Thursday, July 29, 2010

Single Sex Classrooms

In Pittsburgh, public schools are considering single sex classrooms:

Separating boys and girls is a long-established practice in private schools. In public schools, it is a still-controversial notion that has gotten a foothold in districts across the country in the last decade.

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials have entered the debate with plans to create two such programs at Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School next year in an effort to turn around the persistently low-performing school. The proposal, part of a plan to improve the district's high schools, could come up for a vote as soon as Wednesday.

Proponents argue that single-gender schools can raise self-esteem and improve aptitude, particularly among historically disadvantaged student groups.

Critics, who over the years have included the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women, counter that students ought to learn in a diverse environment, with gender as much a part of the equation as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background.

Derrick Lopez, assistant superintendent for the city's secondary schools, said the proposed Westinghouse concept aims to engage parents and students in a model that has proven itself in the private sphere.

"We see the evidence at schools like Oakland Catholic, Central Catholic or The Ellis School," he said.

The single-gender model is premised on the idea that assigning students of only one sex to a classroom fosters a better learning environment by eliminating social pressures that can affect academic performance.

Under that theory, teachers don't have to deal with distractions created by students trying to navigate the intricate social balance of a coed environment. Students are free to express themselves without worrying about the pressures of impressing the opposite sex.

Detractors argue that the education process includes acquiring social skills needed in the coed world outside the schoolhouse. They say single-gender schools may well foster stereotypes and sexist sentiments about how boys and girls learn and may stunt their social maturity.
As someone who spent two years in a public high school and two years in a single sex high school, I am of two minds. The mixed high school had better classes and the presence of males and females, even at that hormonally highly charged age did not affect the level of academic intensity. But then, it was a very special group that I was with and I'm not sure I want to extrapolate from them as normal.

At the same time, as a teacher I see the effect that contemporary gender roles have on students, especially young women who -- sometimes intentionally, other times unintentionally -- dumb themselves down. The girls would be the ones benefiting from single sex classrooms because they wouldn't have to put up with the disruptions which usually come from the males and would feel freer to engage in higher level work.

So, are single sex classrooms something that ought to at least be an option in failing schools? Separate is never equal. Should that cut off the option right there? Is there something inherently wrong with the segregation or should it be considered as a legitimate tool?