Single Sex Schools


LOST LAST MONTH amid the debate about Iraq was the start of the school year. And a debate that we should be having about a domestic issue — single-sex education — isn’t happening. Last May, toward the end of the school year, the Bush administration proposed making public funds available for the establishment of single-sex schools. Specifically, Bush wants to spend $385 million from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a reform of the nation’s public schools that calls for more parental choice and teacher/student accountability in education, to create schools for boys and schools for girls. Never mind that spending public dollars on such an enterprise is probably illegal under 1972’s Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in education that was enacted, ironically, to prohibit discrepancies in the spending of federal education dollars for one gender over the other. (Title IX regulation 34 CFR 106.34 mandates that no school receiving any federal funds shall ” provide any course or otherwise carry out any of its education program or activity separately on the basis of sex, ” with limited exceptions for physical-education classes involving contact sports, sex-ed classes, and ” remedial or affirmative action. ” This law had the most immediate effect on the historically underfunded field of women’s sports, but it affected other aspects of education as well.) Never mind, also, that in an era of standardized testing and hostility toward students who can’t speak English, a push to build single-sex schools seems, well, weird. No, what’s truly odd about the Bush push for single-sex education, which was officially announced May 8 by Secretary of Education Rod Paige, is that it signals a crisis in sexuality — not education — and is predicated on outdated, moronic, and destructive gender stereotypes.

Any number of studies show that single-sex education is beneficial for college-age women. But the work done so far to study the issue for students in kindergarten through 12th grade is, at best, spotty and inconclusive. In general, the benefits of sex-segregated private and parochial schools cannot be applied to public schools, since private and parochial schools either admit only high-achieving pupils or self-select by expelling poorly performing or misbehaving students. One of the few major studies of single-sex schools — ” Single Gender Public Schooling As a New Form of School Choice, ” by Amanda L. Datnow and Lea A. Hubbard, funded by the Ford and Spencer Foundations — concluded that California’s 1997 headline-making experiment to organize separate schools for boys and girls was, after three years, a failure. A survey of several international studies of single-sex schooling from kindergarten through 12th grade published by the Educational Resources Information Center’s Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education showed that while there were some differences in how girls and boys performed, almost all were explained by factors other than gender, such as classroom size, economic discrepancies, and cultural differences. And because there is little history of single-sex public-school classrooms in the United States — there are now 10 such schools in the country, with two more set to open this fall — only the most anecdotal evidence for their benefits exists. The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, for instance, has great success in sending almost all its graduates to college. The school is also highly selective in whom it admits, has class sizes far smaller than the New York City average (a three-to-one student-to-teacher ratio, to be specific), and is well funded. But all this is incidental because the conservative push for single-sex schools isn’t predicated on excellence in education. Rather, it is about anxiety over teenage sexuality.

The contemporary concept and implementation of public single-sex schools is less than a decade old. The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, for example, was founded in 1996. However, private single-sex schooling has a much longer history. Up until the 20th century, most private schools were sexually segregated, largely because young women were not deemed worthy of a proper education. Furthermore, Victorian propriety considered it risky for young women and men to be in the same classrooms — females, it was understood, needed to be protected from the more-brutish nature of the male. To some extent, this is the same argument put forth today: women need to be protected from men. And it’s true that studies show that college-age women do better in the classroom in single-sex situations, primarily because men often take up more classroom time and space, leaving the women in the room at a disadvantage.

But what is most fascinating — and distressing — about the current argument in support of single-sex education is that it flips the Victorian justification on its head: it is the men, not the women, who need to be protected from the opposite sex. Today’s single-sex-education proponents claim that boys learn much better without girls present. Why? Well, because girls are a sexual distraction. Last month, Boston University president John Silber spoke candidly about the need for his school to limit its enrollment of women because the composition of the student body had shifted to about 60 percent women and 40 percent men. The problem? With so many women around, the male students at BU cease to be gentlemanly. (An odd theory on many counts — the least of which is that BU has a reputation for frat parties, beer busts, and an all-around rowdiness that predates any imbalance in the sex ratio.)

Such concern for how the presence of girls in the classroom affects boys permeates most of the literature produced by advocates for single-sex public education. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE) quotes conservative sociologist George Gilder on its Web site: ” The only thing about a classroom more important to adolescent boys than whether girls are present is whether or not it is on fire. ” The site continues: ” Boys will be distracted by girls even if the girls are all wearing baggy sweatpants and head-to-toe overalls. Many a boy can be mesmerized for an hour by the left earlobe of the girl sitting in front of him. If you don’t know this, you don’t know enough about boys. Some boys, it’s true, can focus on their work even if a girl is sitting in the seat in front of them. BUT: if that girl is wearing revealing or form-fitting clothes, then even the most studious boy will be distracted. ” The site also quotes cultural critic Kate Zernike on the extent of the female-flesh-baring problem: ” The days when torn jeans tested the limits are now a fond memory. Today, schools feel the need to remind students that see-through clothing is not appropriate. ”

In the modern world of single-sex-public-education propaganda, girls have gone from Victorian damsels in distress to a cross between Eve the temptress and Jennifer Lopez.

But NASSPE’s Web site contains some other interesting — and alarming — information as well. Its founder and executive director, Leonard Sax, a pediatrician from Poolesville, Maryland, writes at length about the biological reasons why girls and boys should be separated in the classroom:

Boys develop more slowly than girls. That’s true at every level of analysis: neuroanatomical development (as measured by MRI scans), neurophysiological development (as measured by brain blood flow studies and EEGs), cognitive development, and school performance…. Most boys are less attentive, less able to sit still for long periods, than are girls of the same age. If Jack over here is fidgeting and not able to do the writing assignment, while Jill over there is having no problem whatsoever, it’s not long before Jack’s teacher will start wondering whether Jack might have some kind of attention deficit disorder. Soon Jack will be taken to the doctor’s office by his parents, with a note from the teacher suggesting a trial of Ritalin (or Adderall, etc.).

On the other hand, girls do better with the brains they have:

Best practices for teaching math differ fundamentally for girls and boys. Recall what you learned on the navigation section of our ” brain page ” : navigational tasks are handled by completely different areas of the brain in girls and boys. In girls, navigational tasks are assigned to the cerebral cortex, the same general section of the brain which is responsible for language. In boys, the same tasks are handled by the hippocampus, an ancient nucleus buried deep in the brain, devoid of any direct connections to the cortex.

These anatomical differences have major implications for teaching mathematical topics, especially geometry, algebra, and number theory. For girls, you want to keep it real and keep it relevant. Fibonacci numbers are a great way to introduce number theory to girls, for example. Recall that a Fibonacci series is formed by adding two numbers to yield a third number. The best-known Fibonacci series is: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 … Ask your girls to bring in any of the following: artichokes, sunflowers, pineapples, pinecones, delphiniums, black-eyed susans, field daisies, African daisies, and Michaelmas daisies. Start with the flowers. Count the number of petals. You’ll find that the number of petals is almost always a number in the Fibonacci series: 8 petals for delphiniums, 13 for double delphiniums, 21 for black-eyed susans, 34 for field daisies, 55 for African daisies and Michaelmas daisies.

So math isn’t so hard after all, especially for girls. They just have to be taught with flowers, fruits, and vegetables.

SAX’S USE of this science for social policy is highly dubious. It’s hard to find verification for it — and most of it begins to sound as loony, and possibly dangerous, as the studies showing the lack of evolution of ” the Negro brain ” that Stephen Jay Gould exposed so perfectly for their stupidity in The Mismeasure of Man (Norton, 1981). And while neither the Department of Education nor the No Child Left Behind Act makes any mention of Sax and his National Association for Single Sex Public Education (which only recently shortened its name from the National Association for the Advancement of Single Sex Public Education), the group is quickly becoming a major player in the public debate on sex segregation in public education.

It is no surprise that women’s groups such as the Feminist Majority and the American Association of University Women and civil-rights groups such as the Urban League, the NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union have spoken out against single-sex education in public schools. The enactment of Title IX was, in essence, Brown v. Board of Education for girls and women: it claimed that the sexes had to be treated equally, and that while they might not compete together all the time (as in sports), there must be no substantial difference in the allocation of funds. The threat raised by single-sex public schools and classes is the rapid erosion of Title IX’s effects. This fear is not unfounded; there’s already a major right-wing effort to reinterpret and redefine Title IX on the grounds that it discriminates against men’s sports by demanding the allocation of equal amounts of money for both men’s and women’s sports, even though more men than women try out for teams.

Since it was signed into law by President Nixon, Title IX has been under constant attack. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that it did not apply to programs that did not directly receive federal aid, thus essentially removing athletics from its purview. Congress reversed this move by passing (over Reagan’s veto) the Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1984. Since 1996, however, a series of lawsuits by Brown University, California State, and most recently a coalition of coaches led by the National Wrestling Coaches Association has tried to redefine Title IX so that more money will be given to men’s than to women’s sports. This cause has been taken up in popular, ultraconservative books such as Jessica Gavora’s Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex, and Title IX (Encounter Books, 2002), which argues that Title IX ” has created a whole new set of victims ” — male athletes.

There is no doubt that to move single-sex public education forward with any speed, the meaning and applicability of Title IX would have to be redefined, as Paige has said. But it is hard to believe that the Bush administration is actually interested in better education. Given the lack of any hard, research-based evidence as to why single-sex public schools would be better for both girls and boys, and given the already firm legal impediments to such an initiative embedded in the traditional readings of Title IX, it is clear that the Bush administration is interested in single-sex schools for non-educational reasons: to further its own agenda on the problem of sexuality. A ” problem ” it has already addressed with a variety of campaigns designed to influence the sexual attitudes and behaviors of students, from support for abstinence-only sex ed to the enforcement of Internet filters on computers in public schools.

Of course, most of these efforts have failed — surprise! — because they assume that young people don’t want to have sex. But students still have sexual fantasies, still have sexual urges, and still have — with increasing frequency — sex. And implementing and supporting single-sex schools as a last-ditch effort to deal with the sexuality of young people is also doomed to failure.

When John Silber spoke about the presence of too many women at Boston University (and its deleterious effect on the gentlemanly behavior of men), he conjured up a potent image in contemporary society’s obsession with sex: ” Look at that little girl out there in Denver that got killed — all dressed up like a whore when she was five years old. ” It is not accidental that the image of girl-as-whore permeates his misguided views about women and education. Silber’s alarm about the ratio of women to men at BU — as well as his demand that Boston University Academy disband its Gay-Straight Alliance — epitomizes the standard conservative idea that all sexuality, whether hetero or homo, is dangerous and must be micro-managed. It isn’t enough to ” manage ” — or eradicate — homosexuality; now heterosexuality has to be managed and tamped down as well.

One of the deep ironies in all this is that steps to address promiscuous schools will lead to — well, promiscuous schools. Single-sex schools from Oxford to Eaton and Smith to Mount Holyoke have historically been hotbeds of homosexuality, for lack of a better phrase. If Bush really cared about education, he would focus less on vouchers, single-sex schools, and standardized testing and more on increasing funding for the public-school system. But that would not grip the imagination of today’s Republican Party, a party that would rather spend time concocting scenarios to control teenagers than actually putting forward ideas to improve education.

Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s, 1998). He can be reached at [email protected]

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