The cover story of tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine (available online) takes up single-sex public education. “Should Boys and Girls Be Taught Separately?” by Elizabeth Weil notes that “separating schoolboys from schoolgirls has long been a staple of private and parochial education. But the idea is now gaining traction in American public schools, in response to both the desire of parents to have more choice in their children’s public education and the separate education crises girls and boys have been widely reported to experience.”
The piece looks at two different approaches to single-sex education, “those who favor separating boys from girls because they are essentially different and those who favor separating boys from girls because they have different social experiences and social needs.” The first camp is represented by Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education; the second is represented by schools like the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, founded by Ann Tisch.
“Nobody is keeping exact count of the number of schools offering single-sex classrooms,” writes Weil, “but Sax estimates that in the fall of 2002, only about a dozen public schools in the United States offered any kind of single-sex educational options (excluding schools which offered single-sex classrooms only in health or physical education). By this past fall, Sax says, that number had soared to more than 360, with boys- and girls-only classrooms now established in Cleveland; Detroit; Albany; Gary, Ind.; Philadelphia; Dallas; and Nashville, among other places.”
Among the benefits cited by teachers and administrators quoted in the piece are fewer discipline problems, more parental support and better scores in writing, reading and math. The lure of single-sex education is especially strong in public schools that are failing poor minority students in general and poor minority boys in particular. “People are getting desperate” is how Benjamin Wright, chief administrative officer for the Nashville public schools, describes the current interest in single-sex education. “Coed’s not working. Time to try something else.”
Noting the apparent success of many single-sex classrooms and school, the Times notes two prevailing theories to explain it: “one is that single-sex schools are indeed better at providing kids with a positive sense of themselves as students, to compete with the antiacademic influences of youth culture; the other is that in order to end up in a single-sex classroom, you need to have a parent who has made what educators call ‘a pro-academic choice.’ You need a parent who at least cares enough to read the notices sent home and go through the process of making a choice — any choice.”