By Judy Molland
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Ben Wright talks with pride about the drastic changes he made at the elementary school where he served as principal.
“We turned the school upside down,” he says. “The environment in the school changed overnight; participation shot up; the name-calling, the social behavior completely changed. The focus on academics went way, way up.”
What exactly did he do?
Four years ago, Wright’s students were doing poorly on standardized tests – only 10 percent of the boys had passed the reading text. None of the girls had passed the test for math. So Wright decided to reinvent his school – with single-sex classrooms. In one year, the percentage of boys passing the reading test rose to 73 percent; the percent of girls passing the math shot up to 55 percent.
“It not only works,” Wright says, “in my opinion, it’s the only way to fly in America right now when we have so many kids who are not making it.”
Education reform required by the nation’s No Child Left Behind law is among the factors forcing educators to re-examine their teaching practices. Along with placing students in single-sex settings, public schools nationwide have also been experimenting with academic tracking, or ability grouping, and looping, in which teachers advance from grade to grade along with students.
Self-Esteem in Single-Sex Classes
Supporters of single-gender classes say these set-ups lead to improved test scores and greater self-esteem because teachers tailor their instruction to the different learning styles of girls and boys.
The number of public schools nationwide offering single-sex options has quadrupled in the past three years, according to Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. There are currently 25 public schools, in 16 different states, that are entirely single-sex, while at least 63 public schools in 22 states offer some single-sex classrooms.
The Jefferson Leadership Academies in Long Beach, Calif., opened in 1999 and now serve about 500 girls and 500 boys in grades 6 through 8. Virtually all of the classes here are single-gender, with the exception of an occasional fine arts or music class, says school Principal Helen Compton-Harris. At each grade level, students are divided into groups of 70: 35 girls and 35 boys; one teacher instructs core English and history classes, while another teaches core math and science courses. The two teachers share the same 70 students to ensure equal access and opportunity. The curriculum is the same for boys and girls, but the way the classes are taught may be different. For example, since boys generally fare better at spatial skills, they may learn geometric shapes best by creating 3-D models. Girls, on the other hand, tend to excel by discussing and analyzing the shapes.
Parents seem pleased with the system at Jefferson Leadership Academies; all spaces were filled two months before the school originally opened, and there is now a waiting list of about 200 students who hope to enroll.
And the students? “The girls tell me that they ask more questions in class and are more involved,” Compton-Harris says. “They don’t feel like a boy is going to put them down because they ask a question. And the boys tell me the same thing – they don’t want to look stupid in front of the girls.”
While the classroom atmosphere has improved, so has academic achievement. Test scores on statewide exams have increased consistently over the five years since the school began, with the most dramatic rise noticed in math scores, Compton-Harris says. She adds that other factors, including the implementation of school uniforms, may have also contributed to the improved scores.
Not all educators agree on the benefits of single-sex schooling, however. In their landmark 1998 report, Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls, the American Association of University Women found that there is “no evidence in general that single-sex education works or is better for girls than co-education.” In addition, many parents feel that with the real world filled with both sexes, they would prefer that their children learn to succeed in a co-ed environment.