Single Sex Education Goes Public

In recent years, new national education policies have permitted public schools to implement gender segregation. Hundreds of charter schools have already made the shift. Freelance writer Karen Houppert wrote about the trend for the Washington Post Magazine. She discusses the appeal and potential downsides of single sex education.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we head to the Gulf for a conversation with the head of an association of black oystermen and hear about how the oil spill disaster is affecting children. That's a little later in the program.

But first, we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, which we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. This week's magazine digs into one of the hot topics in education reform: single sex education.

Now, many of the nation's oldest colleges and universities started out serving one gender or another. But with the women's movement, the practice of segregating students by gender began to fall away. Now what's old has become new again for the K through 12 set.

In 2006, new rules from the U.S. Department of Education gave public schools the green light for single sex classes. And since then, hundreds of schools have adopted some version of gender segregated learning.

Freelance writer Karen Houppert wrote about this growing trend in this week's Post magazine and she's with us now from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. KAREN HOUPPERT (Writer): Thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: Now, what's behind this push for a single gender education? What started this? Or this new push, I should say.

Ms. HOUPPERT: Yeah. I think that what's been happening sort of in the cultural conversation among different experts and authors is that there has been a lot of concern about boys and education and whether boys are being short changed with the current education system, particularly in public schools. And I think that has been fueled a bit by some best-selling authors. Like some of these books probably ring a bell, like, "Raising Cane" or Christina Hoff Sommer's "The War Against Boys." All those sorts of books have kind of bundled things into a boy crisis.

And this move towards single sex public schools has been fueled by a lot of concerns about whether boys are really getting the best education they can right now in public schools. So I think that that's behind a lot of it. And to me it's a very startling trend because I feel like it's really flown under the radar in terms of the public that, you know, in 2002, there was only a dozen of these schools. And now there's about 540. So it's significant.

Even, you know, in D.C. there's four in the public schools. So, you know, I think it's an interesting trend that we haven't really read a lot about. So that's sort of what drew me to investigate the topics.

MARTIN: You spend a lot of time at one school with the Washington, D.C. area called Imagine Southeast Public Charter School, where the classes are segregated by gender, but they're in the same building. So you call it a it's a called a dual academy. How common is that?

Ms. HOUPPERT: That is one of sort of three different kinds that are emerging right now. Some are just single-sex academies where it's just a boy's school or just a girl's school. And then some are these dual academies and then other ones are the kids maybe go to most of their classes together, but maybe they separate out by gender for math. So those are sort of the three models that are being used by public schools right now.

MARTIN: So tell us about some of the differences that you immediately observed. They were pretty stark.

Ms. HOUPPERT: Yeah. I mean, visually they, you know, made some, you know, kind of distinguished between the two classes. The girl's class, the walls were orange and the colors were very bright because part of the theory behind this is that girls like bright colors, whereas boys need more muted colors. The boy's balls were a paler blue.

One of the things that they do differently in the classroom is the boys are allowed to roam around more and to actually stand up when they do their work. They don't have to sit in their seat. And the thinking behind that is that boys are more active and they see better from a greater height.

And that if you talk to Leonard Sax, who is one of the he's the author of a book called "Why Gender Matters." And he is one of the proponents of this type of education. And he says that one of the advantages of separating young girls and boys is that boys' kind of very active behavior is distracting to girls. So if you separate the girls and boys out, then the boys can actually move freely without the concern of distracting the girls.

And so, you know, you do notice differences in the classrooms in which, you know, as I said, the boys can stand. The teachers did a lot of activities with them that involved movement. It was a more hands-on class for the boys and the girls.

MARTIN: Now, you report in your piece about some of the arguments against this type of gender division. First of all, you said that the research is disputed as to whether boys and girls really are all that different. And obviously many people have the social concern that, you know, separate generally isn't equal. Or at least that has been the history even though in these dual academies, one can see that they really are just different.

But the question I have is, is there any research to show that this really does make a difference? Does it really help both genders learn? Is there any demonstrable difference in the achievement? And is there any data to show that?

Ms. HOUPPERT: Yeah. The data seems to me, after kind of digging into this issue for a while, pretty flimsy to show any real significant differences. And one of the things that's problematic in trying to get kind of good, hard facts about the differences that this makes is that most of the studies, they don't factor in issues like teacher experience, for example, which is one of the things that I noticed immediately when I was following two first grade classes at Imagine Southeast Charter School in D.C., which is that one teacher had been teaching for nine years and one teacher was her first year of teaching.

And then when you looked at the test scores at the end, it was the boys' teacher was her first year of teaching and the girls' teacher had been more experienced, the girls did far better on the standardized tests at the end of the year than the boys, you know. So, you know, it's hard to account for those differences as anything to me, but one teacher was very experienced and one teacher was less experienced.

So when they tried to figure out whether separating kids by gender really makes a difference, there isn't much convincing data out there right now. And there's a lot of questions, as you noted, I mean, what does that mean for kind of equality of education and what does it mean for us as a country to separate kids by gender when one of the things we kind of think about public education as doing is something where kids are able to experience kind of diversity in the classroom.

And that it's where they learn how to work with people who are maybe different than them. You know, I mean that's one of the goals of public education in this country, I think.

MARTIN: Let me just ask you very quickly two more questions. One: I understand the ACLU is fighting a couple of these single sex schools on what grounds?

Ms. HOUPPERT: They just argue that it's blatant discrimination. That it's, you know...

MARTIN: But how can it be if they're in the same building using the same curriculum? How is that possible?

Ms. HOUPPERT: Because I think that they are teaching the kids differently and that they believe that's completely unnecessary and that that violates their rights to an equal education.

MARTIN: And, finally, Karen, you noted that a number of the parents are first of all, that these schools have been particularly popular in some places particularly in the southeast, like South Carolina, for example, has made a big commitment to this idea. And that in a number of urban school districts, a lot of parents are very excited about that. What did you find out about why that is?

Ms. HOUPPERT: I think that what's behind that is just a real frustration with the quality of schools and, you know, particularly urban and southern rural areas. And it's I think, you know, an effort to just find a quick fix easy fix solution to poor education. And this is an easier way than kind of bringing up the quality of teaching across the board or really investing in public education. So I think that's really behind this trend.

MARTIN: It'd be interesting to see what the data shows after a couple of years on it.

Ms. HOUPPERT: Yeah.

MARTIN: Karen Houppert wrote about single-sex education in public schools in this week's Washington Post magazine. If you want to read her piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll have a link online. Just go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. Karen, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. HOUPPERT: Thanks for having me.

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