Single Sex Education?

The Sunday New York Times magazine has a big article on single-sex public education, one of the latest educational fads. The bulk of the article is taken up with looking at promoters of single-sex classrooms for kids:

Among advocates of single-sex public education, there are two camps: those who favor separating boys from girls because they are essentially different and those who favor separating boys from girls because they have different social experiences and social needs. Leonard Sax represents the essential-difference view, arguing that boys and girls should be educated separately for reasons of biology: for example, Sax asserts that boys don't hear as well as girls, which means that an instructor needs to speak louder in order for the boys in the room to hear her; and that boys' visual systems are better at seeing action, while girls are better at seeing the nuance of color and texture. The social view is represented by teachers like Emily Wylie, who works at the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem (T.Y.W.L.S.), an all-girls school for Grades 7-12. Wylie described her job to me by saying, "It's my subversive mission to create all these strong girls who will then go out into the world and be astonished when people try to oppress them." Sax calls schools like T.Y.W.L.S. "anachronisms" -- because, he says, they're stuck in 1970s-era feminist ideology and they don't base their pedagogy on the latest research. Few on the other side want to disparage Sax publicly, though T.Y.W.L.S.'s founder, Ann Tisch, did tell me pointedly, "Nobody is planning the days of our girls around a photograph of a brain."

Of the two groups, Sax and his approach get more ink, mostly because he's colorful. Sax really comes off as a but of a wing nut-- some of what he says about learning styles sounds sort of plausible, but he goes way off the deep end with the brain stuff. He also shows the True Believer hallmark of promoting his pet cause as a solution for problems beyond what it was originally supposed to solve, when he waxes rhapsodic about how single-sex classrooms lead to high-schoolers going on dates, rather than participating in the "hook-up culture" that's one of the current Scary Problems with Kids These Days.

As is typical of these magazine pieces, they bury the useful and important facts way at the end of the article:

Education scholarship has contributed surprisingly little to the debate over single-sex public education. In 2005, the United States Department of Education, along with the American Institute for Research, tried to weigh in, publishing a meta-analysis comparing single-sex and coed schooling. The authors started out with 2,221 citations on the subject that they then whittled down to 40 usable studies. Yet even those 40 studies did not yield strong results: 41 percent favored single-sex schools, 45 percent found no positive or negative effects for either single-sex or coed schools, 6 percent were mixed (meaning they found positive results for one gender but not the other) and 8 percent favored coed schools. This meta-analysis is part of a larger project by the Department of Education being led by Cornelius Riordan, a Providence College professor. He explained to me that such muddled findings are the norm for education research on school effects. School-effects studies try to answer questions like whether large schools are better than small schools or whether charter schools are better than public schools. The effects are always small. So many variables are at play in a school: quality of teachers, quality of the principal, quality of the infrastructure, involvement of families, financing, curriculum -- the list is nearly endless. Riordan says, "You're never going to be able to compare two types of schools and say, 'The data very strongly suggests that schools that look like a are better than schools that look like b.' "

That certainly appears to be the case for single-sex schools. The data do not suggest that they're clearly better for all kids. Nor do they suggest that they're worse. The most concrete findings from the research on single-sex schools come from studies of Catholic schools, which have a long history of single-sex education, and suggest that while single-sex schools may not have much of an impact on the educational achievement of white, middle-class boys, they do measurably benefit poor and minority students. According to Riordan, disadvantaged students at single-sex schools have higher scores on standardized math, reading, science and civics tests than their counterparts in coed schools. There are two prevailing theories to explain this: one is that single-sex schools are indeed better at providing kids with a positive sense of themselves as students, to compete with the antiacademic influences of youth culture; the other is that in order to end up in a single-sex classroom, you need to have a parent who has made what educators call "a pro-academic choice." You need a parent who at least cares enough to read the notices sent home and go through the process of making a choice -- any choice.

I'm pretty solidly in the "pro-academic choice" camp, here. The classroom anecdotes they relate from schools following one mode or the other sound good, but that's because they sound like good teaching rather than anything essentially gender-related. (They also sound like the sort of thing that may or may not be widely applicable-- a lot of teachers wouldn't be able to pull that style off on a regular basis.) Put that together with a selected sub-group of students with more interested parents, and it's no wonder they do better. It's also no surprise that there are schools who have tried single-sex classrooms, and decided that the gains weren't worth the administrative hassle-- if the system requires superhuman effort from the front-line teachers, it's not going to be sustainable on a really large scale.

That said, while I'm a little dubious about the whole idea of single-sex classrooms as an educational magic bullet-- and I'm highly dubious about Sax's science-- I'm perfectly happy to see people trying it. If nothing else, it offers a way to sort those students whose parents have a stronger interest in their kids' education into the same group, where they're likely to do better than among the general population.

It sort of makes me wonder, though, if there isn't a way to make use of the placebo effect in education. That is, just go into a struggling district and set up a "pilot program" that you say will be based on the latest in educational trends. Spout some buzzwords and wave your hands a lot, then ask for parents to sign their kids up voluntarily. Once they do, assign those kids to the best teachers in the school, and say "Do what you were already doing." Then sit back, and wait for the magazine reporters to show up and write glowing profiles about your educational miracle.

If this physics thing doesn't work out, maybe I'll reinvent myself as an educational consultant...


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So the message is that you should make sure you're born to the right parents?

Or is it that even people in very dire circumstances can substantially improve their children's education, by paying attention, investigating what choices they actually have, and (at a minimum) keeping away from the very worst schools, teachers, and habits?

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 03 Mar 2008 #permalink

If nothing else, it offers a way to sort those students whose parents have a stronger interest in their kids' education into the same group, where they're likely to do better than among the general population.

Freakonomics mentions a related study in Chicago, where students were allowed to enter a lottery to be allowed to choose their school rather than attend the school in their neighborhood, but the lottery was oversubscribed and the "losers" had to attend their neighborhood school anyway. It turned out that "winning" this lottery conferred no advantage--simply entering the lottery was positively correlated with (and a better predictor of) student performance, because the students who entered the lottery had parents with stronger interest in education than the students who did not participate. That's probably a large part of why some studies seem to indicate an advantage for single-sex classrooms: The students' parents are more interested in their children's education.

It would be fine to set up such a system as an option, at least experimentally, in a school district large enough to have the resources to support it. (In New Hampshire, only Manchester and Nashua would be big enough to even think about doing this.) I would be opposed to any effort to make single-sex education mandatory: as the Supreme Court noted in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, "separate but equal" systems have a tendency to become more separate than equal.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Mar 2008 #permalink

Uncle Al proposes giving male students aerly, prolonged, intensive intruction in all aspects of Western consumerist feminine hygiene. Then issue welder's helmets and gloves. No problem - in or out of the classroom.

I'm not going to deny that there are almost certainly some biological sex differences, but as far as I can tell, they seem to be orders of magnitude too insignificant to justify sex-segregated schools. Even if there were some tiny advantage in learning, the social costs of something like this are enormous - we spend the last fifty years trying to diversify what our children experience and then we're ready to go back on it over minor differences such as these? Not to mention just the fun aspect - what kid wants to be denied access to the opposite sex? How will this affect their social futures? Their friendships? Given this information, I think skilled educators could use it in a mixed-sex classroom to improve childrens' educational experiences.

As a self-described progressive, I always get very wary when I see the right (we should segregate so we can harness womens' biologically-driven need to cook and clean!) and the left (we should segregate because the patriarchy lets boys dominate the classroom!) come to some kind of unholy alliance. And if the latter situation is true, I think this can be dealt with in the mixed environment.

//It sort of makes me wonder, though, if there isn't a way to make use of the placebo effect in education. That is, just go into a struggling district and set up a "pilot program" that you say will be based on the latest in educational trends. Spout some buzzwords and wave your hands a lot, then ask for parents to sign their kids up voluntarily. Once they do, assign those kids to the best teachers in the school, and say "Do what you were already doing." Then sit back, and wait for the magazine reporters to show up and write glowing profiles about your educational miracle.//

There is something like this: it's called the Westinghouse effect, after a famous efficiency study. (Which, oddly, I cannot find any good descriptions of on the Web, at least not right now.) Basically, going in and saying that you are going to measure improvement in some outcome sometimes causes that outcome to improve.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if that is at the root of all the reports that I've seen in meetings that every single educational experiment we try succeeds, even though somehow we don't ever get any better overall... you have to jump on the innovation while it's still working! ;)

By a little night… (not verified) on 03 Mar 2008 #permalink

In my experience, teenagers behave noticeably better in mixed groups, boys especially. I don't know if they actually *learn* any more, but they are less likely to thump/kick each other, whisper and giggle, etc. 14-year-old boys trying to impress girls seem more likely to sit down and shut up than boys trying to impress each other.

Related to your placebo effect.. in my first year of graduate school, my department had all the faculty who were to be teaching courses that graduate students might want to take give a short presentation to us about the courses. One of the courses (which I did not take) was a 1-credit seminar in physics education, and the presenter made an almost offhand comment that there is a theory that all education reform initiatives work (at least) once--in the first year of the program, when everyone's excited about it (students and teachers alike) and puts in much more effort than would be normal.

#1: more the latter than the former, I hope. Our school district isn't the greatest, but there are some long-term problems in the school that's nearest to our house that our kids would have been going to. We've been fighting for intra-district transfers every year to make sure they don't end up at that school, and the results have been worth it. The fact remains, though, that no matter how you configure the classroom, the combination of an unmotivated student + apathetic parent will result in grief.

#7: Jefrir, my experience is exactly the opposite. There's nothing more disruptive than a 14yo boy trying to impress a girl (or vice versa).

Boys And Girls Brains Are Different: Gender Differences In Language Appear Biological


ScienceDaily (Mar. 5, 2008) -- Although researchers have long agreed that girls have superior language abilities than boys, until now no one has clearly provided a biological basis that may account for their differences.

For the first time -- and in unambiguous findings -- researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Haifa show both that areas of the brain associated with language work harder in girls than in boys during language tasks, and that boys and girls rely on different parts of the brain when performing these tasks.

"Our findings -- which suggest that language processing is more sensory in boys and more abstract in girls -- could have major implications for teaching children and even provide support for advocates of single sex classrooms," said Douglas D. Burman, research associate in Northwestern's Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)...

For what it's worth, I think I would have been very lonely in a single-gender school. I doubt I am the only one.

By Matthew L. (not verified) on 08 Apr 2008 #permalink