Teaching to the Testosterone

by Robert Pondiscio
March 4th, 2008

New York Times MagazineThe New York Times Magazine entry on single-sex education has set tongues wagging across the edusphere. Alexander Russo likes it and posts an email from Richard Whitmire, USA Today’s editorial page editor and the head of the Education Writers Association who seems to favor single-sex ed, with caveats.

Writing over at the American Prospect, Ezra Klein dismisses single-sex ed proponent Leonard Sax as an “obvious crank.” Why that’s obvious wasn’t obvious to me, but no matter—the moment Klein described Sax as a “self-styled” neuroscientist it was obvious that what followed was going to be the product of a made-up mind. (Self-styled edublogger? Or do I need to be certified?)

The excellent Sara Mead, on the other hand is well-worth reading. She makes a point that can’t be made enough: “Actual neuroscientists…aren’t the ones banging the drum on gender-based education. In fact, many caution against trying to draw practical implications for schooling from their work….Jay Geidd, one of the preeminent neuroscientists studying brain development in children (including gender differences) cautions that gender is much too crude a tool to differentiate educational approaches: the variation within each gender is often larger than the average difference between genders, and there’s substantial overlap in the distributions.”

Whitney Tilson, who like me sends his kids to a single-sex school, frames the issue as a matter of personal choice. “When choosing schools, my wife and I mostly wanted the best school, but had a moderate bias towards all-girls schools because our gut instinct and person experience, combined with this evidence, led us to believe that an all-girls environment might be beneficial and certainly wouldn’t do any harm.”

I’m with Whitney on this one. I love data and research as much as the next guy, but you don’t buy clothes on measurement alone. You try them on to see how they fit. Likewise, choice matters. Describing the results posted by single-sex schools in the Times article, Elizabeth Weill notes “disadvantaged students at single-sex schools have higher scores on standardized math, reading, science and civics tests than their counterparts in coed schools. There are two prevailing theories to explain this: one is that single-sex schools are indeed better at providing kids with a positive sense of themselves as students, to compete with the anti-academic 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 (my italics).”

As Obama said, “Can I get an amen here?”

Having chosen single-sex for my child, I have a tough time arguing that others shouldn’t be allowed the same choice. And my experience as a fifth-grade teacher tells me that — mirabile dictu! — boys and girls are different. To struggle to hold the constant stream of opposite-sex attention-seeking behavior at bay in a classroom is to see single-sex ed as eliminating one more obstacle simply one fewer hurdle in the way of teaching and learning.

I’d like to hear more teacher’s voices on this, rather than more gender-politics. Classroom management of a single-sex classroom is clearly a very different matter than a co-ed setting, especially among adolescents. I tend to favor the idea simply as a practical matter.

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