Today’s New York Times and Washington Post both feature articles summarizing a recent report commissioned by the American Association of University Women entitled, “Where the girls are.” According to the Post the authors of the report found that: the literacy gap between boys and girls is not new nor is it increasing; a gender gap still exists favoring boys in math; the percentages of students scoring at higher levels of proficiency on the NAEP are rising for both boys and girls; students from lower-income families are less likely to be proficient in math and reading but gender differences vary significantly by race and ethnicity; there is virtually no difference between boys and girls entering college immediately after high school. Further, to the degree that the academic performance of girls has improved over the last several decades (in math, for example), these gains have not been achieved at the expense of boys (“Where the girls are,” Executive Summary).
Whatever the facts, there is a widespread perception that there is a “boy crisis” in our schools. The Washington Post quotes incoming Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, Paul Reville who observes that “we just have a variety of indicators that should cause us to be alarmed and to recognize that there is a real gap, and quite possibly a growing gap, between boys and girls that is going to take some concerted effort.” To alleviate this “crisis” gender segregated schools and classrooms have been established in Boston and elsewhere in the nation. Presumably, all male classes will focus on pedagogical practices that are most effective with boys. It is further assumed that all male schools and classrooms can encourage boys by focusing on writing topics, for example, that are most interesting to boys.
The problem is, of course, that there are no pedagogical practices that are effective with all boys (or all girls). There are no interests shared only by boys – and not girls. Nor do all boys respond to stricter discipline or even male teachers. Whether or not there is a “boy crisis” in our schools, no educational reform can proceed on the assumption that there are essential gender differences between boys and girls. There are not. But there are significant individuals differences among boys and girls which suggest that all students are best served when we can structure schools and classrooms to better meet the needs of INDIVIDUAL students. Reading and Writing Workshops, for example, give teachers opportunities to work with students individually and in small groups based on careful, ongoing assessment of each student’s needs. Whole class instruction and one-size-fits-all curricula do not.
I have another worry about single-sex classrooms and schools. Public education isn’t just about educational achievement. In the ideal, public schools allow people from different backgrounds and different experiences to get to know each other. Segregated schooling of any kind (by gender, race, ethnicity, language, etc.) does little to promote understanding and respect for the differences that makes each of us interesting people, and, increasingly, separate us. Unfortunately, as Jonathon Kozol documents in his book, Shame of the Nation, racially and economically segregated schools are already a plague on American education and, more seriously, American democracy. Same-sex schools and classrooms may only make this situation worse.