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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    No boys and girls allowed

    Before the advent of public education, most people, male and female, grew up with little or no formal education. As more families sent their male children to school, popular wisdom cautioned against educating their female siblings, as it would prove an unnecessary distraction. In recent years, however, a movement has emerged that encourages separation of the sexes for both male and female benefit, and this time the argument is centered on a more complicated subject: the brain. Proponents of single-sex education believe that subtle differences in brain make-up and chemistry make coed education both a hormonal mess and a legitimate hindrance to both genders’ success.

    Test scores and anecdotal evidence seem to support this conclusion – a study at Stetson University in Florida comparing single-sex and coed classes found that both sexes scored significantly higher on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (the Floridian equivalent of Arizona’s AIMS test). Not only does many students’ proficiency on exams improve in single-sex classrooms, but those students are actually more likely to study subjects that cross stereotypical educational boundaries. Girls are more likely to take on advanced math and science courses, while boys are two times as likely to explore foreign languages and the arts. Single-sex education has also proved particularly effective among poor, minority students, a welcome change from the ineffectual No Child Left Behind program, which has failed to narrow that gap.

    With so many positive results, why not forge ahead and create more single-sex programs across the country? Unfortunately, viewing single-sex classrooms as an educational Band-Aid is more problematic than it appears at the outset.

    The kind of biological determinism used to justify sex education turns these programs from a neat, effective solution into an ideology that is more limiting than liberating. The same principle is at work here as in those ubiquitous sex-difference studies about adults – women talk more than men because of differences in brain chemistry, men can’t ask for directions because they are evolutionarily hardwired not to, and so on. These studies are seductive because they confirm behaviors that we witness day to day. But is it really a step forward to start treating men and women as animals ruled by their neurons?

    Many recent studies suggest that these structural differences might necessitate different educational approaches for both sexes. Using this information to create an entire educational philosophy, however, neglects other important factors. Elizabeth Weil, in a March 2 The New York Times profile on single-sex education, suggests that the difference in performance lies in the proactive approach of parents and teachers who choose single-sex education – a choice that reflects a higher degree of motivation and involvement in a child’s education. This factor also goes a long way toward explaining the greater efficacy of single-sex education among underprivileged students, as it reflects a greater willingness on the part of parents and teachers to invest in those students’ success.

    The same phenomenon is visible in the choice of university: The Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem and Wellesley College both boast many successful alumni. Both schools are highly selective, and each takes students from very different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. The common denominator for the success of both schools could be their single-sex classrooms, but it probably has a great deal more to do with the motivation and ambition of the individual students.

    Sex-difference research shouldn’t be written off as irrelevant, but when applied to public education, it is limiting in the exact areas in which it purports to offer students more freedom. Imagine the UA deciding to use sex-difference studies to maximize the potential for success of both male and female students. As such, males would no longer be permitted to major in English, because the long hours of reading would not meet their need for physical, active learning, while women would be discouraged from majoring in architecture, as their spatial skills are inferior to those of men. Sex-difference research makes the fatal assumption that all females and all males conform to expected gender behaviors – and when they’re applied to public education, those solutions work for some and leave many others feeling left out.

    It’s easy to become enamored with an idea that seems so simple, but packs such a punch in improving public education. Sex-difference research presents a compelling case for single-sex education, but leaves out the big picture – parents, teachers and students themselves, whose motivation and engagement ultimately play a greater role in their education than brain chemistry, and as such should be accorded greater respect. Biology isn’t always destiny, and schools should keep that notion out of their classrooms, no matter who is in them.

    Sarah Devlin is a sophomore majoring in English and political science. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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