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American Way

Pink School, Blue School

Single-sex education in the public school system - is it logical or stereotypical? (2011)


By Charlotte Huff

By August 2011, the hallways and classrooms of the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy at B.F. Darrell will be bustling with 200-plus adolescent boys, sixth through ninth grades. The magnet school — the students must meet selection criteria — will feature a robotics laboratory, mandatory Latin for middle-grade students, and electives such as Mandarin Chinese, lacrosse and golf. As the students advance into the upper grades, the school will expand to eventually teach more than 400 boys through 12th grade.

Single-sex education is not a new concept in the Dallas Independent School District. A similarly structured girls’ school was launched in 2004. “It has taken six years to happen for our young men,” Douglas says. “If we can have this type of opportunity for our young ladies, we should be able to do the same for our young men.”

Boys-only public schools, which didn’t exist a decade ago, are opening their doors around the country, spawned by a legal shift that dates back to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 and became widely known for its testing provisions. It’s a controversial trend that has resulted in sometimes highly contentious arguments along legal and other lines, even as the schools continue to proliferate.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas paved the way for public funding for single-sex schools when she introduced an amendment to the NCLB education act. According to the provision, which garnered some bipartisan support, including that of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton from New York, public money could be used to finance various innovative educational initiatives, among them “programs to provide same-gender schools and classrooms.” In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education issued related regulations to amend components of Title IX — the law that was designed to guard against sex discrimination in federally assisted educational programs. The regulations provided more flexibility for single-sex programs while also requiring that they meet a specific educational objective and provide a “substantially equal” coed alternative. Another key element: The all-boys or all-girls option must be voluntary.

Fast-forward a few years, and according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, by late 2010, the American public school system included at least 520 public single-sex classrooms or single-sex schools, with the opening of about 45 all-boys public schools (in 2002, there were none). Those statistics, which only reflect schools the association learns about, are “certainly an undercount,” says Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., the group’s founder and executive director.

Whether the teaching approach is truly voluntary remains a matter of some dispute. Students can switch to a coed classroom if an all-boys class doesn’t fit their learning style, says Maribel McAdory, principal of a Las Vegas public school that consists of a mix of single-sex and coed classrooms. But she could only immediately recall one instance, involving a boy who had complained that his all-male classroom was too noisy.

Sometimes students are randomly assigned to single-sex classrooms or parents are provided materials touting the educational approach without any countervailing information, according to Galen Sherwin, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. The group, which has lawsuits pending in two states, believes that separating boys and girls violates Title IX and the Constitution’s equal-protection clause.

“The fundamental problem with these programs is that they perpetuate antiquated gender stereotypes,” Sherwin says. “And they deprive both boys and girls of the benefits of coeducation.”


Those pushing for all-boys classrooms hit almost a note of desperation, arguing that the more targeted learning environment is needed to help slow boys’ academic slide. Douglas, the new Dallas school’s principal, talks about the “crisis we have in our nation” regarding young men’s performance.

Some statistics back him up. Nationally, reading proficiency scores for boys in elementary and secondary school lag by more than 10 percent in some states, according to a 2010 analysis by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. In 2009, fewer boys graduating from high school went on to college — 66 percent compared with nearly 74 percent of girls, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Proponents adopt a variety of stances, with some maintaining that boys learn better freed from the interaction with, and distraction of, the opposite sex. Others take that perspective a step further, citing research that they say indicates that boys in general — albeit not necessarily individual boys — may absorb information differently, and thus could benefit from teaching more closely tailored to their learning style.

“You can’t have boys sitting for an hour, because they are going to lose interest,” says Shirley Ison-Newsome, a senior executive director in the Dallas school district who led the task force that researched all-boys education. “They have to be hands-on. They have to be able to get up and do projects.”

On his association’s website, Sax prominently cites a National Institutes of Health study, published in 2007 and involving numerous brain scans, which found gender-related differences in the timing of how specific brain regions develop. In an interview, though, Sax declines to delve into that study or other brain-related research, saying those findings won’t help individual parents.

“You can’t look at a brain scan and figure out whether your son should be in a boys’ school,” he says. But public schools, he stresses repeatedly, should offer single-sex options similar to the ones available for generations through private schools. “This is about social justice.”


Dallas taxpayers are funding the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, but Douglas also plans to pursue grants and philanthropic support to help offset the cost of some specialized programs, like lacrosse.

According to Douglas’ research, the Dallas school will be the first all-male public (and noncharter) school in Texas. On its website, Sax’s group lists other all-boys public schools, including several charter schools in Houston, along with a laundry list of other states that offer all-boys schools or classrooms: Alabama, Florida, Indiana and Michigan, among others. Fewer than one in five single-sex classrooms or schools were launched by charter schools, Sax estimates.

Not all boys-only settings follow the path of the Dallas magnet school, which will have mandatory uniforms — coats and ties required — and selection criteria that include a minimum grade point average of 80 percent and an in-person interview. Others are neighborhood schools, like McAdory’s Ruben P. Diaz Elementary School in Las Vegas, which opened several years ago in a low-income area of the city.

The school teaches the same material in all classrooms but might present it in a different way, depending upon the gender mix, according to McAdory. Since boys tend to be more analytical, a concept might be explained in broad terms and then broken down, she says, while girls prefer to accumulate their knowledge in a stairstep manner.

Boys also respond better to real-life scenarios, with bonus points for adding a dose of humor or yuck. A math problem might incorporate insects, or a teacher might toss a ball to the boy who correctly answers a question, McAdory says. “The boys get very excited about their learning, and they seem so much more engaged when there is a competition piece built in.” In an all-male setting, boys are also more prone to embrace subjects that could be perceived as girlish in a coed setting. “When it comes to writing and literature, the boys are much more expressive when the girls are not around. They will use words like ‘marvelous.’ ”McAdory resists the suggestion that such approaches promote stereotypes. Teachers are trained to connect with boys and girls who don’t follow these patterns, as well.

Still, building upon even scientifically validated findings is risky for both genders, says Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist based at Chicago Medical School and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain. Take the fidget-prone nature of many boys, which Eliot says has been substantiated by research and Sax cites as a key learning difference. (“You will find quite a number of 5-year-old boys who have to stand and bounce and make buzzing noises in order to learn,” he says, a comment that likely resonates with parents of young boys.)

According to one meta-analysis, the average boy is more active than two-thirds of girls, Eliot says. But if a teacher uses relay races, for example, in order to spur boys to learn their math facts — an approach that Eliot calls “gimmicky” but provides for explanatory purposes — one-third of the boys will be distracted. “And a third of the girls may have actually benefited from that intervention,” she says. “Biological sex is just not that accurate a way of grouping learners.”


To date, research hasn’t shown that educational outcomes are necessarily better in single-sex classrooms. A 2005 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education identified only 40 methodologically sound studies on single-sex schooling; 35 percent of the outcomes favored single-sex education for concurrent academic accomplishments. The analysis, which preceded the 2006 regulations, didn’t include any public schools in the U.S.

Sax, who disputes the findings in a three-page critique on his association’s website, describes the results as neither exhaustive nor scientifically rigorous. Moreover, assigning boys to an all-male classroom isn’t always sufficient, he says, as teachers need to be taught how to motivate learning. “If the teachers have no training, as a general rule the coed format is preferable,” he says. Sax’s group offers an annual conference and numerous training seminars, and Douglas hopes to train his newly hired teachers through the association before the Dallas school opens.

So can boys and girls be separated without risking harm? Ison-Newsome says that she’s personally struggled with this question, explaining she’s “not a proponent of separate but equal because, as an African-American, I see how that didn’t work.” But she also believes that it’s possible to be “separate and empowered,” saying boys’ and girls’ schools can still compete at debate competitions, among other platforms. Neither should public schools be cookie-cutter in their teaching approach, she says.

Eliot and the ACLU’s Sherwin are not as sanguine. Sherwin says the programs resurrect stereotypes that “really sound like they are coming from the 1950s.” Eliot, for her part, says the scientific proof isn’t there to justify such a divisive educational approach. “It does seem to me that there is a tremendous amount of faddishness in education,” she says. “And this is just the latest fad.”