March 4, 2008

Relationships & Family

Segregating the Sexes

schoolboys.jpg
Photo from John Collier, Jr.

Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an article about the trend towards segregating boys and girls in America’s public school classrooms.

Segregating by gender used to be the exclusive domain of private and religious schools. But failing public schools are turning to gender segregation with hopes that it can help turn around poor academic performance, especially among boys.

I’m sure many of you remember the “girls crisis” in the 1990’s. Educators and social scientists claimed that the classroom’s competitive atmosphere damaged girls’ self-esteem, discouraging them from excelling in math and science.

Ten years later, girls are excelling and boys are struggling. We solved one problem, but created another. Some educators believe that to solve this quandary, gender segregation is the way to go. But it is far from a settled issue.

Are boys and girls different?

The idea behind gender segregated classrooms is that boys and girls do indeed learn differently. According to proponents of gender segregation, male and female brains are hardwired to develop and learn differently and at different rates. Studies from the National Institute of Mental Health back up these claims. After analyzing cat scans from 829 boys and girls, scientists discovered that total cerebral volume peaks at 10.5 years in girls and 14.5 years for boys. Thus, girls have bigger brains than boys during most of elementary school (this is how they travel to Mars to get more candy bars). The scientists who conducted the study, however, were quick to note that differences in brain size don’t correlate to differences in learning ability.

That hasn’t stopped educators from using studies like this to support the evidence they see firsthand in their classrooms. According to one teacher, when teaching boys:

You need to keep them up and moving. You need to engage boys’ energy.

However, most classrooms in America aren’t designed to keep children moving. You’re told to be quiet, sit “Indian-style” (oh wait, that got squashed by the PC police-it’s now “criss-cross applesauce), and not touch the kid next to you. All children are, as one educator put it, told to behave like girls.

Some educators believe that this demand on boys to behave like “little ladies” has resulted in dismal statistics for boys: boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to be suspended; more likely to drop out of high school; boys makeup 2/3 of special education students; and are 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

Several schools that have switched to gender segregation have seen these statistics significantly improve.

The Benefits of Gender Segregated Classes

By segregating genders, educators believe they can better tailor lesson plans for their students need. For boys they can create non-stop lessons that keep the boys’ attention. Being active is an integral part of boy-focused lesson plans.

Another benefit that comes with segregating genders, especially when dealing with adolescents, is the de-sexualization of the classroom. One teacher commented that teaching at an all girls school allows her to be freer when covering lessons that touch on sex. She doesn’t have to “worry about some boy laughing over the thing he did with the girl last weekend and embarrass her.”

A final benefit is that gender segregation gives students a positive sense of themselves. Boys can be loud rambunctious boys without having to worry about being chastised, and girls don’t have to worry about competing for attention with those rowdy boys.

Does it really work?

Whether gender segregation actually helps improve academic performance is yet to be seen. The data so far shows mixed results: gender segregation doesn’t seem to affect the achievement of middle-class, white boys; they do benefit poor and minority children.

What do you think?

What do you all think? Should schools start segregating classrooms based on gender? Take part in the poll and let your voice be heard:

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