Same-sex schools reduce stereotyped roles

By LOU MARANO   |   May 6, 2002 at 4:59 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 6 (UPI) -- Sex-role stereotypes are not fostered by all-male or all-female schools, but rather by coeducation.

Participants reached that conclusion at a recent American Enterprise Institute forum titled "Single-Sex Instruction: Research and Practice."

AEI President Christopher DeMuth explained that on Wednesday the Department of Education will issue guidelines for single-sex education as they apply to the No Child Left Behind Act, which was passed into law on Jan. 8. The May 1 forum served as a backdrop to the upcoming revisions.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states that no one in the United States shall be excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of any educational program that receives federal assistance.

Thomas W. Carroll is chairman of the Brighter Choice Foundation, which cosponsored the event with AEI. The foundation has helped set up single-sex charter schools for boys and girls in Albany, N.Y.

Carroll said as the result of the 1972 law, very few single-sex public schools survive in the United States. But Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas; Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.; Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.; and Sue Collins, R-Maine attached an amendment to President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act that "provides specific congressional endorsement of single-sex schools and single-sex classes."

Rosemary C. Salomone, professor of Law at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., said it remains to be seen whether local districts now will use federal funds to embrace single-sex education.

"Schools are shortchanging boys and girls, but in different ways," she said. Girls do as well as boys in math, but do not always score as high on "high stakes" standardized tests. But boys as a group lag far behind girls in reading and verbal skills. "They also a much higher incidence of learning disabilities, academic failure, and emotional difficulties."

Salomone said that although fewer girls stand at the top of the academic ladder, there are many more boys at the bottom. "These problems are most acute among disadvantaged minority boys, whose suspension and dropout rates have reached frightening proportions," she said. "Many African American boys exist in a subculture where academic achievement for men holds very little value."

The law professor said no clear evidence indicates that single-sex programs harm students academically, while the long-term social drawbacks remain purely speculative.

"Rather than focus on achievement test scores ... a more promising approach ... might be to examine the stages where sex differences develop -- all the while remembering that there are variations within each sex group," Salomone said. "It then becomes the question of how to maximize the potential of girls and boys across the educational experience.

"It appears that girls may derive psycho-social benefits from single-sex programs," she said, where many "experience a certain comfort level and develop greater self-confidence and broader interests." She also said such programs promote attitudes and preference among students that are less polarized by sex.

But the effect on actual school achievement is inconclusive, she said.

Salomone said educators at boys' schools tell her again and again that co-ed schools try to contain rather than channel the "high physicality" of boys in the lower grades, "while co-ed middle schools can prove very unkind and very hostile to boys who don't fit the stereotypical mold -- the boy who's considered the nerd, the violinist, the boy who's not particularly athletic." The all-male environment provides a protective space for such boys to pursue their own path.

The same principle applies to girls in single-sex math and technology classes, she said. And boys in single-sex English classes are more open to discuss a range of literature broader than the "typically male" adventure and suspense stories. Salomone said she has seen boys in single-sex schools enthusiastically take part in drama, choir and community service, "activities that girls often dominate in a co-ed setting."

Cornelius Riordon, professor of Sociology at Providence College, has been researching the subject of single-sex education for 20 years.

Riordon said that although most people take co-education for granted, the practice of schooling girls and boys together did not emerge from sound educational research. Rather, it always was put into place because of financial constraints. Similarly, money is the reason why women's colleges have turned to admitting males during the past 30 years.

Ignorance of this fact has accorded co-education "a protective halo" in the public mind, the sociologist said. This attitude is so deeply ingrained, Riordon said, that people will often acknowledge the academic superiority of single-sex schools without realizing the aspersion that implies for co-education.

"I believe the research is exceedingly persuasive in demonstrating that single-sex schools are effective in terms of providing both greater equality and greater achievement, especially for lower- and working-class students, most particularly for African- and Hispanic-American students, for both boys and for girls."

Riordon attributed this effect to an "academic culture" that exists in single-sex schools that cannot be reproduced in one or two classrooms in an otherwise co-educational school. In this culture both the teachers and fellow students of the same sex act as role models. The influence of the larger youth culture is diminished in a more orderly environment within schools that are generally smaller.

Disadvantaged students in such schools -- compared with their counterparts in coed schools -- have been shown to have higher standardized test scores in math, reading, science and civics, Riordon said. "They showed higher levels of leadership behavior in school, they do more homework, they take a stronger course load, they have higher educational expectations ... and less sex-role stereotyping."

Women who attended a girls' school continued to have higher test scores throughout their academic careers Riordon said.

Leonard Sax, a physician who practices family medicine in Poolesville, Md., said the neurological differences between males and females are greater than we know. Sax, executive director of the Montgomery Center for Research in Child and Adolescent Development, also holds a doctorate in psychology.

Sax said MRI images reveal that the brain of a 6-year-old boy looks a lot like the brain of a 4-year-old girl, and the differences increase with age. The brain of a 17-year-old boy resembles that of an 11-year-old girl. "The boys don't catch up until about 30 years of age," Sax said.

These differences begin before birth, the physician-psychologist said. "A group in Israel has found that if you do an ultrasound on a pregnant woman at 24 weeks gestation, you can tell by looking at the brain whether it's a boy or a girl.

"Sandra Witelson at the University of Wisconsin has found that if you shave a slice of brain tissue from a dead person and look at it under a microscope," sex can be determined "easily and without error."

Sax said women's brain cells "are packed much more densely. This is not a difference in amplitude. There was no overlap in the distributions. Every single woman's brain she looked at had a higher density of cells than any man's brain."

"Sally Shaywitz and Bennett Shaywitz at Yale University are finding that when boys read, just a little area of the brain -- the left inferior frontal gyrus -- lights up. In the girls, the whole frontal lobes light up on both sides of the brain."

Sax said his reading of the literature during the past 15 years has led him to believe that the boy who does not conform to sex-role stereotypes is the boy who needs an all-male school the most.

"It's in coed schools that your get this process ... of 'gender intensification,'" he said. "It's in coed schools that the 'sissy' is really going to get picked on. ... It's in the single-sex schools, paradoxically, that the boy who likes drama and art and music will do best."

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