By Eric Garneau
The Case Against
The eight social scientists behind the American Council of CoEducational Schools (ACCES) are on a mission to abolish single-sex classrooms across the United States. In their view, separating students into different classrooms based on their gender doesn't actually help anyone learn better - and worse, it reinforces and strengthens gender stereotypes. It also makes socialization for young boys and girls all the more difficult; if they're split up throughout their schooling, how will they know how to interact when they enter a professional environment?
All of ACCES' arguments can be found in a report entitled 'The Psuedoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,' soon to be published in the noted academic journal Science. No doubt lead author Dr. Diane Halpern and her cohorts feel very strongly about the issue of classroom integration; not lightly is civil rights rhetoric of the 1950s and '60s used to describe another situation in education. 'Advocates for single-sex education don't like the parallel with racial segregation, but the parallels are there,' Dr. Halpern told The New York Times. 'We used to believe that the races learned differently, too.'
The Case For
Proponents of single-sex classrooms, while significantly less vehement than Dr. Halpern and company, have no less passion. While few (including movement leader Dr. Leonard Sax) would say that same-sex classrooms are always better, most think that there are some benefits to separating boys and girls when it comes to education. They cite various neuroscience studies proving that each genders' brains develop differently and have different responses to various mental stimuli; to them that means that different learning tactics can, with the right instructors and in the right environments, produce better results in gender-specific classes.
Perhaps an equally compelling reason to allow single-sex classrooms comes from Florida State University psychology professor Dr. Roy F. Baumeister. In February 2011 he told a reporter for the American Psychological Association journal Monitor on Psychology that 'America's schools have many problems, and there is no one solution. But if there is one suggestion that is likely to yield solutions, it is to allow experiments.' In other words: why discount any classroom innovation unduly? Clearly something needs to be done to fix America's schools, so let's give all ideas a fair hearing.
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Finding a Balance
The battle of whether to allow single-sex classrooms veers uncomfortably close to the age-old battle of the sexes - especially since the major figures on each side seem to be broken down by gender lines (Dr. Diane Halpern on one hand, Dr. Leonard Sax on the other). Clearly this is a complicated issue, and without a full understanding of all the research that's been done on the topic, it's impossible to draw any hard-line conclusions. However, just by looking at the arguments each party makes, we can perhaps make a couple satisfying points.
For starters, it's interesting to note how much zealotry the anti-single-sex side possesses. An October 2011 op-ed piece in USA Today written to rebut Dr. Halpern's assertions quotes a passage typical of ACCES' zero-tolerance stance: they call for a prohibition on 'sex-segregated classrooms' that 'increase gender stereotyping and legitimize institutional sexism.' That's strong, contentious language clearly meant to rile up readers. In contrast, Dr. Sax and his crew seem relatively moderate, telling The Times 'We are not asserting that every child should be in a single-sex classroom, we are simply saying that there should be a choice.'
With all of Dr. Halpern's civil rights-style language, we ought to consider her claim that single-sex classrooms do indeed recall the racially segregated classrooms of the 1960s. It seems that would hold more water if same-sex education was forced on children, but as it stands federal law requires single-sex education to be a voluntary choice. Perhaps we can find in the situation some of the patronizing attitude embedded in those segregated classrooms ('no, actually it's better for you to be only with your own kind, don't worry about those other kids'), but that's kind of a stretch when single-sex education can't legally be compelled.
Finally, it seems as though perhaps a bit of a double-standard exists on Dr. Halpern's side. Check out this language from ACCES' report: 'Boys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive…. Similarly, girls who spend more time with other girls become more sex-typed.' That's awfully vague for a scientific treatise; why does ACCES not want to spell out what it means for girls to play into gender stereotypes, but it's okay to do so for boys? Several of Dr. Halpern's group are fairly radical feminists who perhaps have agendas outside the world of education; in USA Today, education author Christina Hoff Summers quotes a passage from an ACCES member's recent book, which advocates that parents 'cure children's desire for gender-appropriate toys' by having their male children 'cuddle a doll.' We might ask why parents should seek to feminize male children but not to masculinize their girls - or, even better, why they ought to curtail children's natural play impulses at all. So long as parents instill in their youth a respect for both genders, what does it matter what toys a child plays with?
Though certainly none of the preceding paragraphs invalidate any arguments on either side, it seems that typically those who speak more moderately have a better handle on the reality of a situation than their zealous opponents. There may indeed be valid reasons to end single-sex education… but then, there may be plenty of reasons to promote it too. Most official studies on the topic have concluded that it's actually a wash, that there are pros and cons to both sides. But when the leader of a movement starts talking about 'abolition' and 'segregation' to get support for her policies, that movement indeed deserves a fair amount of scrutiny.
What kind of gender gap exists in student government?