Not everyone gives an 'A' to single-gender classrooms

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Sunday, December 11, 2011
— Marshall Middle School is into its fifth year of an experiment in single-sex education, a practice under attack from some who say it doesn't work and could harm students.

Janet Hyde, an authority on the role of gender in education at UW-Madison calls single-sex education theory "pseudoscience."

"Sex-segregated education is deeply misguided and often justified by weak, cherry-picked or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence," Hyde and her co-authors wrote in a recent article.

The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education says single-sex classes can break down gender stereotypes, but Hyde said it makes them worse.

Studies show boys and girls read great importance into what adults do, Hyde said, so when they see boys and girls separated, they make assumptions.

By placing girls and boys in separate math classes, "you're basically telling the boys that the girls aren't as good at math and need special help," Hyde said.

Later in life, that kind of prejudice could mean a qualified woman doesn't get a job because the man hiring her thinks men are better at certain tasks, Hyde said.

Hyde said analyses of mountains of data have not shown that single-sex classrooms are any better at producing better test scores.

Test scores at Marshall have been inconclusive, with no definitive evidence that students in single-sex rooms do better or worse on standardized tests than students in coed classes down the hall.

About 250 of the school's 600 seventh- and eighth-graders take their core subjects in single-sex classrooms.

Teachers and parents in the program seem as dedicated as ever to the theory that girls learn better when separated and taught differently from boys, and vice versa.

"The parent support has been very positive. They feel this has been a nice intervention for their child to be successful," said Principal Synthia Taylor.

Mike Morgan, who taught coed classes for 16 years at Marshall, was among the first teachers to teach single-sex classes in 2007.

Morgan said his students are better at getting their work done, and they get better grades. He attributes that to a sense of common purpose and positive peer pressure.

Girls who "shut down" in coed classrooms have their hands up all the time in single-sex classes, Morgan said, and girls take on leadership roles rather than deferring to boys.

"It actually helps me focus," said seventh-grader Kylie Sievers, who is in her second year of single-sex education. She said boys would flick erasers at her and do other distracting things in fifth grade.

Sievers notes she's not totally separated from boys. Marshall's non-core classes, such as gym and tech ed, are coed.

Boys do better, too, Morgan said.

"You get them engaged, and it's just amazing."

"If girls aren't in there, it doesn't distract me as much," said seventh-grader Logan Christensen. "I pay more attention."

Seventh-grade teacher Tricia Reif said girls find reading enjoyable because she selects books that suit their tastes, and that improves reading scores.

Hyde has observed classes at Marshall.

"I was very impressed with the principal and the teachers," Hyde said. "I think they've had the best of intentions, and I think they've been somewhat misled."

Taylor said the program costs no more than coed classes. The district in the past paid for teachers to learn the techniques, but no expenses have been incurred recently.

Parents choose the program, and officials said kids get a good education in coed classrooms as well.

"Single gender is not for everyone," Reif said.

Rather, it's an attempt to meet the needs of students who do well in that environment.

Hyde said what educators should be doing is working against gender stereotypes by giving boys and girls opportunities to work cooperatively, something they'll be doing when they go to work, "rather than this radical experiment with single sex."

Last updated: 7:08 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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