01 March 2008

Separate, but Fair?

I love this series of pictures by Michele Asselin:


The first fits our traditional sense of what annual class pictures should be. There are neat rows, still hands, and studious gazes. But the second? Those are real second graders with personality to spare. This is how I like to think of students. When I close my eyes and remember visiting an elementary classroom in the last few years, this second picture best represents the kids I conjure up in my mind. The time on the clock in both pictures is a reminder of just how quickly context and energy can change in a classroom.

You may have noticed something else about these pictures: all of the subjects are male.

The pictures were taken as part of an article in the New York Times Magazine on single-sex classrooms.

Separating schoolboys from schoolgirls has long been a staple of private and parochial education. But the idea is now gaining traction in American public schools, in response to both the desire of parents to have more choice in their children’s public education and the separate education crises girls and boys have been widely reported to experience. The girls’ crisis was cited in the 1990s, when the American Association of University Women published “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” which described how girls’ self-esteem plummets during puberty and how girls are subtly discouraged from careers in math and science. More recently, in what Sara Mead, an education expert at the New America Foundation, calls a “man bites dog” sensation, public and parental concerns have shifted to boys. Boys are currently behind their sisters in high-school and college graduation rates. School, the boy-crisis argument goes, is shaped by females to match the abilities of girls (or, as Sax puts it, is taught “by soft-spoken women who bore” boys). In 2006, Doug Anglin, a 17-year-old in Milton, Mass., filed a civil rights complaint with the United States Department of Education, claiming that his high school — where there are twice as many girls on the honor roll as there are boys — discriminated against males. His case did not prevail in the courts, but his sentiment found support in the Legislature and the press. That same year, as part of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that authorizes programs aimed at improving accountability and test scores in public schools, the Department of Education passed new regulations making it easier for districts to create single-sex classrooms and schools.

I have to admit that I haven't paid a lot of attention to the gender studies as they relate to the classroom---but I do feel like I've been seeing more and more articles in the general media about the move by schools to offer more single-sex education opportunities. I find myself neither for nor against it. Instead, I am simply curious about what the research will show in a few years. What will be the long-term effect on student achievement? For families who opt into single gender classrooms for their children, what happens to these kids when "mixed" classrooms become the only option later in school? Will this type of education turn out to create the kind of magic we need to close the achievement gap? If schools are indeed full of "soft spoken women who bore boys," what changes to teacher education and/or professional development might be helpful?

3 comments:

Dawn said...

I can't help but think it's simply more of the same thinking that's always been there. If addressing the group this way doesn't work we'll either address the group in a different manner or else spilt the group into different groups.

At no point does the discussion ever get to the point where people stop asking what's best for boys or girls, or ESl kids or inner city kids or gifted kids or mentally impaired kids and start wondering how they might best address the individual learner that each and every kid REALLY is.

Of course how to do that is a problem. I do it by homeschooling but I don't know how the educational system can address the matter.

Jose said...

There's a multitude of things going on here, but I guess I can only speak from personal experience. For one, I see how vital a single-sex education would be for many boys as well as girls. Without the distraction of the other sex, there's the ability to fully immerse oneself in the curriculum and also develop oneself into the best man or woman one can be, thus creating a sort of homogeneity amongst the races. For instance, in my middle and high schools, it was all boys, so we were taught about being men without being distracted by the women at our sister school.

On the other hand, what that also means is that we don't get to interact with the other sex, and we allow for the differentiation of genders to continue rather than allowing for the children to learn life lessons from each other. How do we teacher young boys and girls to treat each other with respect without having others of a different gender there? And what happens when these children come out of having only seen one sex throughout their scholarly careers and then go to college where it's vastly different? Wouldn't that create some more social awkwardness? As if there isn't enough as is?

I don't have a definitive yes or no, but these are questions to ponder.

Tracy said...

Wouldn't that create some more social awkwardness?

Well I went to a single-sex girls high school, and from there straight to engineering school, which was 90% male, without any worries.

I don't recall any of my other high school friends having any problems either. Men aren't *that* weird. I find if you treat them like rational creatures you can get along quite well with them. ;)

What happened at my high school is that we got to interact with the other sex outside of school hours. Extra-curriculum activities, after-school jobs, brothers, etc.