Tuesday, March 04, 2008

My non-opinion on Single Sex Public Education

PG, this blog's official asker of hard questions, asked me what I thought of this article on single-sex public education.

And honestly, I'm torn.

Actually, I'm torn on a lot of things relating to education. For example, I have for a long time been a great supporter of public schools and public education. I went to public schools myself and got a good education there and I have always stuck up for the public schools.

Then I started running a youth group with a girl who goes to Sidwell Friends, a bright, stimulated, thoughtful girl who raves about the education she's getting. Her friends and her kid sister (who also go to Sidwell) are equally confident, articulate and overall impressive. Chelsea Clinton turned out OK, too.

And I've started thinking "Gee, if I had a kid, I would really want to send her to Sidwell."

I'm similarly torn on single-sex elementary education. In this case, it's an issue of fairness to the minority. I believe the studies that the majority of students do well in single sex classes. A majority of boys want to watch snakes eat rats, a majority of girls would rather have more feminine sorts of science classes.

I just know I wouldn't have been happy with that sort of education, at least not socially. I hung out with boys all through elementary school. In gym class, we had a project where we had to make a "workout video." While small groups of girls worked out to Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, my guy friends and I did a truly hilarious video where we worked out on roller skates to a Weird Al song. By the fifth grade, my best friend was a girl, but her name was Elizabeth and she went by "Lizard."

Would I have talked more in class? Dunno. I always talked a lot in class. Class is really boring if you don't. (This is an impulse I work hard to curb in law school.)

And TheCSO, to put it mildly, did not blend in at his elementary school in Charlotte, North Carolina, which had a large portion of lower-income students who were not culturally equipped to appreciate his sensitive and geeky self. (Ironically, I'm pretty sure he would have been just fine in Northern Virginia. I remember hanging out with a kid named James who was obsessed with disasters. On the swings we pretended we were escaping from the burning hotel in "Towering Inferno" and he knew more about the Titanic than any kid ever. I can totally see a little CSO and James being best pals. Also, in retrospect, James was way cooler than I gave him credit for at the time. I should totally google him.)

But the test scores are better for single sex education overall, and I totally don't want to discount that fact.

So what do y'all think? Is it worth a little extra cultural conditioning if the kids get a better education out of it?

who did google James. He lives in LA now and seems to do something in the film industry. I friended him on Facebook.


Ms. Theologian said...

As a former high school teacher, I would much rather have taught single sex classes. I found that despite my best intentions, I ended up teaching mostly to the boys in coed classes, who were louder and demanded attention. It took real attention on my part to give girls what they needed. But your point about the experience of the minority that doesn't conform to the generalizations of how girls or boys behave is a good one.

I think that some sort of blended experience might work well. Like certain classes that are single sex, but a school that is coed. From my time at Smith, I loved the single sex math and science classes, but the overall all-woman atmosphere was...not what I needed socially.

h sofia said...

I am not opposed to single sex classes in principle, but I'm not sure they are really the solution we are looking for. After all, plenty of other industrialized nations have coed classrooms and their kids do better on international tests than our kids.

So I guess the question is: are we doing this to improve test scores (for which there are multiple approaches), or are we doing this as part of a social engineering project (which, also I'm not opposed to in principle). What are the expected outcomes?

I also don't have a problem with trying it in some places - pilot projects - and seeing how it works.

Joel Monka said...

I'm in favor of it. Boys and girls really are different- it always amazes me that people want to pretend that the only difference is plumbing. It doesn't have to be single sex all the time- let them learn to socialize in the cafeteria, art and music classes, or whereever there seems to be less difference in response. But everything I've seen, from studies to real life observation, shows that there is real value in separating them in most classes.

PG said...

:-) Thanks for the title of "official asker of hard questions" -- I think that would make a great Cabinet position, like the updated version of a monarch's Fool.

I was interested in the article's depiction of the difference in results for elementary, versus what parents like about single-sex for their adolescent/ teenage daughters. The better test results seem to be concentrated in K-5 and racial minority males. The advantage to young women seems to be more social and to appear in middle and high school, where they can have a space that is non-sexualized.

I guess what makes me unhappy about single-sex is that the underlying social problems are merely avoided rather than genuinely addressed by the method. If there is a tendency to pathologize rambunctious behavior in a coed environment but to accept it in an all-male environment -- why don't we change that tendency instead of going single-sex? If there is a problem with boys' thinking it's OK to be disrespectful of girls -- why don't we raise boys not to slap girls on the ass in the hallway?

It worries me that we're simply deflecting these issues to come up later. If there are such deep seated, irreconcilable differences between the sexes, do they somehow evaporate at 18 so there can be coed colleges? At 22 so there can be coed workplaces? (And of course many people start working at 16 or younger -- are they just unusually mature to be able to function well in a coed environment?)

It seems odd to me that often the same people who think it's imperative to have both a male and a female parent also think it's a good idea to keep young people separated from the opposite sex. If there is something valuable to be gained from a son's having a mother instead of just two dads, I would think there's something valuable about his encountering females of one's own age as well.

With regard to public schools, I went to a mediocre one (I was the first person to take the AP Calculus exam, and I'm awful at math beyond arithmetic and algebra), but I think the social experience was valuable. I had classmates who got pregnant in high school, who enlisted in the military, who got into fights at school -- who, in short, did all sorts of things that Sidwell Friends kids probably don't. My high school was a lot more representative of American society in terms of race, socioeconomics, etc. than the Episcopalian elementary school I attended was.

I hope that I will be able to send my kids to public school, though I wouldn't do so if the public school they would attend was actually unsafe or failing to teach them well. But based on some family friends who sent their kids to boarding school, I think it's especially problematic to send kids from well-off families to private school, because their sense of entitlement (OF COURSE you get a car at 16, OF COURSE your parents pay your cellphone bill) is likely to be more entrenched as all of their peers also have money at hand. It's hard to attend public school and not be conscious on a daily basis that having disposable income is not a universal condition.

Joel Monka said...

"why don't we change that tendency instead of going single-sex?"

We do- we drug them. Look at those grade schools with the highest percentages on ADD meds- and there have been some schools in the news where up to 50% of the students are on Ritalyn- and you'll find that it doesn't break evenly by sex; the 50% total will be 75% of the boys and 15% of the girls. That demographic skew holds even in schools with low medication rates. On the other hand, those few single sex schools that do exist have very low rates of ADD... it's hard to avoid at least a preliminary suspicion that boys are being drugged until they behave as well as girls.

kim said...

Joel -- That's certainly one conclusion you could come to with that data. Is it also possible that private schools, which can pick and choose students, are refusing to take the more ADD ones? Public schools, which get whatever's left, get a disproportionate number of kids who have been rejected by private schools.

PG said...

When I say we have a tendency to pathologize rambunctiousness, I feel like it's reasonably obvious that if I say "why don't we change that tendency," I mean "the tendency to pathologize," not "why don't we change the rambunctiousness."

If a teacher faced with a classroom full of boys finds their behavior tolerable, she should be able to find it tolerable when faced with a coed room as well. I strongly suspect that teachers in single-sex schools are getting specifically trained for the sex they teach, whereas regular schools' teachers are not trained to be tolerant of behavior that deviates from a subdued "norm." This isn't just to boys' disadvantage -- girls who deviate are treated even more harshly, not just by teachers but also by their parents and the larger society.

We should train teachers to turn behaviors that might be disruptive in a highly conventional classroom, into being useful for pedagogy. As the Times article (and common sense) recognizes, gender is a very rough tool for distinguishing people. I have no problem in having classrooms based on the learning style that works better for students, and it's certainly possible that the more physical classroom will trend 65% boys, 35% girls. But to assume that all girls are X and all boys are Y in anything beyond chromosomes is stupid and unhelpful.

It's worth noting, incidentally, that the desire to sex-segregate does seem to last into adulthood among some conservative. For example, note the mostly-male Young America Foundation has a female-targeted spinoff called the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute. The two organizations seem to have the same politics and focuses (CBLP doesn't go off the ranch by, say, supporting reproductive rights or government-subsidized childcare), and their presidents are married to one another.

I find this really problematic, the mindset of "Ah, we're having trouble succeeding with one sex, let's just make a separate institution that's devoted to that sex instead of looking at ourselves critically and figuring out what we're doing wrong." If you begin with the premise that boys and girls are fundamentally intellectually different, why stop believing it once they're men and women? It's such a nice, easy fix: don't make elementary school more hospitable to boys, or middle and high school more hospitable to teen girls, or the mainstream conservative organizations more hospitable to women -- just separate the sexes out.

Will said...

Another former middle and high school teacher here. It would be nice for parents to have the option of single sex classes. My bet is that they would be very popular.

Anonymous said...

Groups of girls together in elementary and middle school can be worse than terrorists for their cruelty. I say this as a female, who would have probably killed myself if I had not been around boys also for most of my education. It took all of my educational energy every day just to deal with the bullying (not just of me, but of others, which as a very sensitive person, hurt me so much to watch, and usually ended up with me getting in physical fights with the bullying girls to defend the weaker among us) and the cliquishness and whether or not I was in or out on a given day. These girls, like me, were the girls from the best neighborhoods in town. This was not street culture, this was country club culture. And as for the sexual influences of having boys around, well, if all the girls decide you are a slut because you are the first to get boobs, and no amount of mentioning you haven't even kissed a boy dispel these rumors, this doesn't exactly discourage early sexual entanglements. In fact, in my case, I figured what the hell, they already think I'm a slut, I might as well be one. This type of constant stress and bullying is not good for anyone's education.

Boys temper some of this by being around with their rule-driven games and ability to compete and even fight with eachother and still be friends. This was much needed, and girls like me who buck the dominant girl culture can hang with the guys when the whole girl culture is too oppressive to deal.

I mistakenly went to a women's college, thinking things would be better without the competition for boy's attention. I am solidly a feminist, so I didn't want to denigrate women by believing their cruelty was a female thing, and I thought I had found a feminist explanation for the cruelty-the "impress boys" culture. I also thought it would be an alternative to sorority clique culture at co-ed schools. I was so wrong. The girls at the women's college, at least in my freshman dorm, were like one big cruel clique, with worse games than you can even imagine, because they were all smart and had more resources at their disposal. I almost did crumble under the stress of this toxic environment, but thankfully managed to move to another (co-ed) school just in time. And had a very successful academic life there.

My point is, girls all grouped together with no boys can be a recipe for some scary stuff for girls who are not in the in-crowd. This is not a positive situation for cultivation of learning. I will never be able to buy in to the same-sex education campaign because of my personal experiences wtih my classmates of my own gender.

Chalicechick said...

Yeah, that story explains the dynamic I was worried about.

(TheCSO's story is similar, but in the other gender direction.)


Joel Monka said...

Kim- Ok, let's assume that private schools get to cherrypick. According to the census bureau, 10.4% of gradeschool children go to private schools. 75% of the remaining 89.6% gives us 67.2%. So either: A. 67.2% of the boys in those school districts have pathological conditions severe enough to require medication- the EPA better start checking the air and groundwater, stat! B. The public school teachers don't know how to handle normal boys, and so are drugging them until they behave like girls. Which sounds more likely?

pg- your point about poorly trained teachers is exactly what I was aluding to- but the normal public school shows no interest in spending money on training when there's the easy Ritalyn answer at hand.

"If there are such deep seated, irreconcilable differences between the sexes, do they somehow evaporate at 18 so there can be coed colleges? At 22 so there can be coed workplaces? "

Yes- the differences, respecting the ability to function in class, do indeed begin to dissappear with age. They are no longer functing as pre-pubescent boys and girls whose brains aren't even finished physically growing yet, they are now functiong as young adults. That's why we don't allow children to drink, drive, or sign contracts.

" It's such a nice, easy fix: don't make elementary school more hospitable to boys, or middle and high school more hospitable to teen girls, or the mainstream conservative organizations more hospitable to women -- just separate the sexes out."

Taking the last one first, I know a couple dozen fellow conservatives quite well, and a couple hundred casually- and I don't know a single member of the groups you mentioned- how mainstream can they be? The truly mainstream conservative groups, such as the Libertarian party or National Review subscribers have no problem recruiting and retaining women.

As to the quick fix- well, that's all the public schools are capable of. Nothing on Earth is more resistent to change than the public school systems, and they're not going to spend a penny on more training for teachers. Making gradeschools, or classes within a gradeschool single sex is minimum change- just room assignment. It's not the best of all possible answers, but it's better than status quo, and probably all we can get.

Joel Monka said...

anonymous- bullying is terrible for young boys, too; that's why there are shooting rampages in schools.

My experiences in gradeschool and highschool were so bad I used to try to sneak to the janitor's room to go to the restrooms, as thje boy'sroom wasn't safe to enter. The teachers knew this, but being a boy, I was supposed to be able to handle it myself; they did nothing. Well, not nothing- the Phys Ed teacher said I should put on the gloves and handle it in the ring "like a man". Luckily, these things were on record so when I pulled a knife on one of them I was sent to a psychologist instead of the police.

My thinking is maybe, just maybe, teachers in a ingle sex class would be able to tell when things are out of hand and take measures. Schools have tolerated bullies for centuries, but we can always dream...

Chalicechick said...

(((My thinking is maybe, just maybe, teachers in a ingle sex class would be able to tell when things are out of hand and take measures.)))

I would think this is even less likely than a teacher noticing in a co-ed classroom.

FWIW, I don't think bullying leads to school shootings. Most school shooters haven't particularly been bullied.

My guess is that school shootings started to go up when lynchings started to go down. There have always been crazy people who want to take their drama out on the innocent.

IMHO, there's always been random violence, it just used to be socially acceptable when you did it to a minority victim then claimed the victim had winked at your sister.

Now lynchings are out of fashion, so people shoot up schools instead.


kim said...

But to assume that all girls are X and all boys are Y in anything beyond chromosomes is stupid and unhelpful.
I know it’s off-topic, but this isn’t even always true. A surprising number of people’s genotype mismatches their phenotype. I don’t have the number handy, and it’s speculative anyway (which means conservative, since most of these are not discovered.)

The public school teachers don't know how to handle normal boys, and so are drugging them until they behave like girls. Which sounds more likely?
You may be right – but what did they do before they invented Ritalyn (sp?)?

Nothing on Earth is more resistent to change than the public school systems, and they're not going to spend a penny on more training for teachers.

This is because conservatives have defunded the schools so that they cannot afford to be excellent any longer.

h sofia said...

Joel, I'm unclear how single sex classrooms would have made experience any better?

Ehh; my overall thought about same sex classrooms is that parents and older people like the idea - similar to school uniforms. It appeals to their sense of nostalgia for the "good old days" and (for the middle school and high school aged kids) temporarily reduces the tensions of hormones. Could it offer some relief? Sure. Does it address any fundamental issues with education? I don't think so.

I mean, who is going to behave differently? Is this just separation of the sexes, or is something different actually happening in the classroom? For teachers, would there be special certifications for instruction of boys, and instruction of girls? Would teachers have to decide whether to be on the boy track or girl track? I mean, what substantive difference in training would there actually be?

I personally think K-12 should be more like 1-10, and teens get restless because on some fundamental level they know their time is being wasted. And, let's face it, cliques, bullying, and whatnot - that stuff happens in workplaces, churches, and towns across America with adults. Going to school for a kid is like being stuck at a job for an adult. The difference is that an adult can choose to quit a job; a kid is expected to stay in school. A lot of kids are angry, resentful ... but this doesn't surprise me. I've seen firsthand the BS schools put even young kids through - inane crap in the name of "safety," preferential treatment for athletes, lack of appreciation for academic extracurricular activities, classism, racism, lack of accountability, politics getting in the way of teaching appropriate sex ed and science, and arbitrary application of the five million rules.

My bottom line is that kids reflect the values of the adults in their lives. Adults and parents seem to want to think otherwise (the problem is never us!), but seeing as how I'm feeling so articulate, all I can say to that is, "What the hell?"

It's not that schools are the worst place in the world, but why kids behave any better than adults? Why shouldn't millions of kids be doped up? Adults are! Why shouldn't they be shooting each other in school? Adults do it at the workplace. Things like Jena Six and sexual harassment of girls happen in the adult world, too. Boys feeling harangued and bullying each other? Does this stuff stop when they get to college or in the workforce? No.

RandomRanter said...

I went to a single sex school for 3-12 (co-ed before and after, for college).
My parents had both been to single sex high schools, so the choice made sense to them - although they sent my brother to co-ed schools.
I agree that different learning styles exist independent of gender. However, if divvying some classes by gender allows for the students in those classes to improve - while I think the underlying reasons would be incredibly useful, I am also fine with using that for now.
(And, not that it matters to the discussion at hand, but Sidwell is co-ed).

Comrade Kevin said...

Like Chalice Chick, I am torn myself.

I enjoyed public school, which was co-ed, predominately middle to upper middle class, and thus I had enough fellow geeky friends so I didn't feel totally isolated and alone.

I was bullied, though mostly in middle school. By high school my worst problems was fighting cliques, which I think are just part of high school and that world. We think it's so important and the center of the universe when we are in high school and then upon graduation you realize how overblown an experience it really was.

I think co-ed environments, depending on the age group, have a kind of leveling effect on each other. I think they are far more effective before puberty, but after puberty they can be a dismal disaster for both men and women.

PG said...


Do you actually have statistics comparing the level of pathologizing of private school kids versus public school ones? I would be a bit surprised if there's significantly more diagnoses of manageable* behavioral/ learning disabilities in public schools than private, given recent trends in upper class parents' seeking diagnoses for their kids in order to get those kids more time on exams, etc.

* "manageable" meaning "Of course my kid still can be in the honors classes, he certainly doesn't belong on the shortbus; he just needs medication/ other special treatment." These medications can be genuinely helpful in improving concentration -- why do you think there's a black market for them on college campuses?

That's why we don't allow children to drink, drive, or sign contracts.

Yes, children are different from adults, but are you claiming the relevant reason not to let a child drink is somehow related to gender? The Supreme Court said in Craig v. Boren that the state of Oklahoma could not require beer sellers to sell to 18 year old women but not sell to men until they were 21 -- the sexes have to be treated equally in this respect.

Children's brains are less *mature* than those of adults, but as far as I know, the gender differences in brains being claimed by the pro-single sex education folks are not ones that go away in adulthood. Indeed, these advocates sometimes are citing studies that were done on adults. You say these differences respecting the ability to function in class evaporate. How does that happen exactly if these are brain differences?

What seems to me actually happens is that kids of both sexes become accustomed to functioning in a more sedate environment after many years of school in which that is the expectation. But if it's NOT the expectation, how will the kids ever learn to behave that way? I'm not saying it's necessarily the Good way to behave -- maybe we'd have better colleges and workplaces if we were more active. But it's a learned behavior, like etiquette. People generally have better self-control as they get older -- frustrated adults just curse for a minute instead of going into a screaming tantrum -- but they have to know in what way to control themselves. If the single-sex advocates are saying that boys all should be freed from the expectation that they sit in rows and stay quiet while someone lectures to them, they're in for a rude awakening at college.

The truly mainstream conservative groups, such as the Libertarian party

Was that a joke? Libertarians aren't conservatives. They call themselves "classical liberals." And they certainly aren't a "mainstream conservative group." As the label might indicate, the LP is a mainstream libertarian group. There are libertarians in the GOP and some in the Democratic Party, but there are few self-identified *conservatives*, in the Burkean, Buckleyan, standing-athwart-history-yelling-stop meaning that Anglo-American conservatism has had for as long as the U.S. has existed, in the LP. There's also a reason why the Bush Admin picked up so many graduates of places like Regents University instead of just swiping the Federalist Society's membership list -- lots of nice godly kids at Regents, way too many scary libertarians in Fed Soc. (See, e.g., Douglas Ginsburg, who lost his Supreme Court nomination for having smoked pot as a professor and thinks there might be a right to have an abortion and do drugs in the 9th Amendment.) If you think the Libertarian Party is conservative, you don't really know 21st century American conservatism.

Or maybe you just don't know its leadership. The mainstream isn't defined solely by the common man; it's also defined by its elites. Your conservative friends also might be a bit old for the Young America Foundation, inasmuch as it was named that in the early 1970s and is directed to college students. But it was YAF folks who helped found CPAC -- have any friends who attend that? It's considered a major event among mainstream conservatives, and the Republican presidential candidates certainly show up to speak. YAF helps preserve Reagan's ranch and turned it into a site for conservative retreats. They were praised by Reagan during his presidency as extremely helpful in recruiting the next generation of conservative writers and leaders.

And yes, you're dreaming if you think single-sex school teachers -- gosh, even male teachers who could be role models for the boys, which a woman certainly couldn't -- used to intervene in boys' beating up on each other. Intervention happens a lot more now precisely because of the "feminization" of culture that conservatives love to revile: violence is now viewed as an aberration rather than a natural part of boyhood. The thinking used to be that boys' beating each other up built character. Be a man! don't wimp out! etc. That's the past that conservatives are trying to conserve.