Does gender-separated schooling work better?

June 16, 2008

Even public school districts toy with the idea of separating genders in the primary and secondary grades.  Some people argue that there is experimental evidence to support the plan, plus there are the arguments about physical differences between the genders, which suggest different educational strategies for girls than for boys.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to implement programs that are supported by research.  Is there solid research to support separating the genders?

Apart from the hoaxes, such as the much ballyhooed “Crokus” in boys brains, the evidence for separating the genders based on physical differences may be a lot slimmer than advocates claim.

For example, do boys really hear differently from girls?   Are the physical differences so great?  Consider the opening paragraph for a lengthy article on the issue by Elizabeth Weil, in The New York Times Magazine last March:

On an unseasonably cold day last November in Foley, Ala., Colby Royster and Michael Peterson, two students in William Bender’s fourth-grade public-school class, informed me that the class corn snake could eat a rat faster than the class boa constrictor. Bender teaches 26 fourth graders, all boys. Down the hall and around the corner, Michelle Gay teaches 26 fourth-grade girls. The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes. 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, as per the instructions of Leonard Sax, a family physician turned author and advocate who this May will quit his medical practice to devote himself full time to promoting single-sex public education.

Mark Liberman, who writes at Language Log, deals with these issues dispassionately, and scientifically.  He started a policy of publishing on the blog questions that he gets from journalists on the issues.  Here’s his first published answer, for example, and as you can see, it’s a bit of an information-loaded doozy:

1. I’ve read a few posts on Language Log, but please tell me more about what you think about Dr. Sax’s arguments about sex-based differences in the brain?

In his books, Leonard Sax is a political activist using science to make a case, not a scientist evaluating a hypothesis.

Science is sometimes on his side, sometimes neutral or equivocal, and sometimes against him. He picks the results that fit his agenda, ignoring those that don’t; and all too often, he misunderstands, exaggerates or misrepresents the results that he presents.

There’s detailed support for these assertions in some Language Log posts from 2006:

David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist” (6/12/2006)
Are men emotional children?” (6/24/2005)
Of rats and (wo)men” (8/19/2006)
Leonard Sax on hearing” (8/22/2006)
More on rats and men and women” (8/22/2006)
The emerging science of gendered yelling” (9/5/2006)
Girls and boys and classroom noise” (9/9/2006)

This doesn’t mean that his conclusions are false, but it does mean that his appeals to science are not trustworthy.

More nuance than some policy groups might be able to deal with, but enough information to direct a genuinely interested person to some good sources.

You’ll also want to read “Retinal Sex and Sexual Rhetoric,” and “Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on Hearing.”

In our weekly staff meetings with then Assisstant Secretary of Education for Research Chester W. Finn, at the old Office for Educational Research and Information, Finn often opened the meetings by turning to the Director of Research and asking whether, in the past week, we had learned how people learn.  When satisfied that this key breakthrough had not been achieved in the previous week, which would change much of what we did, Finn would say something like, “Now that we know we don’t know what we’re doing, let’s go through the agenda.”

Keeping an appropriate sense of humor about the issue, Finn still provided sharp reminders that the science behind learning, for all of the volumes available, is very tenuous and thin.

When science is so thin, the policy side of the discipline can be waved around by a good presentation coupled with plausible sciency-sounding material.  “Plausible” does not equal “good,” and often it doesn’t even equal “accurate.”

Liberman’s critiques are detailed, and they point out questions that the average school board member or principal is probably ill-equipped to realize, let alone ask from an “expert” or consultant selling a program to the district.

Before we teach critical thinking to the kids, we need a lot more critical thinking from administrators.  Liberman tries to light the path to that critical thinking.

What do you think?  Does gender-separate education work better?  Are there such great differences in the learning abilities and methods of boys and girls that we ought to separate them?

What about other shibboleths we hear?  Classroom size?  Testing?  Delivery of material?  Difficulty of material?   Where is there good research for reforming our schools, for the better?


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