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October 6, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

After some 30 years of declining male achievement in schools, some people have noticed that one thing that can reverse that trend is male-only classrooms. While the jury is still out on single-sex educational settings, significant findings indicate that some girls and boys benefit from attending classes with only their own sex. So, various school districts have tried programs that offer single-sex classrooms on a strictly voluntary basis. If a parent wants his/her child to have a single-sex education, it’s available. If the parent wants to go co-ed, that is too.

But, according to Christina Hoff Sommers writing here, the American Civil Liberties Union wants to prohibit all Americans from having that choice (The Atlantic, 10/4/13). Well, not all Americans, just those who don’t have the money to send their kids to private schools. For the ACLU, the well-heeled are entitled to more educational choices for their children than are the less well-to-do.

The state of boys in our educational institutions has long been known to be alarming and the failure of policy makers to even attempt to remedy the situation, or even acknowledge its existence, is one of the significant scandals plaguing elementary and secondary education in this country. Boys do less well than girls on standardized tests, are less likely to attend college, are more likely to drop out before high school graduation, are more likely to be diagnosed with behavioral or learning disorders and are more likely to be medicated therefor. Boys are, by all accounts, less engaged in school than are girls.

The causes of all that male disengagement and failure to perform are many. The feminization of the classroom leaves boys feeling unchallenged and unrewarded for accomplishment. A culture that considers typically male boisterousness something to be medicated or diagnosed as pathological is not one that’s likely to see much enthusiasm from boys. But that’s what schools do. Let a six-year-old draw a picture of a gun and he’ll find himself suspended and taught that somehow he’s a dangerous little fellow for doing so.

Likewise, there’s evidence that the very ADHD medication so much in vogue for quieting male students and keeping them in their seats may be the very thing that renders them disengaged later on. In laboratory animals, the active ingredient in ADHD medication has been shown to affect the part of the brain that’s responsible for motivation. And yet countless commentators have wondered why young men seem to lack drive or ambition.

Then of course there’s the fact that 42% of children are now born to single mothers. That, plus a nearly 50% divorce rate and an almost universal preference on the part of family courts for maternal custody mean that some 35% of children have little or no relationship with their fathers. What’s wrong with that? A lot, it turns out, including the fact that at least one study has surmised that single mothers have a preference for their female children. Single mothers tend to spend more time - and more quality time - with their daughters, with the predictable result that their sons lag in school.

That lack of male role models doesn’t stop when little Andy starts school. There he’ll find plenty of boys just like him, i.e. those with no father, and of course no male teachers. Indeed, these data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that, before he reaches high school, his chance of having a male teacher are well under one in five.

So, despite the educational bureaucracy’s resistance, a few people who do care about boys in school decided to try all-boy classrooms. Now, there’s no clear proof that all-boy or all-girl classrooms by themselves can fix what ails American education. It’s not the same-sex aspect that works, but how that concept is applied. For example, both in the U.S. and the U.K., boys schools in which the kids are separated into academic teams that compete against each other for the highest marks, the most prizes, etc. show great promise in motivating boys to do their best. The team concept engaged in competition with others brings out the desire in boys to not let down the side. In so doing it creates an internal discipline by peers that discipline by adults can never match.

As Sommers recounts, one such academy in Dallas tried that approach with phenomenal success and now has a waiting list of boys wanting to enroll.

Meanwhile, the ACLU isn’t having it, and it’s citing some pretty shoddy “science” to support its opposition.

What could be wrong with a voluntary program that seems to be doing so much good? Plenty, says the ACLU, and it claims to have research to prove it: a 2011 critique of single-sex education published in the prestigious journal Science.

The Science article is a two-page summary of the state of the literature on single-sex education. That could be useful, except that it was written by eight professors who belong to an advocacy group that opposes single-sex education. The article attempts to persuade readers of two propositions: 1) There is no well-designed research that proves that single-sex education improves academic achievement, and 2) there is good evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and “legitimizes institutional sexism.”

As to research, Sommers is clear that the eight educational ideologues are just flat wrong. In fact there’s plenty of good science to show that single-sex education can improve academic performance.

On the first point, there are in fact many studies that demonstrate the value of single-sex education. A recent article in Demography showed that both men and women benefit significantly from the single-sex model. A 2008 German study found that young women in female-only physics classes developed more confidence and interest in the subject than their counterparts in coed classes. When a group of researchers at Stetson University compared single-sex and coed classes in a Florida elementary school, they documented large gains for both boys and girls in the single-sex classes — but especially boys. Over the four years of the study, 55 percent of boys in coed classes scored proficient on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, compared with 85 percent of boys in the all-boys classes.

For point two, the eight authors of the Science article cited no evidence, a fact that numerous commenters pointed out and the authors were forced to concede.

In a subsequent issue of Science, academic critics faulted the authors for failing to cite any serious research showing that single-sex schools foster sexism. The eight authors conceded the point in their reply: “We agree with [critics] that systematic reviews have yet to address the potential harm of single-sex schools in increasing stereotyping and sexism.”

You have to love an article that (a) falsely claims there’s no research for a particular point and then (b) makes a point for which there’s no research.

Now, Sommers is clear that the science on education and children’s outcomes is anything but clear. The sheer number of variables that go into children’s educational success or failure make it unlikely that there will ever be a single bright star beckoning us to a utopian educational future. Indeed, how much hard science is there for anything we do in schools?

Indeed, most of the research on classroom effects is similarly equivocal and unsettled. Look at the literature on longer vs. shorter school days, more homework vs. less, large vs. small classes — advocates on either side can find vindication in the research. Schools offer parents all sorts of reasonable choices that lack rigorous scientific support: gifted and talented programs, school orchestras, field trips. To say that such programs should be forbidden until all the research lines up in one direction would be a prescription for paralysis and mediocrity.

Which is precisely why we don’t need the ACLU or anyone else limiting the choices parents have about how best to educate their children. What’s good for one isn’t necessarily good for another, as decades of feminized classrooms demonstrate about boys in schools. So the best thing we can do is provide as much legitimate choice as possible to as many children as possible and allow the parents to choose. Sadly, the ACLU thinks that should only apply to the children of the affluent.

The freedom to choose same-sex classrooms was first made possible by four United States senators, all of them women. The idea’s appeal spans not only party affiliation but the liberal/conservative divide as well. Two of the sponsors of the legislation were moderate Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and liberal Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. In a joint 2012 editorial, those two had some choice words for anyone who would deprive less affluent children of the choices afforded their wealthier peers.

“To take single-sex education away from students who stand to benefit is unforgivable.”

Just so. But let’s be clear; as much as single-sex education stands to benefit girls, they need it far less than do boys. After all, girls aren’t the ones lagging in primary and secondary schools, boys are. And young women aren’t the ones shunning college, boys are. So, for whatever reason, the current educational system seems to be substantially more agreeable to girls than to boys. So the ACLU’s strange and indefensible fight against the choice to educate one’s child in a single-sex environment is, above all, a fight against the well-being of boys in public schools. It’s a fight against boys having the freedom to do what serves them best.

A fight against freedom. That’s a strange thing to do for an organization that supposedly protects liberty.

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