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@ Odds

Differences should not drive a curriculum

By Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers
November 23, 2008
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BOSTON School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson plans to create two single-sex public schools: a Young Women's Leadership Academy and a Young Men's Public Service Academy to help prepare boys for careers as police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians.

But Johnson's school reorganization is supposed to cut costs, and single-sex public classrooms are both expensive and unproven. Research shows that gender is a minor factor in a public school's success or failure.

Advocacy groups claim there are major gender differences between boys and girls, that they think, see, and hear differently and process information differently. But this science has been roundly debunked. Peer-reviewed research consistently finds that differences in cognitive abilities between boys and girls are trivial. While the media gravitate to any study that shows even the slightest difference in the brains of boys and girls, they misinterpret the meaning of such findings. A study by some of the nation's most influential researchers, including Diane F. Halpern, Camilla P. Benbow, David C. Geary, Ruben C. Gur, Janet Shibley Hyde, and Morton Ann Gernsbacher, focused on this issue in Science in 2007.

The scientists warn: Finding sex differences in brain structures and functions does not suggest these are the sole cause of observed cognitive differences between males and females. Because the brain reflects learning and experiences, sex differences can be influenced by culture and social expectations.

Unfortunately, some teachers are leaping on the brain-differences bandwagon. A teacher in South Carolina has girls study science by analyzing cosmetics. Some teachers give boys books about combat instead of the classics because of boys' supposed verbal weaknesses.

The Science authors also debunk the comment by former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers that girls are inherently inferior to boys in math and science. They call this idea simplistic and point to the fact that girls are catching up to boys in most areas.

The single-sex classroom is appealing thanks to the success of high-performing private schools. But those schools do well not because of gender, but because they have motivated students, excellent teachers, and involved parents, and because the students often come from affluent homes. When California tried an experiment with public single-sex schools in the '90s, independent evaluators found that they failed to improve student performance, probably because they didn't have extensive resources.

Can single-sex classrooms be good classrooms? Sure, if they have the resources. But such classrooms are expensive to set up and maintain, because federal law requires schools to ensure that the same resources are available for both sexes. And often, segregated classes fall prey to popular but unscientific ideas about how the sexes differ in abilities.

Why opt for the single-sex classrooms in public schools, when we know what really works? Michael Jonas points out in Commonwealth magazine what works in the state's poor but high-performing schools: longer school days, intensive tutoring, giving schools wide latitude over teacher hiring, and setting high expectations for all students.

Wouldn't Boston be better off and save money by admitting both boys and girls to leadership and public service academies? As men and women increasingly work side by side in the labor force, does separating them by sex in public school make much sense?

Rosalind C. Barnett of Brandeis University and Caryl Rivers of Boston University are authors of "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs."

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