Feminism, Race, and Single-Sex Education In Public Schools

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During K-12 years (and in college as well) girls generally outperform boys, so it is understandable that some feminists would view pubilc single sex education proposals with suspicion. Certainly the fact that a recent, widely syndicated account of single sex education here in South Carolina is rife with gender essentialism by teachers is troubling, such as:

… For example, Chadwell explains, research shows boys don’t hear as well as girls, so teachers of all-boys classes often use microphones. And because boys’ attention spans tend to wander, incorporating movement in a lesson, like throwing a ball to a student when he’s chosen to answer a question, can keep them focused.

In one recent boys’ class, a group of gangly seventh-graders sprawled on the floor around a giant vinyl chart, using skateboard parts and measuring tape to learn pre-algebra. In a different school a few miles away, middle school girls interviewed each other, then turned their surveys about who’s shy and who has dogs into fractions, decimals and percentages. Classical music played softly in the background.

Teachers in all-girls classes say they’ve learned to speak more softly, because their students can take yelling more personally than boys. And the educators gear their lessons to what students like: assigning action novels for boys to read or allowing girls to evaluate cosmetics for science projects.

Boys like the activities. They like moving around. They like something dramatic,” said Becky Smythe, who teaches all-boys and all-girls English and history at Hand Middle in Columbia, which launched single-gender classes this year in its sixth grade. The school plans to expand the program to seventh grade next year. …

The difference in curricula as well as pedagogy is apparent even to outsiders. At one South Carolina middle school, the Eighth Grade girls produced a cookbook:

Carolina%20Girls%20cover.jpgwhile the boys produced a publication entitled The Guys Mind. That the South Carolina initiative seems premised on the work of Leonard Sax is, like so much “evidence” about the biological differences between girls and boys, also alarming (see also this, this and this). Though the South Carolina program seems to be following the federal rules, I worry about the exacerbation of sex based socialization pressures that single sex education programs might cause. However, the point of this post is to note that you really can’t (or at least shouldn’t!) talk about gender independently of race, probably anywhere, but especially not in South Carolina. In the article linked above, Kim Gandy raised race as follws:

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, believes states should not advocate educational experiments. Segregating boys and girls could damage students if boys come away with sexist ideas of being superior, or if students are boxed into learning a certain way, she said. She also questioned whether single-gender programs’ successes are due to good teachers and smaller classes, not sex segregation.

“There are ways to appeal to interests and learning styles and abilities without lumping people based on gender, which is not a good measure of anything,” Gandy said. “At what point is it OK to make judgments of entire groups of human beings based on race or sex?”

One of the reasons Dent Middle School was chosen as a laboratory for single sex education is that the majority of its student body is African American and the school district is trying a variety of initiatives to close achievement gaps between Black and White students. As this NYT story notes:

… The interest in separating boys from girls in the classroom is part of a movement to allow more experimentation in public schools.

Although the research is mixed, some studies suggest low-income children in urban schools learn better when separated from the opposite sex. Concerns about boys’ performance in secondary education has also driven some of the interest same-sex education.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings described the changes as part of a greater effort to expand educational options in the public sector.”Every child should receive a high quality education in America, and every school district deserves the tools to provide it,”Ms. Spellings said.

She said that research supported offering single-sex education, and that the changes would not water down the protections of Title IX.

But Stephanie Monroe, who heads the Education Department’s office of civil rights, acknowledged the equivocal nature of the department’s own research on the issue.

“Educational research, though it’s ongoing and shows some mixed results, does suggest that single-sex education can provide some benefits to some students, under certain circumstances,”she said.

I personally believe gender segregated education is problematic if, as seems inevitable, boys and girls are educated differently. I took Shop instead of Home Ec, my attention tends to wander, I prefer skateboards to cosmetics, and I like actvity. But there are complexities here, some involving race, that need to be aired and evaluated as well. Here is one recommendation for further topical reading:

The publisher’s website is here. Reviews of the book are available here, here and here. The review at the first link notes:

… Mindful of hard-won and on-going battles for gender and racial equity, Salomone carefully distinguishes the current single-sex education movement, one focused on meeting the educational, emotional, and social needs of both girls and boys, from the elitist “finishing schools” or “bastions of male privilege” that once dominated the single-sex educational landscape. Same, Different, Equal begins with profiles of three single-sex schools in Harlem, Philadelphia, and Baltimore and complicates the discussion of single-sex education by highlighting the intersections of gender, race, and class in the lives of the schools’ inner-city students. …

See also Feminist Law Prof Verna Williams’ article:

Reform or Retrenchment? Single Sex Education and the Construction of Race and Gender

and Feminist Law Prof Nancy Levit’s article:

Embracing Segregation: The Jurisprudence of Choice and Diversity in Race and Sex Separatism in Schools

Thanks to my colleague Danielle Holley-Walker for her helpful input on this topic.

–Ann Bartow

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