The answer from California education officials is a resounding yes, particularly for adolescents, who, in addition to exhibiting different learning styles, expend a tremendous amount of time and energy primping, preening and generally showing off for each other.
The combination is reason enough, California officials reason, for parents to have the option of enrolling their children in publicly funded single-gender academies. Although faced with controversy and an almost certain legal battle, California has committed to funding academies in up to 10 districts for a two-year period. The No. 1 criterion -- and what officials hope will fend off legal action, or at least grant them a courtroom victory -- is the program's separate-but-equal policy. A district cannot establish an academy for one gender without establishing a second, equal academy for the other, and spending for a pair of academies must be mirrored in every way.
While the idea is not new, the approach is. Although a few public school systems have ventured down this road in recent years, none has insisted on the separate-but-equal status. As a result, one school -- the Paul Robeson Academy, established by the Detroit public school system in 1991 to foster discipline and racial pride in black males -- was declared in violation of Title XI, and now must admit girls. Another academy, New York City's Young Women's Leadership Academy in Harlem, which opened last year, is currently under scrutiny for discrimination.
Although California education officials have done their homework and are confident their program meets the requirements of Title IX, the jury is still out on whether single-gender education is the best approach, or even a good approach -- or, for that matter, whether it's even constitutional.
In some subject areas, girls appear to benefit greatly from single-gender classrooms. A widely publicized 1992 study by the American Association of University Women reported that girls were being shortchanged in public schools, particularly in science and math, and since then, single-sex classes on these subjects have been on the rise.
One modern pioneer in single-sex education, Presque Isle High School in Maine, has been offering a section of all-girls Algebra I since 1989. After noticing a vast difference in 11th-grade boys' and girls' math scores on statewide tests, with girls scoring a significant 72 points lower, administrators investigated the problem by first turning to its students (Bulletin, February 1996). The girls repeatedly said they felt intimidated by the boys' presence; they didn't want to speak up in front of the boys and be labeled "brains," nor did they want to ask questions that boys might think were "dumb."
The teachers' classroom observations corroborated findings about girls' and boys' learning styles: The boys were talkative, more aggressive and competitive in class, while the girls tended to be better listeners, were more cooperative and preferred small-group situations. "While we encourage all teachers to accommodate students' different learning styles, the boys' aggressive learning styles often interfered with the girls' preferred styles," says Richard Durost, principal of Presque Isle High School.
The results of establishing a single-sex algebra section are no less than remarkable: The earlier test-score gap of 72 points decreased to a 16-point difference.
For schools considering single-gender classes, Durost offers this advice: Ensure that such a class is being established for the right reasons. "There should be proof that one sex is not succeeding compared to the other. Also, no student should be forced to participate, and there must be ample opportunities for all students so that no individuals or groups are discriminated against."
But single-gender education of any type is discriminatory, charge the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union, which are considering filing lawsuits against the California plan. They contend that historically separate has rarely meant equal and that the practice may well be unconstitutional. Both groups advocate increased attention to gender equality in the classroom instead.
In fact, while studies have shown that the single-sex approach is good for girls, no research has yet surfaced that shows such an approach is beneficial for boys. A 1989 study by Anthony Bryk of the University of Chicago and Valerie Lee of the University of Michigan showed that the gains of boys attending single-sex schools were insignificant compared to their counterparts at coed schools. Yet anecdotal evidence supports the opposite view. For example, in a recent article (Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 1997), Ross Johnson of New Jersey, a senior at an all-boys school, says he is more likely to ask questions in class when he doesn't have to worry what the opposite sex thinks of him, echoing the sentiments expressed by the girls at Maine's Presque Isle High School.
In the same article, Richard Hawley, headmaster of University School in Cleveland and president of a boys' schools coalition, expresses strong belief in single-sex schools. He says the question isn't Why single-gender education? but rather Why coed education? "There's absolutely no research to support academic or social reasons for coeducation," he points out.
As the debate continues, and surely it will, one thing seems certain: Educators will keep a watchful eye on California. Perhaps single-sex education will ride out of the sunset as a successful -- and legal -- educational alternative. We'll keep you posted.
Article by Colleen Newquist
Copyright © 1997 Education World