THE BLOG
08/01/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Junking "Junk Science"

With American education in crisis, we need a "new deal" for girls and boys.

Not just to give them a leg up on the three Rs, but to counter dangerous gender stereotypes that can put kids in straitjackets, hindering their development and dimming their futures. To do this, we have to dump dangerous "junk science" pushed by powerful advocates who argue that due to vast differences between boys and girls, single-sex classrooms are needed to improve children's academic achievement.

It's not true.

More and more, researchers are agreeing that the data do not make a strong case for single-sex schooling. Eight prominent psychologists and neuroscientists authored an article in the journal Science last September, titled "The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling."

They found the rationale for setting up separate classrooms for girls and boys "deeply misguided" and "often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence."

However, a small group of advocates continues to lobby hard for single-sex classrooms in public schools. Leonard Sax, the head of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and best-selling author of Why Gender Matters, and Michael Gurian, the author of The Wonder of Girls, repeatedly make an argument for segregated classes based on alleged "science." Last year, Sax even called the authors of the Science article "The Angry Eight," and he continues to claim that the differing brains of girls and boys call for separate classrooms.

Here is some of the flawed science on which these claims are based:

Junk Science: The brains of girls and boys are so different that they must be parented and educated in very different ways

This claim has been soundly debunked. Lise Eliot, an associate professor in the department of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, conducted an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence. She concluded, In Pink Brain, Blue Brain, that there is "surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children's brains."

Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist and professor at Barnard College, also rejects the idea that the differing organization of female and male brains is the key to behavior. This narrative, she says, misunderstands the complexities of biology and the dynamic nature of brain development. "As a folk tale, it's a pat answer, a curiosity killer. And the data doesn't fit the tidy male-female brain patterns anyway. Why keep trying to fit the data into a story about sex?" she asks.

Jordan-Young doesn't simply critique the "science" of sex differences; she shows how far off track it's wandered. "We've reached the end of that road -- in fact, we've gone way off the road into the woods and are now stuck in the deep mud of 'innate sex differences.'" In her thoroughly researched book Brainstorm, she concludes that although sex-linked traits play a role in human development, they do not determine most of our behavior.

Junk Science: Boys have inherently weaker verbal skills than girls. They should be given "informational texts" to read instead of the classics or any material containing emotion, which they aren't good at either.

Many teachers obviously took this idea seriously. One wrote on the National Association for Education website:

When I assign special projects, I provide my students with more "boy-friendly" options, such as a "biography box" in lieu of a book report. Students bring in a box with 10 objects connected to the person they've been researching, then write a list of the objects and a brief explanation of how the object is connected to the person. My boys prefer this option as opposed to just writing a paragraph.

But what are the facts? Overall, there are virtually no differences in verbal abilities between girls and boys. In 2005, University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde synthesized data from 165 studies on verbal ability and gender. They revealed a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless.

Boys have a just-about-equal aptitude for reading and writing, but sometimes, in actual performance, they score more poorly than girls. Why? They may shun reading because it's not a "boy thing" to do. And so, with less practice, they may actually do less well if they are not encouraged to read or are given unchallenging material. The more the news media run stories about boys not being "hardwired" for reading, the more parents and teachers will believe it.

The idea that boys can't handle emotions is another idea that's become trendy. For example, Leonard Sax suggests that literature teachers should not ask boys about characters' emotions, but should focus only on what the characters actually do.

But the notion that boys are inferior to girls in any and all areas of emotion lacks scientific evidence. Boys are naturally just as caring as girls, notes Harvard psychologist William Pollack, author of Real Boys. "They may have different patterns of behavior and learn and communicate through action, but they are as capable of being sensitive and empathic as girls are." Male infants, he says, are more emotionally expressive than baby girls, but boys, as they grow, too often learn to display a "mask of masculinity" that hides their inner feelings.

Teenage boys are as good at Social Intelligence -- recognizing emotion -- as girls. If we think that boys are not naturally attuned to feelings, that belief may lead us to limit their reading to simplistic combat or adventure stories, or to bland informational texts.

Dumbing down what boys read, leading them to believe that good literature (and writing) is "girls' turf," will be a disaster. It will deprive boys of the richness of challenging, well-written stories and steer them away from lucrative careers

Junk Science: Men and Boys are inherently better at math and science than girls and women

Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard, set off a firestorm in 2005 when he suggested that an "innate" lack of aptitude of women was a factor behind their low numbers in the top jobs in the sciences and engineering. In other words, girls just don't have the right stuff to compete successfully with high-achieving males.

Many voices, including those of Sax and Gurian, echoed such claims. Michael Gurian, in fact, told an education conference in Canada that no more than 20 percent of girls could aspire to be engineers or architects, and that the structure of most girls' minds makes it too hard for them to grasp subjects like calculus and physics

What's the real story?

Large-scale testing programs in the U.S. and abroad find girls closing the gender gap in math and in some cases outscoring the boys.

U.S. girls swept the top prizes in the first Google Science Fair in 2011, and U.S. girls now perform as well as boys on standardized math tests at all grade levels. And, in 2008, a study funded by the National Science Foundation looked at the performance of the most gifted children and their ability to solve complex math problems. In every category, girls did as well as boys -- even at the higher grades, when children were taking harder courses.

Boys and girls are becoming more equal, globally, in math performance. A new study by Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz, both of the University of Wisconsin, analyzed scores from more than half a million 4th and 8th graders from 86 countries. It found essentially no gender differences between girls and boys in math.

"We have to stop selling T-shirts to girls that say, 'I'm too pretty to do math,'" Kane said. "Our stereotypes are hurting our math education"

The students came from Western and Asian democracies and developing countries, as well as Muslim countries notable for their sex-segregated classes. But the really surprising finding was that the more equal the societies were around gender, the better everybody did in math. As the researchers conclude, "gender equity and other sociocultural factors... are the primary determinants of mathematics performance at all levels for both boys and girls."

Equality obviously works -- for everybody!

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, are the co-authors of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About our Children. (Columbia University Press.)