While some school districts are still trying to set up segregated classes, new scientific research raising questions about the validity of such classes is getting more media coverage and giving some educators pause. The city of Boston, for example, has abandoned plans to set up separate academies for boys and girls in the public school system.
Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing public school districts in Wisconsin, Texas, California and New Jersey, claiming that these schools "violate federal and state law by forcing students into a single-sex environment, relying on harmful gender stereotypes and depriving students of equal educational opportunities merely because of their sex."
Earlier this year researchers looked at middle school students in South Korea, because that nation randomly assigns students to either single-sex or co-ed classes. They found no gender differences in single-sex or co-ed classes in math or science performance.
Despite such findings, advocates such as the National Association for Single Sex Public Education continue to push school districts to separate the sexes. Their argument is that girls and boys have very different brains, with boys oriented towards math, science and reasoning, and girls excelling in personal relationships and emotion. In this view, the sexes should be parented and educated differently, and steered towards separate careers.
'No Solid Evidence'
Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, disagrees. "There is no solid evidence supporting the assertions about supposed differences between boys' and girls' brains that underlie these programs."
The ACLU is right about the science, as we have noted in this space before.
The evidence is mounting that brain differences between girls and boys don't amount to much.
Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Chicago, conducted an in-depth review of the scientific literature for her 2009 book, "Pink Brain Blue Brain" and found "surprisingly little evidence of sex difference in children's brains."
Perhaps the most serious blow to the single-sex public school classroom movement was an article published in 2011 in the influential journal Science, titled "The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling." It was written by eight prominent neuroscientists, led by professor Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna in California, past president of the American Psychological Association.
The group wrote that, "Sex-segregated education is deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence. There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students' academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism."
The Science authors were especially critical of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and its leader, Dr. Leonard Sax.
They said Sax "counsels that boys should be taught through loud confrontation ('What's your answer, Mr. Jackson? Give it to me!'), whereas girls should be approached with a gentler touch ('Lisa, sweetie, it's time to open your book'). In his books, website and teacher-training programs, Sax rationalizes different educational experiences for boys and girls by using obscure and isolated findings about brain maturation, hearing, vision and temperature sensitivity. Although scientists have debunked many such claims as 'pseudoscience,' this message has yet to reach many educators who are implementing such recommendations."
Drinking the Kool-Aid
Too many teachers, it seems, drank the Kool-Aid of brain differences. In some classrooms, girls are taught about chemistry by analyzing detergents. One teacher wrote on an educational website that she had stopped assigning book reports to boys due to their lesser verbal abilities and instead was having them do "show and tell" reports. But there's scant evidence that boys are naturally less verbal than girls.
Single-sex classrooms in public schools tend to be expensive, because you can't set up a special class for one sex without offering equal opportunities for the other. If there's no educational advantage, why spend public money?
So what are parents to think when choosing schools for their children? First of all, they should be wary of any schools that offer curricula based on supposed brain differences between boys and girls. This is especially problematic in public schools, where desperately needed resources can be squandered to segregate classrooms, rather than used to reduce class size and hire better teachers.
But what about excellent single-sex private schools that do not buy such ideas, and that offer small classes, excellent teachers and significant resources? Parents should evaluate such places on the overall quality of the schools. Gender makes very little difference in students' academic performance.
Pink brains and blue brains are nonsense. Parents need to focus on the real issues that matter in education. That's the way to choose the school that will best educate their children.