« Make up work | Main | PS-- No TV in the bedrooms »

It's not the sex, silly, it's the teachers


I read the illustrious The New York Times' extensive article, "Teaching Boys and Girls Separately" once on Friday, again on Saturday, and twice more Sunday. I had to be sure that my sense of underwhelmed-ness and disappointment was genuine. It was. It still is.

Perhaps I'm asking too much from an article (I don't think I am), but it could have easily been summed up as: A headline-grabbing theory that people claim makes a significant difference on student learning, but lacks actual hard proof. However, the theory does have with warm and fuzzy anecdotes about kids. And everyone love kids.

In fact, I think it could have more accurately used the same interviews and investigation to more explicitly say this: A headline-grabbing theory that may or may not work with all students. But it doesn't really matter, because those warm and fuzzy anecdotes about kids and classrooms really just further prove that what we really need are good teachers-- not single-sex classrooms.

That's what I got out of the article at least. All the positive examples they give about where single-sex education indirectly suggest that good teachers are the ones responsible for the gains. Sure, those classrooms saw great results in their students, but they also had already high-performing teachers vying for those classes, as well as schools with extensive support and much greater academic requirements and structure throughout the day. All those factors seem to be consistent across the single-sex classrooms described at Foley Intermediate School, the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem, and the Excellence Charter School in Brooklyn-- three schools described extensively throughout the article for their high student performance. My question is-- why couldn't that have been discussed explicitly?

What makes me more anxious is the suggested silver bullet to close the achievement gap:

"...there’s no doubt that public schools are failing poor minority students in general and poor minority boys in particular. Despite six years of No Child Left Behind, the achievement gaps between rich and poor students and white and black students have not significantly narrowed. 'People are getting desperate' is how Benjamin Wright, chief administrative officer for the Nashville public schools, described the current interest in single-sex education to me. 'Coed’s not working. Time to try something else.'"

Fortunately for the article (and unfortunately for reality), Wright goes on to explain that single-sex classrooms don't all see significant results-- in part because of a lack of teacher engagement.

"Not all schools see great results from switching to a single-sex format. After transforming the Thurgood Marshall School in Seattle, Wright moved to Philadelphia to work on the district’s single-sex programs, and the results were rather modest, a fact Wright attributes to working both with middle- and high-school students and with less-engaged teachers. Other districts have started single-gender programs only to shut them down, as major logistical headaches outweighed the small academic gains. Lori Clark, principal at Jefferson Leadership Academies in Long Beach, Calif., which in 1999 became the first public middle school in the country to convert to a single-gender format, is in the process of reverting her school to coed. 'We just didn’t get the bang for the buck we’d been hoping for with our test scores,' Clark told me."



I agree with what you say. I would add several points to it. First, don't discount a puritanical element fueling the support for this sort of thing. And it comes from some of the same people who call any sort of reform efforts in mathematics education classrooms to be "experimenting with innocent children." Funny how the specter of "mad scientists" is dropped when the experiment is one conservative ideologues agree with in advance, isn't it?

My next point is perhaps overly speculative, but still bears some consideration: these same conservative ideologues are, at least on the surface, opposed to "separate but equal" education based on 'race.' But what if they could gather statistics to support the notion of separate but equal education based on sex? Could that be a wedge to use to support other sorts of segregated institutions? Cynical, perhaps, but not beyond what I've seen coming from right wing think tanks when it comes to educational policy over the past decade and a half.

Finally, I want to mention that using test scores as the basis for evaluating the effectiveness of this program, as is done in the "not enough bang for the buck" comment at the end of your blog entry (not by you, I realize), is part of the whole NCLB trap. I don't at all support this sort of segregating the sexes, and I don't buy the arguments used to justify them. If there are social issues about co-education and how boys and girls behave in mixed classrooms, that's something that needs to be addressed in those classrooms, not by burying the problem and pretending it doesn't reflect deep-seated cultural attitudes and norms that themselves are faulty. But let's not use test scores as the basis for making these sorts of policy decisions, one way or the other, unless we have tests that actually measure what we value and are controlled for conflating variables. The abuse of single-score multiple choice instruments in the United States is so rampant and unconscionable that it helps make us the laughing stock of the world. Or at least the parts of the world that actually pay attention to principles of psychometry.

I think that we can agree that what every student needs and deserves is a well trained and highly qualified teacher. I also think that we need to remember that "one size does not fit all". If a parent believes that their child will be more focused and fair better academically in a same sex environment then they should have that option. Some of the best schools have been single sex schools. What is important is the quality of the learning environment and does the school work for students who chose to attend these type of schools.

While it may not be a perfect solution, I strongly believe that there are benefits to be had from single sex education. I remember nothing more clearly from my seventh grade English class than seeing one of my female classmates the first day of school. Years later, I remember her name, but can't recall any books we read for that class.

Especially at the middle school level, boys face enough distractions and concerns about their adequacy. Worrying about what the girls in his class think about him each time he answers shouldn't be on Johnny's list of concerns. Peer approval issues get infinitely more complex when both sexes are present. Providing for boys and girls separately gives teachers a better chance at keeping the focus of their students on academics.

The basic question seems to be another "either-or" fallacy - which is better, same-sex classrooms with unengaged teachers or coed classrooms with engaged teachers? I was glad to read the last two entries because they stated very well the alternative position to Mr. Goldenberg's posting. His went from a liberal ideologue rant (always recognizable by the "conservative ideologue," "puritanical" name-calling), rambled through several "separate-but-equal" and anti-NCLB digressions, and ended with a pseudo-educationalist pretense at "psychometry."

It is an observable fact that schools with good teaching produce better results. And single-sex classes often have great benefit for both girls (young women) and boys (young men). Not always, but often. It should be given a fair trial if the present circumstances aren't working. As for the criteria for determining if students are really learning, it doesn't take a great deal of multiple-choice testing to find out if students know when the Civil War started, the results of basic arithmetic, knowledge of science, etc.

In my community college we are teaching fractions and decimals, teaching how to write simple sentences, and teaching basic facts that every literate high-school student knew when I graduated (before 1970). I see the problems with students who know too little and don't care. While I have some of the answers, I sure don't have all of the answers. I should note that I have a unique educational viewpoint in that I have taught middle-school, high-school, and community college over my years.

In closing, I respect and value liberal, moderate, and conservative perspectives since they all have some value in a discussion. Disparaging comments about either left or right, whether just plain nasty or veiled in erudition, lend little to an educational discourse. Rational thought without the cloak of political ideology makes so much more sense.

As with most topics in education, there are elements of merit to both sides' views. I think there are young people of both sexes who find coed classes incredibly distracting. As someone who vividly remembers the boys I had crushes on in middle school (and like Micalah Abts, I recall few specifics of what was studied in those classes) I also feel that I benefited from attending coed schools. There are very few "real world" situations where the genders are separated after high school. I do think that (at the risk of adding more to schools' full plates) even just pointing out (in health/sex ed classes?) that BOTH boys and girls worry about how the opposite sex views them and having respectful discussions of this could have positive effects on both genders. Perhaps even some of the gender differences in approach to drawing, in the need to move, etc. could be addressed in class discussions to help alleviate girls' frustrations with boys' boisterous behavior and boys' frustration with girls' know-it-all quick answers to questions. However, over all I agree with the man in the article who likened such generalizations to using height to assign boys and girls to locker rooms - as a K teacher, I saw as many examples of girls with "boyish behavior" as boys with "girlish behavior" (as defined by Mr. Sax).

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Susan: As with most topics in education, there are elements of read more
  • Ole Perfesser: The basic question seems to be another "either-or" fallacy - read more
  • Micaiah Abts: While it may not be a perfect solution, I strongly read more
  • Juan Flores: I think that we can agree that what every student read more
  • Michael Paul Goldenberg: Jessica, I agree with what you say. I would add read more




Technorati search

» Blogs that link here