Monday, September 26, 2011

Renewed Debate About Single Gender Education

Many of you may have seen an article run around education and news websites last Friday. The official article is, "The Pseudoscience of Single-S** Schooling" and it appeared in the journal Science (23 September 2011, Vol. 333, pages 1706-1707.)
News outlets (ABC, NY Times, Education Week - Washington Post -, SmartBrief -, and even the Spartanburg Herald Journal - ran the story with headings like, "Study assails merits of single-sex education".
I encourage you all to read the actual article from Science magazine and at least one of the news reports so you can see how single-gender education is being discussed in wider circles.
But here is a brief synopsis and a bit of commentary on this current swirl.
1. The article itself is NOT a study. The authors are making a policy statement arguing against single-gender education and the current authorization to allow it under federal regulations of 2006. A study was not conducted by the authors. As such, the hype that this is a study is NOT the case. It is a policy argument.
2. There are four major headings: Little Evidence of Academic Advantages, No Evidence from Brain Research, Negative Impacts of Highlighting Gender, and Institutional Sexism Disguised as Choice. Again, you need to read the article (only two pages) to see their arguments for each.
2a. Little Evidence of Academic Advantages. COMMENT First, single-gender education does not have to be better than coeducation. It shouldn't be worse though. This is why schools should conduct reviews of their programs.  In South Carolina we provide the opportunity to conduct surveys of parents, students, and teachers. Second, while they claim that there isn't any hard data supporting single-gender, there isn't any hard data against it either. Further, there is some good information from surveys over the last three years that something positive is happening for parents, students, and teachers within single-gender classrooms. In news articles across the country, schools provide their own anecdotal information about the positive impact upon their own children. Third, we can NEVER say that single-gender is the actual effect for any success or failure of a child since there are many aspects within a classroom and there is ALWAYS the issue of CHOICE. This is the nature of single-gender education in public schools. To have a randomize assignment of students without the option of choice is a clear violation of federal law. Fourth, the federal government itself does not require the REPORTING of data and with budget cuts it is increasingly difficult to get reports that are not mandated by law.
2b. No Evidence from Brain Research. COMMENT This will always be argued by researchers. There are books and research reports that say that there are differences and then there are books and research that say their aren't differences. Either way, looking at international, national, and state data, there isn't equality in the performance of many subgroups - including boys and girls. As such, how we teach students is not being received in the same way by subgroups, including boys and girls. This isn't brain research, this is performance and discipline data. From this, we can look at reasons why and possibilities to affect our instructional practices to better reach all students and subgroups, including boys and girls. Understanding the potential of different tendencies for subgroups, including boys and girls, regardless of where they come from, can help inform teachers about how to best reach students. It is a way to continue to differentiate our instruction in any classroom. Single-gender education should NEVER be based upon the idea that boys and girls learn differently. And, teachers in single-gender classrooms, need to be particularly careful with the line between meeting the needs of students and stereotyping.
2c. Negative Impacts of Highlighting Gender. COMMENT The article asserts that "The strongest argument against SS education is that it reduces boys' and girls' opportunities to work together in a supervised, purposeful environment." This essentially is the real-world argument. It is important to remember that school is NOT the real world, but preparation for the real world. Educators group students according to age and focus on specific content areas for specified times often regulated by bells. This format isn't the real world either. But, we do it in order to prepare students as best we can for being successful in the real world. Remember our survey data regarding confidence, participation, effort, independence, etc. Student, parent, and teacher responses over the last four years have been very positive. Again, something positive seems to be happening in our single-gender classrooms where students are developing positive personal characteristics in order to be successful in the real world.
2d. Institutional Sexism Disguised as Choice. COMMENT Here the authors say that there is no data for the students who would best served by single-gender, that it is a "scheduling nightmare", and that training funds could be spent elsewhere. Each school determines, through looking at their data, about the specific areas of need or as a response to parent choice. That is one of the benefits of single-gender is that it can be utilized by schools in ways that they need specifically. It is true that scheduling can become difficult, but that isn't a reason to not try to accomplish something if there is a need and a desire at the school. Teaching children isn't easy. As for funds, there are ways to deliver training for all teachers in low cost/high impact ways, especially utilizing the web.  Further, providing improved instructional services for students is everyone's business and not just for single-gender classroom.
I welcome your thoughts about this current debate. Maybe it will blow by your school or maybe it will become a major issue. Either way, you need to consider the issue yourself and determine your own thoughts about the arguments for and against single-gender education.
Thank you for all you do for your students every day! They are the ones that matter in this conversation.

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