The Single-Sex Solution
Is there a way that separate can be even better than equal? A handful of schools nationwide are trying to prove the point that single gender education can do a better job educating both girls and boys
Just before eight in the morning at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle, some boys play a last-minute game of soccer on one side of the elongated playground. Girls jump rope in another section, and the two groups share the slides and a jungle gym at the far end of the yard. It's a typical scene that plays out daily in schoolyards across the country.
Principal Benjamin Wright checks his watch and then, looking and sounding like a tough football coach, loudly blows the whistle hanging from his neck. "Let's do this!" he yells.
Immediately, the dispersed students come toward him and get into tight lines separated according to their grade levels-and their gender. Thus begins a school day that is hardly typical, as the children march upstairs to single-sex classrooms in an educational experiment designed to improve student achievement and destined to raise controversy.
The Thurgood Marshall School is charging through its third year of separating classes by sex and-along with more than a dozen other schools around the country-is trying to demonstrate that single-sex public education can make a positive difference, especially to students in predominantly minority, low-income districts.
"We were at the bottom of the barrel. We were the worst school in the district," says Wright, who arrived at the school in 1998 and notes that the student population is almost 95 percent minority. "My philosophy is that we have to meet each child where he or she is. Then we can do whatever it takes to make them successful. You can best do that if you isolate the sexes."
In Seattle's decentralized school district, Wright promoted his idea of separating the sexes, first in a fourth-grade pilot program and then for the entire school. Seattle's Superintendent of Public Schools Joseph Olchefske was listening.
"All of the work around the standards-based movement is built on the simple premise that it's the job of every school to see that every child achieves," Olchefske says. "If gender-based education works, it's incumbent on us to do it."
The early results argue that the new approach at Thurgood Marshall has worked, along with the more conventional reforms of longer school years and smaller class sizes that Wright also introduced. Scores on the WASL, the standardized state achievement test required of fourth graders, rose sharply in 2001 and 2002, the first two years of the single-sex program. For instance, in 2000, only 27 percent of the students in co-ed classes met the state standards for reading and 11 percent for math. The results in reading increased to 51 percent in 2001 and 60 percent in 2002. And while students showed a small decline in math for 2001, an impressive 45 percent met state standards in the following year.
Experiments Are Multiplying
The single-sex movement that Wright and the Seattle Public Schools have joined has gained momentum during the past year from a Bush administration initiative to relax Title IX regulations and over the past decade from several prominent educational theories. Girls perform better, particularly in math and science-says one of these theories-if they are separated from their male counterparts. Another says that boys, especially those in the inner city at risk for dropping out, have their own set of learning needs that can best be addressed in an all-male environment.
These dual approaches play out in Thurgood Marshall's classrooms. The fourth-grade boys' and girls' classrooms stand side by side and mirror each other, right down to the bank of computers to one side, the brightly colored inspirational sayings on the walls, and the U-shaped arrangement of tables at which the students sit. The parallelism stops there.
"I really think the girls focus better without the boys," says fourth-grade teacher Casie Baddeley of her students. They don't worry about doing things that the boys will make fun of. "They know that the boys influence them, and they really do have more confidence to speak for themselves when boys aren't there. Now it's to the point that even if there are boys in the room, the girls don't care. They have enough confidence to speak out and say what they feel."
Baddeley punctuates her teaching with comments aimed at reinforcing self-esteem and says that this newfound confidence extends to her girls' relationship to science and math. "The first activity I have every year is to have the girls draw a 'mathematician,' " she says. "And almost all of them will draw men. And we'll talk about, 'Why are none of your pictures of women?' And they say, 'I don't know.' Then I give them a mid-assessment. Some do men. But many do women, and they are drawing themselves."
It's Different For Boys
For the 19 boys next door in Linh Le's fourth-grade classroom, discipline is the name of the game, at least for starters. Today they are learning the science of what happens when a balloon filled with water is heated in a microwave oven. Le has her students move over to the microwave to view the experiment and adds firmly, "without fighting, pushing, and yelling and screaming. Or you can stay at your desks."
The boys comply, but it is clearly hard for them to stay still. They are squirmier, chattier and more easily distracted than the fourth-grade girls. These behaviors draw increasingly forceful reprimands until Le's discipline seems to pay off. Eventually the young scientists, raising their hands and waiting their turn, begin to explain what happened to the balloon.
"A lot of boys learn kinesthetically," explains principal Wright, "and it doesn't mean they're bad kids when the teacher says, 'Sit down,' and they're still moving in their seats. And it also doesn't mean they have attention deficit disorder."
Noted child psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint of the Harvard Medical School has studied African-American children extensively. He agrees that all-male classrooms provide an opportunity to help at-risk African-American boys.
"Nowadays, schools take a lot of black boys they can't work with, and they put them in special education," Poussaint observes. "They kind of give up on them, and we know that after third grade, a lot of black boys start falling behind. So how do you structure the curriculum and activities during the day to make it more appropriate to the issues around black male children?
"Let's say that black male children think they need to fight more. How do you set up the classroom in terms of discipline? How many recesses should you have to let the boys run around and burn up more energy? How can you integrate some real things that they like into the curriculum-whether [it's] their greater use of black English or video games-and use them as a stepping board in helping to educate them?"
The Fight About Title IX
According to the Brighter Choice Foundation, which tracks single-sex education and this year launched separate boys and girls charter schools in Albany, N.Y., 17 single-sex schools were up and running when this school year began. They ranged from elementary to high school programs and reached from California to New York.
That number might multiply with the decision last May by the U.S. Department of Education to review existing Title IX regulations, which for more than three decades have sought to eliminate race- and gender-based discrimination in schools. The action followed a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The DOE recently completed a 60-day period for public comment and should announce any changes in Title IX regulations by the end of 2003.
"I think what we need to look at what it means to offer 'comparable opportunities' to members of the otherwise excluded sex," says Brian Jones, the DOE's general counsel. "What we hope to be able to do is to build more flexibility into that definition of what a comparable opportunity is. If you decide that you want to have a math academy for girls because there's some research out there that shows girls learn mathematics better in a cooperative environment, where pushy boys aren't present, you may still be able to say that boys learn math very well in co-ed settings."
Jones adds that the DOE is also focusing on restrictions that keep co-educational schools from offering selected single-sex classes, such as a math or science course just for girls.
The latest review of Title IX and most single-sex experiments in recent years have raised the concerns of groups from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Organization of Women to the NAACP. These organizations successfully opposed an attempt in 1991 to establish three all-male academies in Detroit; and the ACLU and NOW have a longstanding complaint pending with the DOE against The Young Women's Leadership School, which opened in East Harlem, N.Y., in 1996.
In its published response to the current challenge to Title IX, NOW spells out its position: "Unfortunately, decades of experience in related areas, such as job training, college athletics and professional sports, indicate that female-dominated programs consistently receive fewer resources than boys in primary and secondary educational programs. Separating girls and boys in primary and secondary educational programs therefore threatens to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, inequities between boys and girls."
Harvard Education School professor emeritus Charles Willie has studied racial desegregation for decades and was the architect of Boston's school desegregation program during the 1990s. He has his reservations about single-sex schools as a remedy.
"We think we have to set the people at the bottom apart. We can't ignore history," Willie cautions. "The reason why the Civil Rights movement in education started was that all those black students who had been set apart were not doing that well. The only way we can teach our students to catch up is to have them run the race with other students."
Willie says that his studies of school systems in Boston, Charleston, S.C., and Lee County, Fla., have shown that the highest achieving students tend to be in schools most diversified in terms of race, gender and socioeconomic status.
"You've got to be very, very careful," admits DOE general counsel Brian Jones. "We don't want to be in a position of defending discrimination on the basis of sex that doesn't have some real sound basis in educational research."
But research is not easy to compile. A 2001 study gave a mixed review of six California districts that had tried male and female academies for middle school and high school. The report concluded that single-sex education inadvertently reinforced gender stereotypes, and today the San Francisco 49ers Academy in Palo Alto is the only single-sex school left in the group.
In contrast, Providence College sociology professor Cornelius Riordan, who has conducted national studies of single-sex, private Catholic schools in urban areas, sees a value in their educational approach.
"In a nutshell," Riordan says, "what I have found is that there does appear to be a consistent positive effect on academic outcomes, largely limited to disadvantaged students. The implications are that it is a viable alternative for the kind of schools that at-risk students should attend, particularly those in African-American and Hispanic communities."
Recently, The Brighter Choice Charter Schools in Albany contracted with Riordan to conduct similar research.
In the meantime, the founders of single-sex public school programs point to other lessons learned. "If you build it, they will come," says Ann Rubenstein Tisch, who navigated the complex New York City school system in order to create The Young Woman's Leadership School
in New York. Tisch's foundation has recently built another girls' academy in Chicago. She is planning four more schools in New York, including two academies for boys.
Back in Seattle, Benjamin Wright has been hosting a stream of school administrators from around the United States as well as from Canada, England and Australia interested in starting single-sex schools of their own. Wright also will be partnering with five other Seattle schools to help them get started.
"I'm not saying that single-sex education cures all problems," Wright adds. "It's not a panacea, but it's surely an alternative that we must use."
Ronald Schachter, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass.