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Co-education Is Good Science

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Finally, a few (very) good words about co-education.

For years, self-appointed gurus have been successfully promoting single-sex classrooms in public schools, arguing that they boost achievement and help children.

Leonard Sax, head of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and best-selling author of Why Gender Matters and Michael Gurian (The Wonder of Boys) have been pushing the single-sex agenda. They speak before huge audiences of teachers, parents and school administrators and are the darlings of the media, drawing extensive coverage in which their statements about "science" are generally accepted as fact.

The single-sex movement in public schools has been growing fast. According to the New York Times, there were only two single-sex public schools in the mid-1990s; today, there are more than 500 public schools in 40 states that offer some single-sex academic classes.

But in September, the journal Science ran an article by eight prominent scientists, titled The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling.

They argue that "there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex (SS) education improves students' academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism." The lead author on the piece was Professor Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College, past president of the American Psychological Association (APA).

The Science piece is right on target. For the last three years, I have been tracking this issue with Dr. Rosalind Barnett, senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis for our book, The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children.

We've looked at the claims for single-sex schools and find that many are just plain wrong. For example, both Sax and Gurian argue that the brains of boys and girls are so different that they should be parented and educated in very different ways. But research does not support such assumptions. After an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence, neuroscientist Lise Eliot found "surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children's brains." Eliot is an associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and one of the authors of the Science article. In her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Eliot accuses Sax and Gurian of pushing shoddy science.

Sax has argued that girls hear better than boys, so you have to yell at boys and speak softly to girls. Gurian claimsthat few girls have the proper brain structures to do high-level math and science. There is no credible evidence for either claim.

But schools that believe this stuff are setting up very different classrooms for boys and girls. For example, in a middle school is Alabama, teachers ask children to use highly gendered words in writing assignments. The Mobile Press Register reported in 2008:

"Pencils in hand, the sixth-grade girls were encouraged to use as many descriptive words as possible as they wrote about their dream wedding cake. Would you like chocolate or vanilla? What colors should the icing be? Is 30 inches too big for the bottom tier?"

Down the hall, the boys in another sixth-grade class were asked one by one to give examples of action verbs used in sports. "Throw. Sack. Slam. Intercept. Applaud."

In South Carolina, girls are taught chemistry by analyzing cosmetics. And the state has set the goal of having sex-segregated classrooms available to every child within five years.

In a Seattle Times column, the reporter writes, uncritically, "In a classroom, male brains zone out easily unless teachers know how to keep them glowing. Boys need to move around; the teacher needs to be louder and more animated, for a start. "

In fact, research finds that a teacher of boys does not have to be louder and more animated than a teacher of girls, The tiny and insignificant differences between girls' and boys' hearing have no educational significance whatsoever.

It's correct that boys need to move around. But so do girls. Data from a series of recent studies by Professor Charles Hillman of the University Illinois at Urbana-Champaign indicate that aerobic fitness is related to better performance on school-based achievement tests of mathematics and reading. Physical activity may increase students' ability to filter out extraneous noise and pay closer attention to the critical cues and act upon them.

We asked Dr. Hillman if there were any gender differences in his findings. He said there were not.

"We have never found sex differences in our work. We have included sex as a variable to investigate this question and never found support for it."

The Science authors cite research findings that "The strongest argument against SS education is that it reduces boys' and girls' opportunities to work together in a supervised, purposeful environment. When teachers make children's sex salient, students choose to spend less time interacting with other-sex peers."

In a world where men and women increasingly toil side by side in the workplace, getting to know and appreciate the opposite sex is important. A Canadian study found that girls in co-ed classes were more confident about expressing their views in front of male peers than girls in single-sex classrooms. And students in co-ed schools were more likely to say that their peers respected the opposite sex.

Under the Bush administration, the secretary of education relaxed provisions of the Title IX rules against unequal resources in education to allow more public single-sex classrooms. The authors of the Science article are calling on the Obama administration to rescind these changes.

Given the fact that there is little to no evidence that single-sex classrooms in public schools improve academic achievement, such a move makes sense. And, the authors add, "Funds spent on training teachers in nonexistent 'gender-specific learning styles' could be better spent on training them to teach science, mathematics, and reading, or to integrate boys and girls more completely in the learning environment."

Amen to that!

Boston University professor Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Dr. Rosalind Barnett, senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis, of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our
Children (Columbia University Press)