The internet's abuzz with talk of this week's New York Times Magazine's cover story, "Teaching Boys and Girls Separately." The article describes a growth in single-sex education nationally, fueled by two sets of proponents of single-sex education: neuro(pseudo)scientists, who believe hard-wired differences in the way boys and girls learn make sex-segregated classrooms necessary; and those who want to empower boys and girls to succeed despite societal pressures that inhibit their success.
Those who believe in single-sex education because of its purported biological advantages are more plentiful, at least according to themselves, but in New York City, it's the second set of single-sex advocates who have opened schools. The Young Women's Leadership School and its three clones and Excellence Charter School, both of which appeared in the article, offer high academic standards and supportive environments. The tone of the schools may be aided by the lack of gender diversity, but those schools' success "has at least as much to do with their rigorous academic approach, commitment to high-quality teaching, and shared culture of excellence as it has to do with the fact that they're single sex," writes Sara Mead of the Early Ed Watch Blog.
(The city has several other single-sex schools, including Urban Assembly's all-girls math and science, business, and criminal justice schools for girls and history and citizenship school for boys; the Academy for Business and Community Development, an all-boys school that is adding a high school this fall; and Eagle Academy for Young Men, a successful high school that will see its first clone open in September. I've also visited a few schools that have single-sex periods during the day, often for math and science classes.)
Should public schools segregate kids by gender? The article makes it clear that despite proponents' claims, there isn't any biological justification for teaching kids separately and differently. And as Dana Goldstein at The American Prospect writes, the neuroscience approach smacks of "stereotyping, heteronormativity, and misogyny."
But I also agree with Alexander Russo's tentative claim that that single-sex education "could do some good" and Insideschools blogger Seth's opinion that some children might feel more comfortable in a single-sex setting. As Sara Mead points out, research has shown that girls can benefit when they have math and science instruction to themselves. And when issues of sexuality and gender identity come up at school, it can be safer for kids to discuss them in a single-sex environment, as in the AP English class at TYWLS the article describes. I've been to a number of schools lately that have single-sex advisories for that purpose. But shouldn't schools also teach young adults how to interact courteously and appropriately with their peers of the opposite gender, even when sex or sexuality is the topic of conversation? That's an important lesson that single-sex schools are incapable of offering.