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Are Single-Sex Classrooms Better For Kids?

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The long-running debate on single-sex education erupted again last month when a report in the journal, Science, concluded that there's simply no empirical evidence that segregating boys and girls improves education, but that it can perpetuate sexist stereotypes and hinder social development, none of which convinced advocates on the other side.

Over the past decade, the number of American public schools that offer single-sex classes has grown to more than 500. Since the debate is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, we'd like to hear from teachers and students about your experiences with single-sex education. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, ComPost columnist Alexandra Petri joins us on the line between political biography and fact. But first single-sex education. Sarah Sparks covers education research for Education Week and joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in today.

SARAH SPARKS: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And the Science article reads like a comprehensive condemnation of single-sex education. Is this based on new research?

SPARKS: No, this is a compilation of research done both by the authors of the study, as well as their reading of other studies available. It's probably the newest - a review of the newest research.

CONAN: And the research focuses on brain science?

SPARKS: In part. There are - some of the authors involved, particularly Lise Eliot is a neuroscientist, and it is a response to the sort of emerging justification for single-sex schools that relies on brain image studies that seem to show differences between boy and girl brains.

What the authors in the study are saying is that most of these studies have been either misinterpreted or vastly expanded the reach of what the results actually mean, to say that they lead to a difference in academic and instructional practices that should be done in schools.

CONAN: So no evidence to support change. In fact, I think they dismissed it as pseudo-science.

SPARKS: Correct. In fact, the title of it was "The Pseudo-Science of Single-Sex Schooling." They were very adamant about it, and to be fair, all of these authors are - have also created a nonprofit organization, the American Council for Coeducational Schooling. So they're very much in favor of not using these.

CONAN: And in fact, advocate that single-sex education, at least in public school, should be banned.

SPARKS: That's correct. They have asked the Education Department to rescind its 2006 rule that allows single-sex schools and single-sex classrooms with certain provisos.

CONAN: And these would be waivers under Title IX, for example.

SPARKS: Correct.

CONAN: Now, opponents who advocate single-sex schools, say nonsense, we've looked at some of the same studies, and, well, you can come to completely different conclusions.

SPARKS: That's true. There - I mean, the big problem seems to be that there haven't been a whole lot of rigorous studies of single-sex schooling at all. In the most recent Education Department study, which was conducted through the American Institutes of Research, they looked at more than 2,200 studies, and of those, only 40 met even the minimum requirements of quality of the research.

And those, pretty much, found mixed results of whether single-sex schools were actually beneficial or not. There just hasn't been a lot of solid research in the area.

CONAN: And it's difficult research to do. One of the interesting things was in this science article, they said, well, yeah, you can point to scores that improve, but a lot of that is due to the fact that people like innovation, and they're responding to change rather than to some inherent quality in single-sex education.

SPARKS: There's a really interesting study that is going to be released this spring that's looking at the effect of single-sex schools for minority boys. It's being conducted by the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education.

And they have so far found that - the preliminary data says that it hasn't really been a matter of single-sex versus co-ed. You really find the improvement from individual interventions that might be used in a co-ed or a single-sex situation.

CONAN: So that it may not matter, in that respect, yet again, the journal, Science, a peer-reviewed journal, comes back with the conclusion that not only is there no empirical evidence that it improves education, there is evidence to suggest it increases sexist stereotypes.

SPARKS: Right, particularly the studies that were mentioned in that article are among early childhood studies. And it basically found that when you have kids separated, they are more likely to hold onto sexist stereotypes. One of the reasons that a number of the programs that were started in California for single-sex education got shut down fairly quickly afterward, was they found that there wasn't a real - the teachers ended up using some sexist stereotypes like teaching flowers for girls and cars for boys kind of thing.

CONAN: I see, and is there anything, though, to prove - there's again advocates for single-sex education, come away with the argument that, you know, boys and girls learn differently and therefore should be taught differently.

SPARKS: That's the biggest debate right now is whether the physical differences which admittedly are there and are bigger at different ages, whether those actually translate to academic learning differences. One of the things that's argued in the article is that differences in brain volume, for example, that are talked about in terms of differences in boys' brains and girls' brains don't necessarily transfer to a difference in academic learning style.

On the other hand, there have been many programs associated with teaching for boys, a more active style, or teaching for girls a more collaborative style, whether those have to do with something related to the sex of the students involved versus just differences in learning styles. There hasn't been a lot of research that has looked at this particular intervention being tied to sex.

CONAN: This study got a lot of attention because it was in a peer-reviewed journal and a well-respected journal. What's been the reaction since publication? Has the argument just gone back and forth?

SPARKS: It didn't - it certainly didn't really convince people on the other side that their single-sex programs were wrong, and it was a bit in an echo chamber of the folks who have been trying to get single-sex schools to be shut down. Certainly the ACLU has found it helpful.

The lead author, Diane Halpern, is one of the lead witnesses in the ACLU's cases on - against single-sex schools, most recently in Louisiana. But I think the - there's still most of all a concern about finding good research, finding programs that work.

It's not so much that I see a lot of schools that want to do this just for fun, they are searching desperately for things that will work, particularly with - right now, particularly with boys of color.

CONAN: And yet they get criticism for looking for magic bullets. The answer, critics say, more resources, better teachers.

SPARKS: If there's one thing that both sides on this debate agree on, it's that the research really shows that the more you are able to pay attention to individual student differences, and the more you're able to tailor your interventions to meet those students needs, the better the students do. And whether that means the students being in a small group with others of their sex or being in a co-ed group, it seems to have more to do with what you're doing to the kids and with the kids than who they're with.

CONAN: Has the suggestion from these scholars that the Department of Education close down this experiment with single-sex education, how has that been received?

SPARKS: I think it's come at a time when the budget is also making both the federal and a lot of local school districts ponder these programs again. There hasn't been a whole lot of strong research that they've been able to use to promote. So it really depends - it really is dependent on what school district you're in.

I know Wake County, in North Carolina sorry, has just voted to experiment with one of these programs, in part for some cost-savings and in part to try to get a good thing that they can study. By the same token, a lot of other school districts are canceling programs that had been in place because they can be more expensive.

CONAN: They can be more expensive.

SPARKS: Depending on how they're being implemented.

CONAN: And some places have instituted academies, either for girls or boys, and some say the results have been outstanding.

SPARKS: Oh sure, particularly the - Chicago's urban charter for all-boys' school has had really wonderful results. And there's a lot of interest in studying why they have, whether that is related to the single-sex and the solidarity and motivation of the boys there or other instruction.

CONAN: Sarah Sparks covers education research for Education Week. She's here with us in Studio 3A. When we come back from a short break, we're going to hear advocates from both sides. We also want to hear from teachers and students with experience of same-sex education. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The debate over single-sex education - it's gone on for a long time - resumed again last month when the journal Science published an article that strongly advocated against same-sex education. Our guest today is Sarah Sparks, a reporter with Education Week who covers education research.

Joining us now by phone is Renee Finke. She's a fifth grade teacher at Carmen Trails Elementary School in the suburbs of St. Louis, and she is with us - excuse me, not on the phone but from member station KWMU. Nice to have you with us today.

RENEE FINKE: Hello, nice to see you, or nice to meet you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And Nathan Blackmer joins us from the suburbs of Chicago, where he's principal of Lake Bluff Middle School in Illinois . Nice to have you with us.

NATHAN BLACKMER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Renee Finke, let's start with you. You teach both same-sex classes, some of them, and co-ed classes. What's the difference, and how did this work out?

FINKE: Well, I teach an all-boys fifth grade class at my school. And since we switch for science in fifth grade, I also have the opportunity to teach science to the girls' class and to both mixed classes. It's a really unique experience for me.

CONAN: And do you see advantages or disadvantages?

FINKE: I really see some advantages. This is my third year with single-sex teaching, and I've seen it with the boys more frequently, but I do see it with the girls too, especially in science. The girls with science, I see them trying new things that they would not necessarily try.

An example, last year we made Connex(ph) cars for our motion and design unit, and at first the girls were very hesitant to try to build their cars. But once they realized there was no one else to do it for them, they really jumped in, and they built the cars and did a great job and were interested to do new things.

CONAN: Nathan Blackmer, what's your experience with same-sex education at the Lake Bluff Middle Schools in the Chicago suburbs?

BLACKMER: Well, you know, we're somewhat limited in that we are a small school. We're 335 students in a middle school, grades five, six and seven - or six, seven and eight. And so we don't have single-sex classrooms, though on occasion we have some that are heavily weighted, mostly boys or mostly girls. So I have that point of comparison.

And I will say that that does present challenges for us. Frequently we've found that the boys tend to be perhaps less on-task in a situation where there are more predominately boys in the class, you know, less so when we see the majority of girls. But certainly if I'm going to be talking with a teacher about how to improve instruction in a classroom, one of those things that they often cite as a problem is the number of boys that were in a class.

So I haven't necessarily found it to be one that we would consciously want to set up. It just so happens we do that on occasion because of the structure of our schedule.

CONAN: And as you, I'm sure, are aware of the debate, does arguments about brain science, does it sway you one way or the other?

BLACKMER: You know, it does not, at least not of any of the research that I've seen thus far. The fact is, we're preparing students for - we're not preparing students for a single-sex working environment and life beyond school. So I do worry about isolating students and segregating them by gender, with the understanding that that's not the world we're preparing them for.

CONAN: One quick response from Renee Finke on that - the world they're going out to work in and live in, it's not segregated by sex.

FINKE: No, it's not, and we talk about that in our classroom. Although I have all boys for reading, writing, math and science, when I have them, they do do projects with the girls. We're with the girls in PE, and we're with the girls whenever we have a major grade-level project, and there's always that discussion.

And my boys realize that this is not a single-sex world. They realize that they're mom's a girl. They have sisters. When they grow up, they'll be working with girls. And so they rise to that occasion, and they treat those girls just like they would treat each other.

CONAN: All right, let's get some callers in on the conversation. Let's start with Ruth, and Ruth is with us from Woodlands in Texas.

RUTH: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RUTH: Okay, I taught actually for several years in both a single-sex situation, and then I taught similar-type students of the same level in co-ed school, both of them middle school math. And I found that there was actually quite a difference in the participation of the girls in the classroom. And I think it's particularly true for kids at that age and with math and science.

I mean, they were talking about science and the girls participating more with building the cars when the boys weren't there to do it for them, and I found that the girls tend to have more confidence and speak up in those types of classes more when they don't have the distraction and maybe the intimidation factor of having the boys with them in the classroom.

CONAN: The intimidation factor, what do you mean by that?

RUTH: Well, I think what I mean by that is they - well, you know, we talked about - you mentioned the stereotypes that maybe are perpetuated in certain situations. I think a lot of the kids come to the classroom with some of those stereotypes from outside of school. And girls, although it's getting better, I definitely see with my own daughters in co-ed education that they're much more confident than girls perhaps when I was in school were in those subjects.

But I think that a lot of times there are too many girls who come to it thinking that that is a masculine subject area, and they just are not as willing to speak their mind and to believe that they can be good at it when they have a lot of boys in the classroom who do believe that of themselves.

CONAN: Nathan Blackmer, I wonder if we could get a response from you. Has that been your experience when you have those weighted situations you were talking about?

BLACKMER: You know, not necessarily. I guess my response to that comment would be: What would you do, even in a single-sex environment, where one of your female students is not taking risks and speaking up and contributing to class the way that you would want to do? What are those skills that you would use for that student, and why wouldn't that same skill be effective in a co-educational setting?

CONAN: Ruth, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.

RUTH: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Daley(ph). Daley - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - is in Phoenix.

DALEY: Yes, that's correct. I'm a first-through-third-grade teacher, so six-to-nine-year-olds in a - hello?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, go ahead.

DALEY: Okay, in a Montessori environment, which is much more independent. The children get lessons at their own level rather than all first-graders or all second-graders. So I see - a lot of what I teach is the social and emotional development and problem-solving, not just with girls - because girls are good at problem-solving with other girls.

It's when you have to teach them to problem-solve with other boys that I see, especially with my grade level, if they were segregated, I believe that they'd miss that developmental period.

CONAN: I wonder, Sarah Sparks, is there any education research that suggests - and we have an email on this from Elizabeth(ph) in Fenton, Michigan - are there any differences in results by year? I attended an independent, non-religious K-12 school where the genders were separated in the middle school years. Couldn't say enough about how glad I was to have been spared a part of the social trauma of those years.

But as our caller Daley is talking about, very young children.

SPARKS: Yes, and there has been research both at the middle school level, where there's a big focus on whether to separate girls and boys for some of the math and science classes, as well as some of the early years. And in fact, one of the studies mentioned in this Science article was related to very early childhood.

The researchers found very similar things to what the caller is saying, that boys and girls who were separated in these very early childhood situations were more likely to end up with gender stereotypical views.

Now, this was with very young children. There's - I have not seen that replicated and whether those are prolonged results.

CONAN: And Renee Finke, you're teaching fifth grade. That's, I guess, halfway - you know, that's just the beginning of middle school.

FINKE: Yes, we're in an elementary school, but we are at the top of our elementary school.

CONAN: So your experience very positive, you say, with the students. But the socialization aspect, that's an important part of going to school.

FINKE: It is, and with my boys in particular I have found that it's helpful for us to do very explicit teaching for problem-solving when an issue arises in the class. We really take the time to get those kids together and have them practice saying, you know, I didn't like it when this happened, and it made me feel - and having those boys, you know, teaching them how to express how they felt and then in the future could you please.

And really breaking down those steps to problem-solving has helped my boys, and now I see them using that on their own without my help when they're working with each other.

CONAN: Daley, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

DALEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Nathan Blackmer, I wanted to ask you something about what Sarah Sparks mentioned earlier in the broadcast, and that is: Would it be more expensive in your school to institute same-sex education?

BLACKMER: Yeah, yeah, it would be. That would go without saying. In order to segregate our students we would have to duplicate the academic classes that we're providing, and as a result we'd need a whole new set of teachers to do that. So yeah, it would be significantly more expensive.

CONAN: And I wanted to get back to that word, Sarah Sparks, segregation. This is an argument that was part of that study that was published, the article in Science, saying you may try to say it's apples and oranges to say that this is different from racial segregation, but they say no, it isn't.

SPARKS: Well, I mean that's - that's kind of the core of the debate going back for decades with regard to single-sex ed. I think that the people who are opponents of single-sex education argue that it is separate but unequal is - separate but equal is inherently unequal. And, in fact, the Department of Education, when they were allowing these, said that the education for students of both sexes in these programs have to be substantially equal. So even there, they were saying that there could be differences in how the classes are run. It just should be substantially equal and should have a compelling reason for the achievement of the students.

CONAN: Renee Finke, is this something that you think about or that worries you?

FINKE: We've talked a lot at our school. And I think one of the reasons that it works is because it is a choice for our parents. At each group level that we offer single gender, we also have mix gender classes. And I think having that choice helps out. I think it's just another way for us to differentiate, to better meet our kids' needs. It may not be the best for everyone, but it's the best - good for some.

CONAN: And that choice, Nathan Blackmer, some people have argued, look, in the past, people of means have always had this option to send their kids to a private school that was all girls or all boys. Now, this choice is only now becoming available to those who might want to take advantage of it in public schools.

BLACKMER: Yes, I would say that in the area that I work in, there aren't a lot of offerings. We do have some private school settings that offer that. Though here in Chicago, (technical difficulty) of those. I guess it comes back, for me, to the point that parents who take an interest in putting their children in the best possible environment are also parents of students who tend to be those that are higher achieving. It would be curious to know would parents less involved in their child's academic career also be those that would consider this sort of option. So I don't know the answer to that question.

CONAN: It goes back, Sarah Sparks, chickens and eggs, are the parents who are more involved, are their kids doing better because their parents are more involved.

SPARKS: That's been a fundamental problem with the research to date, actually, is the selection problem. The parents who are participating in these programs do tend to be more involved. And there are other similarities with regard to the students who are participating in the programs.

CONAN: Sarah Sparks, a reporter for Education Week. Also with us, Renee Finke, a teacher at Carman Trails Elementary School in St. Louis suburbs, and Nathan Blackmer, a principal at Lake Bluff Middle School in the Chicago suburbs. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Weld(ph). And Weld's on the line from Philadelphia.

WELD: Hi, everybody. Great show. I attended an all-boys school from kindergarten through 12th grade. I had a wonderful experience. And I feel that having a single-sex environment has a very similar effect having school uniform, where it starts to strip away some of the things that can be a distraction in the environment and gives both the teachers and the students a little bit more opportunity to focus on school and why they're there. Because the socialization of having boys and girls together is worth discussing and the quality of teachers obviously matters, but all things being equal, I honestly believe that it gives students a little bit more opportunity to express him or herself as an individual and intellectual and less though as someone as part of a broad group where there is more pressure to conform.

CONAN: Pressure to conform - well, that's not going to go away no matter how you change schools. I think that's a function of human nature.

WELD: Sure. Well, but I think you're right that conforming is important. There are different levels of it. And by removing sex from a classroom, it's a very strong reason to conform (unintelligible) taken out of the environment where it really doesn't have a place.

CONAN: Renee Finke, fifth grade - the hormones, for the most part, have yet to flow. Are those distractions a factor in your school?

FINKE: They're starting to just because we're in fifth grade now. The boys and girls obviously notice each other, and we see them playing together at recess this year, where that didn't happen last year. But at the same time, when friend - when we're in our classroom, we're focused on the learning. I make a point for the boys to say, you know, ask every day why are we doing this, why are we learning this. And we try to figure out what's the point of this lesson, so they know why they're here, and it's to get an education to be ready for the next year and the year after that.

CONAN: Here's a retired science teacher Nisa(ph), emailing us: What needs to be recognized is the differences between boys' and girls' brain are not absolute. Many girls share the need for active hands-on learning. Many boys do better in cooperative settings. What happens to these individuals when they are arbitrarily assigned to a learning environment based on sex? And, Nathan Blackmer, that seems to be what your concern is?

BLACKMER: Yeah, it is. You know, I still feel that these are formative years. And not only are we teaching academic subjects, we're teaching behavior. We're teaching how to interact with one another. And (technical difficulty) we're not giving our students (technical difficulty) that opportunity (technical difficulty) to learn, then (technical difficulty).

CONAN: Well, Nathan Blackmer, we're going to say thank you very much. We appreciate your time. We're obviously having difficulty with our connection there. But we get your point, and we thank you very much for your time. Nathan Blackmer is the principal at the Lake Bluff Middle School in the Chicago suburbs. He taught seventh grade science for seven years before that and joined us by phone from Lake Bluff, Illinois. And I think, Sarah Sparks, you mentioned one new study that's coming out - is there some idea of some comprehensive blind research that could establish some unarguable fact here?

SPARKS: Well, I think that as you look at the neuroscience part of it, the interesting researches in how plastic our brains are and how much change there can be over the course of a child's career, as well as even into adulthood, and one of the things that they're finding is the tiny differences that might be between infants of different sexes can be changed either to increase those differences or to...

CONAN: Diminish them.

SPARKS: ...reduce them. And that all has to do with how the teaching goes, how the family structure goes, all of those different things. So that's where, I think, the really interesting research is going to come from.

CONAN: We'll have to wait for that. Sarah Sparks, thank you very much for your time. And our thanks as well to Renee Finke, who joined us. She's a teacher at Carman Trails Elementary School in the St. Louis suburbs, with us from KWMU, our member station in St. Louis. We thank her for her time as well.

Up next: After Senator Marco Rubio is accused of embellishing his past, we'll talk about truth, lies and political biography. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.