Boys and girls are different, biologically and socially. But, how much of it is biological and how much is social conditioning? Many believe that the differences are “in the brain” while others worry that society defines “masculinity” and “femininity” in limited and potentially harmful ways.
In 2002, President George Bush revised Title IX of the Education Amendments for NCLB; the revisions included leeway for public schools to explore new single-sex options. Before the revisions, only 11 public schools were single-sex and for historic reasons; since then more than 500 public schools have adopted single-sex classrooms.
The Pennsylvania-based NASSPE (National Association for Single-Sex Public Education), which supports and informs many of the SSPE programs, argues that because boys’ and girls’ brains “develop along different trajectories,” gender-specific classroom settings and methods of instruction can improve their learning.
The NASSPE also asserts that single-sex classes liberate kids from gender stereotypes while coeducational classrooms reinforce them. When girls and boys are together, for example, they are peer pressured to maintain their stereotyped gender identity, whereas in single-sex classrooms, boys and girls don’t have to worry about comparing themselves with or impressing the opposite gender.
“Girls in single-sex educational settings are more likely to take classes in math, science, and information technology,” NASSPE states on their website. “Boys in single-gender classrooms – led by teachers with training in how to lead such classrooms – are much more likely to pursue interests in art, music, drama, and foreign languages. Both girls and boys have more freedom to explore their own interests and abilities than in the coed classroom.”
The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), however, disputes the NASSPE’s claims. They charge the newly-popular SSPE classes with perpetuating gender stereotypes and being based on “questionable science.” For them the same-sex classes are a threat to women’s rights, potentially harmful to the students, unconstitutional and limiting to girls’ and boys’ education.
Many of the schools implementing same-sex instruction are basing their methodology on the work of Dr. Leonard Sax, a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in psychology, who is founder and executive director of the NASSPE. Sax is the author of many books on the subject of genderized learning and has led seminars around the country on his theories of sex-based teaching for over 300 schools. Some of Sax’s theories, however, are a little troubling.
For example, many of the schools implementing single-sex classrooms recommend Sax’s book Why Gender Matters as a resource for parents and site it as their reference for single-sex classroom teaching strategies. The following are examples of some of his suggestions in the book:
• Because of biological differences in the brain, boys need to practice pursuing and killing prey, while girls need to practice taking care of babies. At school, this means that boys should be allowed to roughhouse and play contact sports during recess. However, this kind of sport is dangerous for girls because they are less biologically capable of managing aggression.
• Boys need competitive, high energy and confrontational learning environments. Girls need stress-free and cooperative learning environments.
• Girls should not be given strict time limits for tasks because stress makes them perform worse, while boys perform better under these conditions.
• In math, girls need to be taught with real world applications like flower petals or segments of artichokes, while boys naturally understand math theory.
• In literature, teachers should not ask boys about emotions, but focus on what happens in the story, and vice-versa for girls.
• Most boys enjoy taking risks, while most girls do not.
Single-sex classes are implementing these theories. Mobile County Public School System in Alabama, for example, implemented SSPE programs in eight of its schools. At Hankins Middle School in Theodore, Alabama, teachers were taught a “competitive, high-energy” style for teaching boys and a “cooperative, quiet” style for teaching girls. Boys and girls had different lunch hours and were prohibited from speaking to each other on school grounds. In their English classes, boys brainstormed action words used in sports, while girls were instructed to describe their dream wedding cake.
In Middleton Heights Elementary, in Idaho, teachers in boys’ classes are using microphones so that they can electronically adjust the tone of their voice to match the level that research suggests is best for boys. Before a test, boys may go for a run, while girls are encouraged to do calming exercises such as yoga.
Van Devender Middle School staff in West Virginia attended the NASSPE national conferences in 2009 and 2010 and were taught to “use cool colors” when teaching boys and “use warm colors” when teaching girls. The boys’ teachers were encouraged to speak in a lower, louder voice and to move around a lot, and the girls’ teachers were taught to “build communities” and bonds in the classroom through activities and face-to-face communication.
“Although these ideas are hyped as “new discoveries” about brain differences,” the ACLU says, “they are, in fact, only dressed up versions of old stereotypes.”
Single-sex classes are optional and must remain so to maintain constitutionality. The SSPE program in Mobile County at Hankins Middle School in 2009, for example, was mandated and implemented without parental consent. All eight of their single-sex courses were shortly terminated by the district after the ACLU threatened to file a lawsuit against them.
Some studies have found significant improvements in student achievement for single-sex education, and the improvements often are more considerable for boys. However, the data is controversial because it often does not take into consideration extraneous factors, such as school resources, teachers, and socio-economic conditions.
“These districts should focus on efforts that we know can improve all students’ education, like smaller classes and more teacher training and parental involvement,” says Emily Martin, Deputy Director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project.
Boys and girls are different. However, exactly how they are different cannot be concretely divided among the two, and acting on the perceived differences can limit their understanding of each other as individuals. Boys and girls, we might find, are far more alike than they are different. Keeping boys and girls together allows them to learn from each other and be social.
Our teachers need to be trained how to diversify their methods of instruction within coeducational classrooms, so that all learners can be addressed. Differential teaching lessens the chance of isolating any student, including the shy, quiet boy or rowdy girl. Furthermore, exposing students to different learning styles can help them become better-rounded learners because they will be able to improve on their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
Regardless, teachers of all classrooms, whether single-sex or coeducational, have a duty and opportunity to fight inequality and break down the limitations of stereotypes. In both classrooms, teachers are the ones with the power to negatively or positively affect their students’ learning.
Janel Spencer is a writer and content editor for 360 Education Solutions