Single-sex classrooms like these two are appearing all over the country—in public schools. They would seem to breach every modern norm of public education, perhaps even infringe on anti-discrimination statutes. But a little noticed modification in U.S. Department of Education regulations came about in 2006, written precisely for the purposes of giving local school districts flexibility in same-gender education. The new regulations allow public school districts to offer single sex classes—or entire schools—as long as they continued to offer parents and students a coed choice. The regulations were written because of a new provision Congress added to the No Child Left Behind Act. Its authors, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Sen. Hillary Clinton among them, intended to legalize single sex education in public schools—and it has done just that.
Schools from Maine to Washington state have hopped on board, creating some 442 single sex programs, an astronomical increase from a decade ago when only three such programs existed in the nation’s public schools. And no state has embraced this concept more enthusiastically than South Carolina. I took a trip down there last year when many of the schools started offering these classes to see the idea in action.
Their grand experiment began in 2006, the same year the new federal regulations took effect. That November, South Carolina’s voters, frustrated over the under-performing quality of their public schools elected reform-minded educator Jim Rex as State Superintendent of Education. Rex had promised during his campaign to give parents and students more options in public education, including Montessori reading programs, art-intensive curriculums, and foreign language immersion. His credentials to accomplish this mission included an unusually expansive résumé: Not only had he been a high school English teacher and football coach, Rex had also been an administrator in several institutions of higher learning. As president of the Columbia College for Women, Rex had seen the value of the single sex format first-hand and wanted to include it in his menu.
To date, South Carolina counts 199 single-gender programs—classrooms within coed schools, whole academies within schools, and entire schools devoted to this method of teaching—and 190 more in the works. Overseeing this grand experiment is David Chadwell, the country’s first—and only—state coordinator of single gender education. The former middle school teacher was directing an all-boys academy within one of Columbia’s public middle schools when Rex tapped him for the job. Just as he’s explained to hundreds of parents and teachers across the state, Chadwell patiently walks the Manning crowd through how boys and girls perceive the world. (See what he says)
At the time, Chadwell was using mainly science to make his case that separating by sexes fostered learning though the handful of schools that had reported to him. Each cited a significant bump in grades on standardized test scores. In fact, in the all-male third grade class at Manning Primary where Gamble and Garneau teach, most of the boys scored basic and above on the state standardized tests, a definite improvement from the previous year when the classes were mixed.
But now, thanks to the results Chadwell has received from a voluntary survey he sent to all parents, students, and teachers involved with single sex classrooms, he believes he has more evidence that dividing the sexes at school boosts learning. The survey asked the participants to weigh in on whether the new format has increased or improved the students’ self-confidence, desire to succeed in school, interest in trying new ways to learn, independence, participation, ability to succeed, attitude, behavior, and grades.
Two-thirds of the students who responded said that division of sexes helped them in school. Eighty percent of the teachers agreed, as did 75 percent of the parents. The same percentage of parents would keep their children in single-sex classes if the option exists.
Girls, it turns out, were slightly bigger fans of single-gender classes than boys. About three-quarters of female respondents said the classes had increased their confidence, independence and participation, as well as both their desire and ability to succeed.
Caitlin Swanson and Sydney Thompson, fifth graders in an all-girls academy within Columbia’s coed Dent Middle School, help explain the numbers.
“Boys disrupt the class,” says Caitlin. “With girls, there are less interruptions. It’s easier to focus. I’ve kind of forgotten about the boys.”
“When I get up and present, I’m not as nervous or scared,” says Sydney. “All the girls can be comfortable with each other. I can focus.” Both girls say their grades have improved.
In another wing in Dent’s all-boy sixth grade math class, Jonathan Smith doesn’t pause when asked if he likes the arrangement. “Girls talk more. That makes us move slower. It’s a lot more fun without them.”