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The Problem with Gender-Based Education

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine featured a very long article that's purportedly about single-sex public schooling, but is really about a narrower--and much more problematic--concept of gender-based education. Gender-based education is the notion that "Boys and Girls Learn Differently"--that's even the title of a book by Michael Gurian, one of the leaders of a cottage industry that's grown up to promote the idea. Specifically, it's the idea that recent neuroscience research shows significant difference in male a female brains and that as a result educators must employ different approaches in teaching male and female students. Unfortunately, many of the arguments for gender based education are bunk--and often have more to do with outdated gender stereotypes than the cutting edge research proponents claim they're based on.

In the NYT magazine piece, author Elizabeth Weil profiles Dr. Leonard Sax, a family doctor from Washington, D.C.'s Maryland suburbs and a leading advocate of gender-based schooling. She also describes 3 different public schools implementing single-sex education--an all-male and an all-female New York City charter school, as well as a coed district school in Alabama teaching children in sex-segregated classrooms. And she does a decent job in laying out some of the key critiques of Sax's work. Sax and Gurian exaggerate the neuroscience and get some of it flat-out wrong. Much of the science they do cite is primarily descriptive--it's not adequate to serve as a guide to making decisions about teaching or policy. And they ignore the fact that variation among both males and females often far exceeds average differences between the genders.

But, since the critiques don't appear until roughly halfway through a very long article--the first part of which reads like a puff piece on Dr. Sax--many readers may miss them. Moreover, while Weil's airing of critiques gives the article an appearance of balance, she glosses over a bigger issue: There wouldn't be a "controversy" over gender-based public education at all if Sax and Gurian weren't aggressively marketing their idiosyncratic--and flawed--notion of gender-based education.

Actual neuroscientists--whose work Sax and Gurian claim to base their arguments on, though neither are themselves 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. Much of what Gurian and Sax call "brain research" is still in its infancy, a long way from being able to support practical applications in education. 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.

Geidd's caution is well worth heeding even in areas where science--not just neuroscience but also other less flashy but often more relevant fields of child development research--does show real differences in boys' and girls' development. There is pretty strong evidence that preschool-aged boys develop gross motor skills faster than girls do, while preschool-aged girls tend to have an advantage in language development. As a result, boys and girls are, on average, at different levels of language and motor development when they enter school. Sax and Gurian see this as one argument for separate sex, gender-based schooling. That might be reasonable if gender were the only source of variance in young children's learning. But it's not: Young children's development is highly variable. Some 5-year-old girls might lag many boys in language skills, and some boys' motor skills might lag those of their female peers. If one is really concerned about adjusting education to variations in children's development, increased customization and multi-age groupings in early elementary school, which allow teachers to group children who are developmentally similar, regardless of age, and children to progress at their own paces, are a far better solution than simply separating children by sex.

The appetite for single-sex and gender-based educational approaches is understandable--and it's not just a manifestation of sexism. While this country does a lousy job of educating low-income and minority students generally, we do a particularly poor job of educating poor and minority boys--and there's a desperation for approaches to correct the high rates of disciplinary problems and school dropout among these young men. When folks like Gurian and Sax come along promoting single sex education as a silver bullet approach, it's no wonder some educators seize on the idea.

Unfortunately, there's no evidence that the gender-based approaches work in improving student acheivement. Even if Sax and Gurian's didn't have such a weak basis in neuroscience, a basis in neuroscience isn't enough to make an educational approach effective. Lots of educational strategies based in "cutting edge" evidence about "how students learn" have proved to be failures. What's needed are rigorous evaluations showing the approach produces positive results in practice. But Sax and Gurian's theories have never been subject to a rigorous, independent evaluation of their effectivness. There are no randomized controlled trials of gender-based educational approaches. There's even evidence that some of their recommendations are wrong: For instance, Sax argues boys will do better in school if parents wait until they're 6 to enroll them in kindergarten--a practice known as kindergarten redshirting. But researchers have studied the effects of kindergarten redshirting and found no evidence it make a significant difference for long-term educational outcomes. And, while there has been research on single sex education, a recent Department of Education meta-analysis of that research found mixed results.

Two of the schools Weil profiles--The Young Women's Leadership School (which, while single-sex, does not employ a gender-based education approach) and Excellence Charter School--do seem to be having a positive impact for the predominantly low-income, minority students they serve. But that impact has at least as much to do with their rigorous academic approach, committment to high-quality teaching, and shared culture of excellence as it has to do with the fact that they're single sex. No one disputes that single sex schooling can have benefits for some students--particularly for girls in math and science. And a single sex approach may also help educators to create the strong, shared culture and values we know highly effective schools have. But there are plenty examples of schools doing this in coed settings as well--which is good, because for the foreseeable future the vast majority of students will be attending coed schools. (Sax claims that 360 public schools nationally are single sex--but in a nation with more than 14,000 school districts and 4,000 charter schools, that's not even a drop in the bucket). Wouldn't it be nice if the New York Times devoted at least as much attention to the strategies we know are working to educate students in these settings, as it has on a faux controversy about marginal gender-based educational approaches?

***

One incident described in the article deserves particular attention. Weil writes:

In his second book, “Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men,” Sax credits Bender for helping focus a boy who was given a wrong diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder by telling him that his father, who had left the family, would be even less likely to return if all his mother had to report was the boy misbehaving in school.

 

 

 

This is shocking. Suggesting, to a child, that he in any way bears responsibility for the success or failure of his parents' marriage is despicable behavior, bordering on emotional abuse. The fact that Sax would praise an educator for doing so should cause anyone who's thinking of heeding his arguments to have serious second thoughts.

 

Comments

poor and minority boys

In re "We do a particularly poor job educating poor and minority boys" -- agreed, but it's shameful that progressives never want to talk about how the most culpable segment of that "we" consists of the poor and minority fathers who impregnate but fail to marry the boys' mothers, and fail to provide a stable source of authority and discipline for those boys, to back up the efforts of their teachers.

2004 illegitimacy rates: 69 percent (black), 46 percent (Hispanic)

source: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/prelimbirth04_tables.pdf

cf: http://www.city-journal.org/html/15_3_black_family.htm
http://www.city-journal.org/html/16_4_hispanic_family_values.html
http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_4_dads_hood.html
http://www.city-journal.org/html/8_1_a1.html

redshirting

"But researchers have studied the effects of kindergarten redshirting and found no evidence it make a significant difference for long-term educational outcomes." (Mead blog) Actually, the cited research says exactly the opposite: "The results of this inquiry revealed...children who began school at a somewhat older age performed better at the start of school, evinced greater improvement over the course of their first years of schooling, and functioned at a more advanced level in third grade than children who began school at a somewhat younger age." The study did not, however, distinguish between effects on boys and girls, so is irrelevant to the question of whether redshirting only boys would better calibrate education to development.

gender based vs. same sex education

Mr. Beaudrot directed me here.This post is right on. I am not sure if you meant to draw attention to a sex-based vs. gender-based educational system, but I think the distinction is very important, especially when the age of the students is considered.I remember one of my earliest comments/exchanges with MY was regarding Deep Springs College, where I attended (in a distant time) and where more than a few of his Harvard colleagues did their first few years of college work. DS was (and is) a single-sex college (boys/men/what have you) that is not gender based, but discriminatory on the basis of sex. Women cannot attend.For what it is worth, there are 4 or 5 male only colleges in the US, while there are over 80 women only colleges.In any event, DS has been voted "most gay friendly" by The Advocate, and continues to churn out academic hotshots on every level (Truman, Rhodes, etc.). And while the single-sex issue rages on, I think it is important to acknowledge that single sex education may have its place. DS is a two year school, which essentially guarantees that the students who enter as 17 and 18 year olds leave as 20 and 21 year olds to enroll in more traditional colleges (that is, co-ed).In any event, I think that single-sex education has its place. What place it should occupy, I am not sure. But I would be very opposed to the elimination of all-female schools, and I would also be opposed to the elimination of all-male schools. I do think that it is interesting that single-sex education is encouraged and tolerated up to the college level, but after graduation from high school is seen as a weird way to go about continuing the learning project. I would politely offer the idea that perhaps it is better to have young adults who are sexually mature (and most likely active) make the choice to attend a single-sex school is more preferable to a scenario that divides boys and girls when they are younger. Put another way, self-selection at the college level seems preferable to being forced to attend an all boys or all girls school through high school (which, of course, is widely done in private schools).Just sayin'. Make it a choice, not something that is imposed. And let's face it, any education system that treats girls or boys as anything less than full equals is not worthwhile. That said, it does seem to me that single sex education has its place, and that single-sex is not the same as single-gender. Having students of one sex play all of the roles in a functioning community can go a long way toward dispelling gender myths and enhancing ideas of equality, sacrifice, morality, sharing, negotiating, etc.). That was my experience, anyway.

Witnessing Gender-Integrated Education

As a girl attending a gender-intergrated high school, I do witness the learning enviroment everyday. I think it is very true that learning does not differ between genders but rather from person to person. Gender seperation is not the problem with the learning in schools; it is the teachers creating a negative enviroment. In honors courses, teachers are concerned about the learning and not the social environment. This does not hold true for every classroom, where the problems are. At gender-separated schools, the social environment is sometimes priority over the actual learning. There would be no need for separating of gender in class if educators worked on the learning aspect of school and less on the social environment where children are comfortable. At jobs and universities, most people do not get to choose such a specific environment. The same situation should be created in the classroom in order to keep children grounded to the real world.

Gender based education is

Gender based education is just no different but a crime in the society. All should have equal rights to get high and advanced education.How to motivate and teach the challenging, diverse, at-risk student is a universal academic problem that demands to be addressed as we move further into the 21st Century. Why can’t these students meet high academic and performance standards? Is it because education has failed to stay current with new research-based ideas and embrace trends that are gaining support? Or is it the day-to-day minutiae that engulfs many of our at-risk teachers and robs us of our energy and self-confidence to take educational risks and try new and innovative proposals?

single gender is working in my school!

I would first like to ask Sara Mead if she has read any of the books written on single gender education. Our faculty did a book study on Why Gender Matters and I saw Dr. Sax present at a conference last month. While Ms. Mead emphasises the neuro scientific aspects of the single gender argument, she fails to mention that the learning environment is crucial to the idea: the noise and activity level, the pressure of timed activities, the structure, and the interactions with the teacher. Although the scientific research on gender differences in hearing and perception grab your attention, it is pretty much common sense that boys and girls ACT differently in the classroom.

Our middle school offers a choice of single gender or co-ed classes. Around 95% of the students who were in single gender last year chose to stay in the program this year.I teach two language arts classes of all males and two co-ed classes. I work closely with my colleague who has the two female classes and two co-ed classes. We both cover the same curriculum and have the same high standards for all of our classes, but our approaches and assignments may differ for each group.

I think the heart of the matter is that teachers strive to meet their students' needs to make learning positive and approachable. If single gender classrooms can boost the confidence of the quieter student, or can let the teacher focus on shared interests of the group, or can eliminate the distraction of the opposite sex (a big factor in middle school!), then why shouldn't it be an option?