand how girls and boys learn differently."
Chew on the whole meaty article. (Be sure to scroll-down.)

On the whole, we like single-sex classrooms, in that they represent just one more public school choice for parents.

Having said that, the Slate piece does raise some interesting questions...
See our latest EduPosts and this date's Extra Credit Reading.