Separate but Equal

USA Today features dueling commentaries on the Department of Education’s imminent release of regulations on single-sex classes for public schools. The new regulations will eradicate the threat of discrimination lawsuits should public school systems institute single-sex classes or entire single-sex schools.

The change in regulations is the result of the much-hyped “Boy Crisis,” which is, in fact, largely overstated and most affects schoolchildren in poverty—a problem not solved by segregating sexes.

The dueling opinion pieces, though one purports to support sex segregation, both arrive at the same point (if one does so unintentionally)—that single-sex classes are a convenient excuse to ignore the real problems with the American educational system and the design of people who want to reinforce traditional gender roles. You know, like back in the Good Old Days.

From the piece against single-sex education:

Advocates of sex-segregated schools offer pseudo-scientific workshops where educators learn about alleged brain differences between boys and girls. According to some advocates: When establishing authority, teachers should not smile at boys because they're biologically programmed to read this as a sign of weakness; they should only look boys in the eyes when disciplining them; girls should not have time limits on tests or be put under stress because unlike boys, girls' brains cannot function well under these conditions; and girls don't understand mathematical theory very well except for a few days a month when their estrogen is surging.

Although these ideas are hyped as "new discoveries" about brain differences, they are, in fact, only dressed up versions of old stereotypes — that boys must be bullied and girls must be coddled.
Anyone who advocates any blanket learning style based on gender is an idiot, right out of the starting blocks. My best work was always done under pressure. If I were given three months to do a paper, I wouldn’t start it until the night before; stress is my most effective motivator. And no matter how much I loved reading and writing, I always scored higher on standardized tests in math. Perhaps I’m secretly a boy. Dumping me into some lollygag class where I was coddled and my math competency ignored would have left me bored and angry, with a lot of unfulfilled potential. And I know plenty of men who buck the stereotype of being most productive under some sort of authoritarian education style, too. Generalizations are not a great basis for educational theory.

From the piece for single-sex education:

Boys, in particular, suffer from a one-size-fits-all approach. And as students reach middle school, they are increasingly distracted by members of the opposite sex.
Once again, we hear that boys just can’t control themselves, so we’d better get them away from the sirens.

The thing that kills me about this tired refrain is that men are distracted by members of the opposite sex (or the same sex, depending on their sexuality, which shows you what a superb rationale this is for single-sex education) for most of their lives. Men and women are generally wired differently that way, and I’m not sure how segregating a boy, as opposed to letting him learn how to reconcile hormones with obligations from an early age, will actually make him better prepared for adulthood, when he’ll still have to choose between ogling a coworker’s legs and finishing his TPS report on time.

There is some reason for caution, but experiments should be encouraged with careful limitations. Parents should be allowed to choose whether they want their kids in single-sex or mixed-gender classes. And lesson plans mustn't play into sexist stereotypes. (Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU, says Livingston educators were following "unfounded notions like 'boys need to practice pursuing and killing prey, while girls need to practice taking care of babies.' ")

Districts inept enough to see single-sex education that way deserve lawsuits.
Remember that.

Drop by the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms at Woodward and you'll find very different books lying around. In the girls' class there's The Great Gilly Hopkins and The Chocolate Touch. In the boys' class there's Stealing Home: The Story Of Jackie Robinson and Dragons of Deltora. Giving boys books they prefer to read gets them more excited about reading.
Might I suggest that districts inept enough to not include all those books in one classroom in the first fucking place, so that boys and girls can choose whatever reading material most appeals to them, were failing to meet their students’ needs in ways that aren’t solved by gender segregation? If a school can’t be clever enough to put all those books in one mixed-sex classroom, then the problem of students falling behind probably has very little to do with the genitals of their classmates.

And, once again, I’ve got to call bullshit on the gender assumptions. I’m going to guess that Stealing Home would not have been Paul the Spud’s first choice of reading material when he was a kid. On the other hand, since my dad was a baseball fanatic and I always enjoyed talking baseball with him, it might very well have been mine.

Tessa Michaelos' all-boys kindergarten features a pile of Legos, hard hats and a balance beam used for a vocabulary contest. Michaelos' boys soar academically. Many of the all-boys classes in other grades out-perform both the girls-only and mixed-sex classes.
So, the boys are benefiting from single-sex education, but the girls aren’t. Hmm. Is it possible that it’s not the gender segregation that’s helping out the boys so much, but the revamped classroom with Legos and a balance beam? What are they giving the girls—dolls and an Easy-Bake Oven? Perhaps it’s that the toys boys get are learning toys. Without controlling for gender by providing both groups with the same materials, it’s impossible to know what’s really creating the disparity in achievement.

There are just endless problems with this whole situation, the primary issue being that all its so-called solutions are predicated on a false premise. Boys aren’t in crisis. And the more we look to gender for answers to solve an imaginary crisis, we ignore the real crisis of poverty creating unequal educational opportunities. That’s the real scandal of the American education system, and while we wring our hands over boys v. girls, we leave poor kids of both genders to wallow in shitty schools.

And, as a final aside, I am deeply resentful of gender-drawn lines in educational theory, because I have never followed the stereotypical path of girls. As I mentioned above, I work better under pressure, my competencies in math and science exceed my language abilities, and I was always a more visual than aural learner. And I know I’m not alone. When educators attempt to model programs based on gendered brain differences, they are creating a terrible dynamic for anyone who diverges from the standard gender expectations of learning processes, including the not insignificant portion of the population who are gay, bisexual, and transgendered, most of whom, like myself and many other straight men and women, deviate from the expected learning style based on their genders. Unless they are truly dedicated to identifying each child’s specific needs, it’s pointless to advocate gender segregation, and providing classes for each of those specific needs would be nutty—boys who do best in single-sex classes, girls who do best in single-sex classes, boys who do best in mixed-sex classes taught to boys’ expected learning style, girls who do best in mixed-sex classes taught to girls’ expected learning style, boys who do best in mixed-sex classes taught to girls’ expected learning style, and girls who do best in mixed-sex classes taught to girls’ expected learning style. That’s six different possibilities for every cohort, which most schools can’t accommodate. (Especially schools in poverty-stricken districts.)

And, ultimately, there’s one control factor that no one likes to talk about—the competency of the teachers. Maybe the success of Tessa Michaelos' all-boys kindergarten class is down to Tessa Michaelos being an awesome teacher. Perhaps a room filled with Legos and a balancing beam wouldn’t lead to the boys’ academic achievement if it were in the hands of a less dedicated, less skilled teacher.

My parents were both teachers, and, for years, I couldn’t go to the grocery store, or the library, or the movie theater, without someone working there telling me how my mom or dad was “their favorite teacher!” They were great teachers who inspired students because they genuinely cared about them and tried to give them what they needed, which was often a kind word, an interest in their lives, a moment to look at pictures of their cousin’s new baby, a hug. I’ve been given free drinks by a bartender who told me my mom changed his life by making him realize he was smart. “She just kept telling me until I believed it.” He went from regular English to honors’ English and was attending college, something he’d never considered. Do you think he would have benefited more had she never looked in his eyes unless disciplining him? Harrumph.

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