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No Girls Allowed

Boys go here, girls go there, as across the country, schools embrace single-sex education in hopes of boosting achievement.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Second-grade teacher Jeff Ferguson is high-energy—he moves as quickly as his “bright ones” do. (And yes, here they’re all bright!)
The second-graders in Jeff Ferguson’s classroom squiggle in their seats, knees up, arms splayed, faces animated. They spin their pencils, thrum their fingers, and shout out answers. (Score! Gimme five!) Some can’t sit at all—they balance behind their desks on tippy-toes, poised to spring.

They’re loud. They’re rambunctious. They are, well, boys.

This classroom at the Walter C. Cunningham School of Excellence in Waterloo, Iowa, is among the latest to embrace single-sex education—the newly popular, but still controversial, practice of dividing a house so that each might stand straighter and achieve more. It is the hot thing these days: Boosted by money in the so-called No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) and recent changes to sex discrimination laws, the number of U.S. public schools with single-gender classrooms has soared from four in 1998 to 211 in 2006.

At Cunningham, the boys-only classroom is Ferguson’s answer to the persistent under-achievement of Black boys in particular. If he can support their specific interests, and teach them in a way that fits their learning style, he hopes to close the gap. College for all of them, he says.

“Mr. Jackson, what are those first three letters,” barks Ferguson during a reading lesson.

“C-A-N,” reads a slim second-grader, wearing a navy Cunningham sweatshirt and a small, sparkling ear stud.

“What is it?” Ferguson demands again.

“C-A-N, can, candy!” shouts his student.

“All right!” Ferguson exclaims, beaming. “That’s what I’m talking about! All you needed were the first three letters to identify that word, and why is that?”

“Because we’re smart!” boasts a classmate.

General expectations in most classrooms, that students will raise their hands, work cooperatively, ask for help, and refrain from disruption, are easier for most girls than boys to meet, says Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education. And that’s why, he says, too many boys are falling behind.

Ferguson expects that all his students will go to college.
A 2004 federal study of gender equity shows that boys are less likely to graduate from high school or college—57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2002 went to women. And they frequently come up short on standardized tests. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, girls did better than boys in reading, and performed about the same in math. But at the same time, girls remain mostly shut out of certain subjects, especially computer science.

“We live in a sexist society,” Sax says. “And in co-ed schools, our girls and boys are pigeon-holed into blue and pink cubbyholes.”

Sax suggests girls would be free to start working toward that Nobel Prize in Physics if they studied in a more supportive, esteem-building environment. And boys will flourish alone, as well, he says. Check out Woodward Elementary in DeLand, Florida. In co-ed classes, 37 percent of boys passed a state writing test in 2005. But in all-boy classes? 86 percent.

In a Phi Delta Kappa analysis of recent research on single-sex education, researchers agreed—at least in part. Their review concluded that single-sex classrooms might be a particularly good fit for minority, low-income students, who often lack academic and social supports at home. And, especially in secondary school, they may prevent kids from dropping out.

But it may not work for everybody, cautions Pamela Rios, a senior policy analyst in NEA Human and Civil Rights. “We’re not saying it can’t work, but we are saying there’s not enough research to support putting this kind of program into widespread use for everyone. The verdict is still out.”

Education Equality

Concerns include the possibility that single-sex programs may enshrine stereotypes. Not all boys are disruptive, rambunctious, school-haters. Not all girls need to be sheltered from boys. And, if we divide our children by gender, it may set a dangerous precedent for divisions based on race or religion. Other ways to close achievement gaps, such as teacher-quality initiatives and smaller class sizes, are proven solutions.

“Research shows that the differences within a sex are much bigger than the differences between sexes. Assuming that all boys like war games and all girls like dolls is a very big assumption,” says American University professor David Sadker. “You have to ask, why is this so suddenly popular? It’s because we’re resegregating our schools—by race, by economics, and now, by boys and girls.”

Most of the time, students don't need to raise their hands to answer questions in Feguson's classroom. "Just come on with it," he says. It makes them want to answer, to take a risk.”
Sax concedes there are plenty of same-sex classrooms that have failed. But the problem, he says, is that too many teachers aren’t provided with appropriate training, or they’re forced into making a switch that they’re not particularly excited about. To be successful, teachers need both a choice and training; and they also need a natural empathy for one gender style or the other.

“A talented teacher of girls will put aside everything when a girl comes to her to complain about some slight at the cafeteria table, and look her in the eye and say, ‘Talk to me,’” Sax says. “And she will mean it. She really does care about the whole girl, and not just her grade in biology.”

A talented teacher of boys, on the other hand, can roar. (Really roar—boys respond to louder instruction, Sax says.) And juggle. “Picture a guy on a cell phone; he’s moving. He thinks better when he’s moving,” Ferguson says. 

Use that boy-energy, urges Annette Duncan, Ferguson’s colleague. In her all-boys classroom, a spelling lesson might require them to catch a ball and dash to her desk. She also capitalizes on their real-life interests—a lesson on news-writing opens up the sports pages.

“My boys are impulsive,” Ferguson says. “Do I want to take advantage of that? Or squelch it and put it in a box? I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the time, they don’t have to raise their hands. Just come on with it. It makes them want to answer, to take a risk.”

Learning Games

At Iowa’s Cunningham school, there are three single-sex classrooms: Ferguson’s second grade, and two complementary rooms in the third grade. There also are co-ed classes. Parents choose their preference, often with the principal’s recommendation.

Walking between them is like opening the refrigerator door. Even the air seems different. Here, it’s calm. There it’s controlled chaos. Here, it’s quiet. Next door, the pulsating rhythms of Dr. Dre (without the lyrics) play softly.

In Amy Schmidt’s all-girl class, she and a handful of students are clustered in a corner, reading about weather systems. A lightning streak across the book’s cover makes “Miss Armoney” think of one word: “Suffocating,” she tells her teacher. “Because if you’re like in a hurricane, and the water is coming and the winds are coming, you’re just really, really scared, like you can’t even breathe, and you don’t know if you can feed your children or anything!”

“Oooh! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful answer!” Schmidt exclaims, kissing her fingers and touching Armoney’s head. “I like your thinking, honey!”

 They do not miss the boys. “Miss boys? Oh no!” Armoney cries, shaking her head firmly. “One chased me today at recess. Tried to kiss me. Oh no, we will never have boys in our class.

“Our class is a truthful class,” she continues. “We respect one another and we care for one another. If anybody fell, we would help them up. And it doesn’t matter if we mess up or not, Ms. Schmidt loves and cherishes us.”

And she does, Schmidt says—much like Ferguson loves “his gentlemen.” But she also loves having them to herself. Teaching two genders in one classroom is almost like teaching two grades in one room, Schmidt says. Knowing the difference, say both Schmidt and Duncan, they’d never go back. 

Photos: Mark Tade/Gazette Communications

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