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Education That Leaves Too Many Children Behind

By: Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEOPosted on March 5, 2008 Issues: Education & Title IX

by Fatima Goss Graves, Senior Counsel
and Jocelyn Samuels, Vice President for Education and Employment
National Women’s Law Center

The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer …

Boys don’t hear as well as girls, which means that an instructor needs to speak louder in order for the boys in the room to hear her; and … boys’ visual systems are better at seeing action, while girls are better at seeing the nuance of color and texture.

You may think that we’re quoting from some educational primer left over from the 1950s. If only that were the case. Instead, these descriptions come from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, which had a lengthy piece on single sex schools. The article lavished considerable attention on the theories of Leonard Sax, who founded something called the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education — an organization that encourages schools to solve their educational problems by devising sex-segregated programs, classrooms, and schools based on unproven stereotypes about boys and girls.

Sax spends much of his time emphasizing selected developmental and brain research about boys and girls. But most experts agree that the evidence shows nothing about the likely educational achievement of boys and girls, much less justifies Sax’s boosterism about single sex programs. For example, there may be differences in male and female brain size, but that does not mean that boys and girls need different learning environments. What’s more, even where there are differences between boys and girls on average, there are too many students who — as individuals — will deviate from Sax’s supposed “norm.” Sax would have schools exclude from all-boy classrooms even those girls who could do better with cooler room temperatures, and from all-girl programs boys who prefer a cooperative, “warmer,” learning style.

That isn’t fair to either boys or girls. And the most often-vaunted improvements that purportedly result from single-sex education prove on closer examination to be both contested and largely illusory. For example, the principal at Foley Intermediate School, which is the school that offers blue classrooms for boys and yellow ones for girls, points to reduced discipline, increased test scores and engaged parents as a benefit of single sex programs. Of course she also had to acknowledge that she had the highest performing teachers and most-motivated students in those programs as well. Hmmm. It’s not exactly rocket science to figure out why those students were doing better.

So what we’re facing is an educational experiment that creates, at best, contested benefits — and that imposes significant costs, ranging from exclusion of children from classrooms and school buildings based solely on their sex to reinforcement of stereotypes about the learning styles and interests of male and female students. Oh, and did we mention that these programs may well be illegal? While single sex programs are permissible where they “dissipate, rather than perpetuate, traditional gender classifications,” too many programs today are likely to run afoul of the careful standards set in Title IX and the Constitution to ensure that when it is offered, single sex education is done the right way to overcome, rather than reinforce, damaging stereotypes.

We can, and must, do better by our kids. Schools are obligated to leave no child behind. Willy-nilly adoption of sex segregated programs promises to do just the opposite.