Kids might perform better in school if split by gender
ATLANTA — In Travis Brown’s sixth-grade class, they’re
making robots — more than a dozen boys standing around workstations,
chatting among themselves as they chop cardboard with scissors or
glance at comic books for inspiration.
Down the hall, a room full of girls sits in near silence at their
desks, working independently to put final touches on the same project.
The scenes observed last month at Atlanta’s Martin Luther
King Jr. Middle School, are likely to become more common in the
coming years as a change in federal regulations is expected to make
it easier for public schools to experiment with single-gender schools
Supporters argue boys and girls learn differently and that single-sex
classrooms can help both genders perform better. Critics compare
it to the “separate but equal” segregation-era classrooms.
At least 223 public schools scattered throughout the country, from
New York to California, already offer some single-sex classrooms,
according to Leonard Sax, director of the National Association for
Single Sex Public Education. He says that’s up from just four
Sax predicts thousands more public schools will join the movement
once the U.S. Department of Education finalizes new Title IX regulations
first proposed in March 2004.
Backers of single-sex classes point to a growing body of research
that shows the genders learn in different ways. At elementary school
age, they say, girls’ vision and thought processes have developed
to respond better to color and detail, while boys’ brains
are more apt at processing motion and direction.
While those differences smooth out over time, they can have a big
impact, single-sex advocates say.
“If you don’t understand those differences and you teach
boys and girls as if they were the same, the end result is a kindergarten
classroom where the boys tell you drawing is for girls and a middle
school classroom where girls tell you computers are for boys,”
said Sax, one of the nation’s leading proponents of single-sex
education. “If you don’t understand gender differences,
you end up furthering gender stereotypes.”
Not everyone agrees. A 2004 statement from the American Association
of University Women says single-sex classrooms distract from real
problems in schools and “would throw out the most basic legal
standards prohibiting sex discrimination in education.”
Lisa Maatz, public policy director for the university women’s
group, said not enough research exists to show that single-sex schools
truly improve student performance.
“There are other ways to close the achievement gaps that are
proven,” she said, mentioning smaller class sizes and extra
training for teachers. “People are looking for a single silver
bullet, but there’s no quick fix.”
Maatz said the effort also appears to continue a Bush administration
trend of chipping away at Title IX, which ensures equal opportunity
for male and female students.
“This is another attempt to modify, in a really unfortunate
and unnecessary way, one of the most successful civil rights laws
this country has ever had,” she said.
Sax said that as more same-sex schools crop up, data is beginning
to show results. He and other proponents point to an elementary
school in Deland, Fla., where fourth graders last year were randomly
assigned to either a single-sex classroom or a co-ed one.
In Woodward Elementary School’s co-ed classrooms, 57 percent
of girls and 37 percent of boys passed a state writing test. In
the single-sex classes, 86 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls
“There is greater confidence, greater enjoyment, greater interest,”
said David Chadwell, lead teacher at The Two Academies at Dent,
a pair of single-gender middle schools in Columbia, S.C. “Also,
on the teacher side, the teachers are enjoying teaching this way.”
In Atlanta, single-sex classes have been conducted at several middle
schools as part of a pilot program of sorts for next year, when
Carson Honors Preparatory School will split into two campuses —
one for boys and one for girls.
The middle school, where 69 percent of eighth-graders failed a state
math test last year, draws its student body largely from two government
“The failure rate and the dropout rate in that particular
area is enormously high,” said Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent
Beverly Hall. “This is a strategy designed to really turn
around what is a failing environment for lots and lots of young
Hall and others in Atlanta say they like the results they’ve
seen the past three years at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School,
where more than 400 sixth and seventh-grade students are divided
Brown, whose boys math class was building the cardboard robots,
said the system lets him gear his lessons specifically for an all-male
“It gives me a chance to prepare especially for them,”
Brown said. “I know they like things that are sports-related;
I know they’re going to have to get involved.
“I don’t expect them to sit still, so I know I’m
going to have to have some hands-on stuff.”
Current federal rules allow single-sex schools, but only when a
district creates a comparable single-sex school for the other gender.
That restriction would disappear under the proposed changes.
Rules for schools that offer only some single-sex classes also would
be relaxed. Current rules allow such classes in specific cases,
like gym classes that involve contact sports. The proposed changes
would allow classes to be created any time administrators think
they meet special needs for their students.
An overview of the proposed changes from the Education Department
says that while discrimination against female students was widespread
when the regulations were enacted in 1975, “the situation
has changed dramatically.”
Sax said hundreds of school districts have expressed interest in
the concept but are waiting for final word from the feds.
Currently, 32 states — from Washington to Iowa to Florida
— have public schools with at least some single-gender classrooms.
Most of those that have already made the move, Sax said, are in
the South — where there’s less resistance to tweaking
Title IX rules.
“Culturally and historically, these regions have a history
of single-sex education. It’s something people in these states
tend to be more comfortable with,” he said, mentioning schools
that have traditionally educated only one gender or the other like
The Citadel in South Carolina, which until 1995 was all-male, and
several of Atlanta’s private, historically black colleges
and universities, like all-female Spelman College and all-male Morehouse
Education Department officials have said their final regulations
should be unveiled this summer. Sax said he expects them this month.
June 23 will mark the 34th anniversary of when Title IX was enacted.