Single-Sex Ed Based on Baloney Science

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Caryl Rivers /Rosalind C. Barnett(WOMENSENEWS)–Boston school superintendent Carol Johnson has decided to back away from an earlier decision to set up single-sex academies in the city’s schools.

She is taking flak in some quarters, but she should be applauded for taking time to evaluate the data before rushing headlong into a popular but flawed approach to education. (Legal issues in Massachusetts also were a factor in her decision.) More educators around the U.S. should follow her lead.

Single-sex schools are often touted as a magic bullet for what ails American public education. It’s claimed that boys and girls learn very differently–because their brains are so different–and that gender- segregated classrooms are necessary.

At a time of tight budgets, it is a particularly appealing notion to close gaps in math, science and verbal achievement by simply segregating classrooms by gender versus proven but expensive methods like smaller classrooms, better teachers and high parent involvement.

The number of single-sex classrooms in public schools rose to 540 in 2009 from 11 in 2002, according to the Web site of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Teachers, parents and school administrators are the targets of a well- financed effort to segregate public education by sex.

It’s argued that great differences in male and female brains mean that children should be educated–and parented– differently. Such claims–stemming from studies that distort the discussion in various ways– are taught as fact in psychology textbooks, academic journals and bestselling books and repeated often by the news media.

Debunking ‘Mars and Venus’

But new research strongly undermines this argument. Three authoritative recent books–two this year and one in 2009–look at the science and come up with the same conclusion: the Mars and Venus idea about male female brains is bunk.

"Delusions of Gender" (2010) by Cordelia Fine, a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and research fellow at the University of Melbourne, finds myths dressed up as science and propagating dangerous new conventional wisdom.

She calls much of popular gender-difference theories "neurosexism" and says there’s little evidence for the idea of a male brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world and a female brain hardwired to understand people.

"Yet despite this, the idea of hardwired sex differences is very confidently presented as ‘fact’ by many popular writers. Unfortunately, claims about ‘hardwired’ sex differences may be a particularly effective way of reinforcing the gender stereotypes that influence us in self-fulfilling ways."

"Brainstorm" (2010) is by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist and an assistant professor of women’s studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. She looks askance at the idea that hormones create brains in pink and blue, affecting everything from our math aptitude to our ability to take risks.

"The evidence for hormonal sex differentiation of the human brain better resembles a hodge-podge pile than a solid structure…Once we have cleared the rubble, we can begin to build newer, more scientific stories about human development."

‘Pink Brain, Blue Brain’

These two books follow "Pink Brain, Blue Brain" (2009) by Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science at the Chicago Medical School. She examined the vast peer-reviewed literature on gender differences in children from infants to high schoolers, expecting to find what the conventional wisdom said. The data told a very different story. "What I found, after an exhaustive search, was surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains."

She debunks, for example, the notion of a much larger corpus callosum in women and girls that bestows superior relationship abilities. (The corpus callosum, or the CC, is the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the left and right brain hemispheres.) In fact, peer-reviewed research finds no size difference in the corpus callosum between the sexes.

Despite this mountain of evidence, the campaign for segregating public schools by gender is unrelenting. The drumbeat is led by Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and by best- selling author Michael Gurian ("The Wonder of Boys") who heads the Gurian Institute. They keep aggressively promoting the "science" that supposedly calls for separating boys and girls. They are media darlings, endlessly quoted in news stories.

Lise Eliot calls many of their claims pseudoscience.

Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics and computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, writes: "Leonard Sax has no serious interest in the science of sex differences. He’s a politician, making a political argument. For all I know, his political goal–single-sex education–might be a good thing. But he should stop pretending that he’s got science on his side, or else he should start paying some minimal attention to what the science actually says."

And large scale studies of single sex and co-ed classrooms indicate that neither type of classroom is superior in terms of academic achievement.

Lise Eliot argues that the danger of exaggerating the biological differences between the sexes is enormous: "Kids rise or fall according to what we believe about them, and the more we dwell on the differences between boys and girls, the likelier such stereotypes are to crystallize into children’s self-perceptions and self-fulfilling prophecies."

But we continue to believe that girls can’t do math and that boys’ verbal abilities are innately deficient–neither of which is true.

So kudos to Boston Superintendent Johnson for resisting the easy temptation to go with popular–but very unscientific–school policies. Maybe she’s started a parade for that many educators will join.

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Caryl Rivers is a professor of Journalism at Boston University. Rosalind C. Barnett is senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis. They are authors of the forthcoming book "The Truth about Girls and Boys: Confronting Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children." (Columbia University Press.)

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4 thoughts on “Single-Sex Ed Based on Baloney Science

  1. I do believe that the research into the differences between women and men’s communication styles is sound and very relevant. While our brains and potential are equivalent, misunderstandings based on communication style can have an impact on self-esteem, women’s advancement in the work place, and girl’s ability to learn.

  2. Given my professional affiliation, it will come as no surprise that I am more than disappointed, not only in Superintendent Johnson’s decision to back off her earlier support for a single sex option in the Boston Public Schools, but in Caryl Rivers’ and Rosalind Chait Barnett’s short-sighted response to the same.

    Far from being considered a “magic bullet” for the many problems that ail our public education system, all girls’ and all boys’ schools in public districts are increasingly proving what supporters have long known: for many students, attending a single sex school whose programs, community and culture are designed exclusively with either boys or girls in mind, translates into more promising educational and developmental outcomes, today and over time.

    At the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, we are proud to count among our members some of the most dynamic and effective public schools in the most difficult urban environments in this country. And we share some of their results – and the achievements of their students – as testament to the promise and the power of a girls’ school format. Consider the following:

    Young Women’s Leadership Network Schools, currently serving more than 2,000 low income girls in five schools in New York and Philadelphia:
    • As of 2009, 80% of TYWLS alumnae are still in college or have graduated from college, compared to only 24% of low-income students nationwide (Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007).
    • In 2009-2010, the majority of YWLN-NY middle school students outperformed their peers in the city on New York State standardized math and English/Language Arts exams
    • 100% of TYWLS of East Harlem’s Class of 2010 graduates were accepted to college, repeating the success for all ten graduating classes
    • 93% of the first four graduating classes in Philadelphia have been accepted to college
    • In 2009-2010, all TYWLS received exemplary ratings on the accountability measures of The New York City Department of Education
    • TYWLS of East Harlem, is in the top 4% of New York City high schools (New York Post, August 23, 2009)
    • In 2009, TYWLS at Rhodes was the only comprehensive high school in Philadelphia to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Since joining YWLN in 2002, Rhodes has been transformed from a “failing” school to a “turnaround” school.

    Girls Prep in New York:
    • 2008-2009 test scores ranked Girls Prep among the top five charter schools and top ten traditional schools in New York City
    • In 2008-9, 98% of third grade students and 92% of fourth grade students scored advanced or proficient on the New York State ELA exam
    • 100% of Girls Prep 3rd and 4th graders scored advanced or proficient on the New York State math & science exams.
    • In Community School District 1 where Girls Prep is located, 91.9% of third graders and 82.8% of fourth graders scored advanced or proficient on the math exam. On the ELA exam, 70.5% of District 1 third graders and 69.5% of fourth graders scored advanced or proficient.

    Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Atlanta, showed dramatic improvement from its earlier results as a large, coed middle school:
    • Achieved AYP status for the 2009 school year following years of failing performance
    • Consistently outperformed district peers in test results for ELA, Reading and Science.

    The Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago:
    • 97% of graduates enrolled in college in 2004
    • 100% of graduates enrolled in college in 2005.

    Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, recipient of Dallas Observer’s “Best Use of a Bond Issue” award and “Leadership of Tomorrow” Award from Lockheed Martin:
    • Highest performing middle school in Dallas School District for 2005 TAKS.
    • 100% of Class of 2009 accepted into college.

    These numbers speak for themselves. And they confirm what years of research has shown: girls’ schools produce. In one of the most recent studies – a peer-reviewed, national effort conducted under the auspices of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies that disentangled the effects of single-sex education from confounding demographic influences – girls’ school graduates showed a statistically significant edge over their coed peers in some critical areas, including:

    • Academic engagement
    • Academic confidence
    • Confidence in Mathematical Ability and Computer Skills
    • Interest in STEM-related majors.

    This is but a sample of the data that exists to demonstrate real effectiveness (more information is available on our website at But it pales, frankly, compared to the voices and stories of the girls’ school graduates and attendees themselves, who give expression and life and substance to what girls’ schools can and do deliver every day.

    Susanne Beck
    Executive Director
    National Coalition of Girls’ Schools

  3. The problem is related more to the “nature/nurture” debate rather than what is best for girls or boys. Our brains might be the same, but girls seem to thrive in a single-sex environment. Socialization issues are just as powerful as “nature” considerations. We should do what’s best for girls regardless of whether it’s for nature or nuture reasons.

  4. Coming from a family where the 2 girls excelled in math and science and not as much in writing, while our brother was best in writing and not so great in math and science, I can say that it can’t be hard wired by gender.