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Education and Gender

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Renewed Interest in Separating Boys and Girls

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 22, 2008 (Zenit) - There is increasing interest in single-sex education in the United States, with a spate of recent news stories on the issue. Commenting on the planned closure of almost two dozen schools in the nation's capital, a Jan. 4 article in the Washington Times newspaper suggested some be transformed into single-sex charter schools.

A 1972 amendment to federal law regulating public education led to the closure of most separate-sex schools. By 1995, only 3 public schools offered single-sex education, according to the Washington Times.

Subsequent changes to education laws have allowed a comeback for schools wanting to educate boys and girls apart. The article reported that currently Washington has two public schools offering single-sex options.

In a May 22 article last year the paper reported on the experience of a Washington D.C. school, the Hope Community Charter School, in separating the sixth-grade students for most of the day. The experiment was a success and the program was planned to expand to grades five through seven.

According to information posted on the Web site of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education as of November 2007, there are at least 366 public schools in the United States offering single-sex educational opportunities.

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Most of those schools are actually coed, the association noted, and offer some single-sex classrooms. Nevertheless, 88 of the 366 schools qualify as single-sex schools.

Initiatives are under way in a number of states to expand single-sex education. In Minnesota the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune newspaper reported Dec. 22 on plans to offer a girls-only class in math and engineering.

High school teachers in Rosemount and Lakeville plan to start the classes next fall. Participation in the classes will be voluntary. The proposal is being backed by the Society of Women Engineers.


"The research shows that women are motivated by different kinds of challenges than the men are," said Steve Ullrich, an engineering teacher at Lakeville South High School.

According to the article, in the Twin Cities area about a dozen public schools have tried some form of single-sex education in the past five years. Many of the programs were limited to just one or two courses, but some have separated boys and girls for most of the school day.

From Florida, on Dec. 23 the St. Petersburg Times newspaper reported that the Spring Hill Westside Elementary School has had success with classes splitting boys and girls. The students started studying separately last August. Teachers use different methods to teach boys and girls, with the former being kept more physically active.

The article cited school principal Charles Johnson as saying he is committed to the optional program of separating the sexes, particularly for boys. "The research shows that boys are falling behind," he said. "We need to create an environment where they aren't turned off to school."

Single-sex education is also on the rise in the state of Michigan, reported a Nov. 13 article in the Detroit News. The state legislature approved a law in 2006, allowing public schools to educate boys and girls separately.

"In programs where you don't have girls, boys tend to be more collegial and work with each other," commented Sean Vann, principal of Frederick Douglass Academy, an all-male public high school.

The academy transformed from a program for troubled boys to a college prep school two years ago. At the same time a girls' high school, Detroit International Academy, opened its doors. It now has 500 students in grades 9-12.

Better academic results

The Detroit News also cited research carried out at Stetson University in Florida. A three-year project compared single-sex and coed classrooms at a Florida school and found that in most cases students in single-sex classes outscored students in coed classes on state tests.

The same positive results have been observed in West Virginia, reported the local Charleston Daily Mail newspaper Nov. 7. Three schools in Kanawha County have begun dividing some classes by gender. Academic results improve while behavior problems decrease, said Johnny Ferrara, one of the principals involved.

Karen Richmond, a teacher at the Anne Bailey Elementary School in St. Albans is convinced, the article reported. Richmond has taught for 30 years at the school, and this is her second year teaching an all-boys class. "These last two years have been some of the best," she said.

South Carolina is also experimenting with single-sex education, according to a Sept. 30 report by the Associated Press.

David Chadwell, the state's coordinator of single-sex education, believes that in the middle school years, when boys and girls are undergoing puberty, students are best taught in classrooms that offer programs adapted to the needs of each sex.

South Carolina has about 70 schools offering this possibility, and the state hopes to offer to all students this possibility within five years.

Chadwell explained that research shows boys don't hear as well as girls. To counteract this, teachers of boys classes often use microphones. They also incorporate physical actions, like throwing a ball to a student when asking a question, because boys' attention spans tend to wander.


The move to single-sex education is not without its critics, the Associated Press article added. It cited Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, as saying that separating boys and girls could be harmful if boys were to form the idea of being superior.

Nevertheless, the idea that boys and girls have different learning needs is gaining ground. A June 18 front-page article by the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the decision by the Lafayette School District to provide training to its staff and parents by the Gurian Institute of Colorado.

According to the article the institute has trained 30,000 teachers in gender differences and learning since it was founded in 2002 by Michael Gurian, a family therapist and author of the 1996 book "The Wonder of Boys."

Summarizing research by Gurian and others, the article observed that males use more cortical areas of the brain for spatial and mechanical functioning, while females use more for words and emotions. This means that boys benefit more from hands-on learning, while girls are better at listening and using words. As well, due to hormonal differences, boys tend to be more fidgety, impulsive and competition-driven.

"We can say confidently, and more and more confidently all the time, that the ways males and females on average are processing information is not the same," said Larry Cahill, a fellow of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at University of California in Irvine, cited by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The article also commented that there is widespread concern about educational results among boys, who lag behind in reading skills and have many more disciplinary problems. Male students are also more likely to have learning disabilities and are more prone to dropping out of school. In fact, women now make up 57% of college students.

Still, it's not all plain sailing for single-sex education. On Dec. 20, the Edinburgh Evening News reported that "despite compelling evidence of their positive effects," the number of all-girls schools have diminished in number in Edinburgh. Only three now remain in the city, compared to nearly a dozen in 1966.

Meanwhile, in Germany, officials in the Brandenburg education department have rejected plans for a Catholic boys' school in Potsdam. The project, backed by Opus Dei, was ruled to be in breach of gender equality laws, reported Deutsche Welle on May 3. Fortunately, authorities in other countries are ruling in favor of the educational needs of both sexes, rather than focusing on the imposition of ideological stereotypes.


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