Friday, March 27, 2009

Boys and girls together?

by Elizabeth Winkler

In the last few weeks, the New York Times has featured several articles on the debate surrounding single-sex education in public schools. Based on somewhat inconclusive research, principals at several struggling city schools have opted to experiment with splitting boys and girls’ classes in the hope that the change might improve test scores, as well as overall behavior. The opportunity to make – or at least experiment with – these changes was brought about by a 2004 federal regulatory change that granted public schools the freedom to separate the sexes.

The potential advantages of single-sex education have been widely debated and yet conclusive results are hard to come by. In NYC public schools, test scores have not seen dramatic improvement, though teachers do report noticeably better behavior on both sides of the gender separation. The idea, of course, is that boys will focus better without female distraction, and that girls – often quiet and slow to participate in co-ed environments – will gain confidence in their own academic and leadership abilities.

Kim Gandy, president of NOW, notes that the problem with this system lies in its potential to reinforce gender stereotypes: “A boy who has never been beaten by a girl on an algebra test could have some major problems having a female supervisor.”

In fact, some troubling teaching methods already seem to be arising in P.S. 140. In the NYT article, Mr. Napolitano, the math teacher of 23 fifth-grade boys reports the benefits of being “more stern” with an all-boy class: unlike with girls, he can “get in their face” and yell, “You – let me see you trying! Come on, faster!”

Compare this with the female teacher and her pupil across the hall: “This is so sloppy, honey… Remember what I spoke to you about? About being the bright shining star that you are?”

Mr. Napolitano is a strong advocate of the single-sex system: “There’s an aspect of male bonding, a closeness that we wouldn’t otherwise have… I feel more like I am teaching them about right from wrong than I might have normally.” While the “morality” factor mentioned here is not offensive, it certainly seems a little strange; one would think that issues of honor and integrity can easily bridge the gender gap. But then the kind of “right” and “wrong” Mr. Napolitano is referring to becomes clear: it’s about teaching the boys “part of being a young man.”

Asked to comment on the advantages of an all-boys class, one boy responded, “I am learning how to be a man.” In the girls’ classroom, there was no mention of “learning” how to be a woman. In fact, there was no mention of “women” at all. In fact, instead of the male-bonding reported in the boys’ classroom, the girls comments focused primarily on what the 11-year-olds referred to as “drama.” (This, in the form of catty, exclusive behavior.) The NYT reporter comments on the idea of a “sisterhood,” but the evidence from inside the classroom indicates the presence of little sisterly bonding.

The article ends on a hopeful note (a teacher notes, “even when there is an argument brewing, they can get past it”), but it in fact contains much more disturbing information than the reporter seems to notice, let alone question and discuss.

First there’s the in-your-face yelling at boys versus the sweet, “honey” talk to the girls. Then, the idea of “teaching manhood.” This implies that it’s both something constructed and somehow artificial (not the organic process of maturation), and that boys have to harden-up (through all the yelling and tough-talk) in order to reach the point of noble, hard-headed masculinity.

But what struck me most was the subtle, underlying association between morality and masculinity, knowing “right from wrong” and “being a man,” that found absolutely no correlation in the female setting. While the idea of being a man carries all sorts of connotations of honor, respect, moral fiber, etc., the idea of being a woman is weak and sexualized at best. There’s no notion of teaching the girls to “be a woman,” since, of course, one wonders whether that is really a positive thing at all. (I.e.: You might teach them honor, but what association does that have to being a woman? In this context, the ideas are almost – and this might be arguable – but they are spoken of as if contradictory.)

Instead of teaching the girls an honorable notion of womanhood, single-sex education is aimed at helping them keep up with the boys and remove them from the boys’ sight in order to lessen that oh-so-insidious female distraction. In fact, Mr. Napolitano remarked that having the girls absent actually added to his ability to teach moral issues to the boys.

The problem here is not so much single-sex education itself (as the product of an all-girls, Catholic school, I can attest to its benefits), but the way it is being discussed. And the way it is being discussed uncovers the very problems that the notion of single-sex education was formulated to address. As long as it simply transplants and distills these divisive, gendered ideas, one wonders if single-sex education is really transforming education, or simply fueling dangerous stereotypes in an even more concentrated environment.


At March 27, 2009 at 4:08 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...

Super post. I really enjoyed it. You are right, we shouldn't be focusing on the efficacy of single-sex teaching, or at least not exculsively(personally, I liked my school's way, where the first two years, I think, were mandatory sex-separation, while the second two years were mixed classes cause the schools were right next to each other, Catholic btw). You bring up very good points. Some of the quotes are very troubling indeed. Thanks

At March 28, 2009 at 2:50 PM , Anonymous Anna Grace said...

Hey Elizabeth, it's Anna!
This reminds me of the conventional wisdom (for which I don't have a source) that segregating by gender benefits girls and disadvantages boys: girls speak up more and gain in confidence, while boys lose out on the socializing influences that women, mild-mannered as we are, tend to have on them and instead become more competitive and rowdy. I don't know what to make of this, exactly - for one, it does seem to support our assumptions about girls and boys as sweet and rowdy, respectively. I guess I would suggest that teachers in boys' classrooms combat whatever rowdiness is there (because I don't think the assumptions are entirely unfounded) by creating a different kind of classroom culture.


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