A Look at Single Sex Classrooms

The boys in veteran teacher Aba Wallace’s first grade class at South Kilbourne Elementary in Columbia, South Carolina, are learning

A group of boys studies at one table while a group of girls studies at the other at their school library.

The boys in veteran teacher Aba Wallace’s first grade class at South Kilbourne Elementary in Columbia, South Carolina, are learning to spell the word ‘air.’

“Let me hear you say it,” she says. Wallace speaks in an authoritative, loud voice, a marked contrast to her delicate frame, as she walks among the desks in the chilly room on a clear day last December. Though some limbs flail about for no obvious reason, every six-year-old’s eyes are glued to her.

“I didn’t hear you.” Her voice rises. “Use those books!”

All fifteen boys pick up their textbooks and thump their diminutive desks as they yell out each letter in unison.

“A!”

“ I!”

“ R!”

The volume is startling.

“Get up and stand behind those chairs,” she commands, finger pointed upward. “Now, stomp it!” The boys stamp their feet, one time for each letter.

“Now, clap it!” They comply.

“Run it!” She demonstrates by jogging in place. The boys jog and spell at the same time.

“Gentlemen, take your seats. Well done.” They scramble to their seats. Saxophone music from a computer in the classroom, drowned out a moment ago by this call-and-response, suddenly seems loud.

Down the hall, the girls in Carol Anderson’s second grade classroom are sitting in groups of three and four. The lights are lower, the thermostat toasty. Only quiet whispers permeate the calm. Anderson perches in a chair at the head of the class, writing sentences on an LCD projector with a blank in the middle for the girls to fill in from a list of vocabulary words. Her students push their colorful pencils topped with thick, spongy erasers across their tablets.

“Raise your hands when you have the answer,” she says, nearly monotone. All students thrust their hands in the air at once.

“Give me a sentence using the word ‘source’.” Hands wave, eager for recognition.

“Where did you get your source for your project,” says a pigtailed girl, quietly confident.

“Very good.” Calmly, almost melodically, Anderson announces that it’s time to leave for extra help with reading. A small group of girls stand and shuffle from the room. Aside from the scrapping of the chairs, they make little noise filing out into the hall. The others resume the vocabulary lesson without missing a beat. Anderson’s voice never fluctuates more than a few decibels. The sound of pages turning in a reporter’s notebook seems a violation of the serenity.

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.”

One Monday night that December, we visited a primary school in Manning, a small town 65 miles east of Columbia to talk to parents who have the option of enrolling their seven-and eight-years olds in single sex classes. Two second grade teachers there, Holly Garneau and Anna Lynne Gamble, had heard Chadwell speak a few months earlier about the physical and cognitive differences in growing children and strategies they could use to accommodate them. Curious about what they learned, they started experimenting immediately by separating boys and girls within their classes—and were amazed at the results.

“There’s much less tattling,” says Gamble immediately. “The kids enjoy being with the same sex for projects and group work. They seem to know how to help each other better.”

Leaving aside teaching methodology for a moment, single-sex education pits two powerful trends in American public life against one another. The first is the increasingly insistent demand that the nation’s public schools do a much better job of educating the nation’s young, especially those most at risk of falling behind. Doing so requires reform, risk, and challenging the status quo. It was why the No Child Left Behind Law, although opposed by teachers unions, enjoyed broad bipartisan support when Congress passed it overwhelmingly in 2001. The other prevailing wind is a generations-long struggle to dismantle the barriers long associated with sexism in American society. Some of those on the frontlines of this struggle believe that single-sex education sends a confusing message, moves in the wrong direction, and simply codifies sexual stereotypes instead of challenging them.

“[Single sex programs] grossly characterize all girls and all boys and don’t take into account differences in the individual,” says Lenora Lapidus, the director of the women’s rights project for the American Civil Liberties Union. Lapidus believes public fund could be better spent on teacher training and smaller classes.

“It’s not conclusive that these programs bring about the successes they’re touted for,” Lapidus adds, “Boys’ classes will be very dynamic. Girls will be missing out. It’s not right.”

Michigan offers fifteen single gender programs around the state. The Detroit International Academy, a high school for girls located in the heart of the inner-city, has lured students from the suburbs and has doubled enrollment since it began three years ago. Felica Ali sees a stark difference in her fifteen-year-old daughter Jazzmine since she switched from a co-ed school to be with all girls.

“There was a struggle in the beginning because she wasn‘t used to the environment, but now I‘m watching her bloom,“ she says. “She‘s more outgoing, she doesn‘t worry about her hair, nails, appearance. She‘s focused on academics, not boys.” She adds that the format has been such a hit with her daughter that the 15-year-old now says she wants to attend an all women’s college.

Detroit’s example keeps good company. A similarly structured school, The Young Women’s Leadership School located in New York City’s Harlem, opened its doors in 1996 before the legality of public single sex schools in the United States was entirely clear. Most of the girls, grades seven through twelve, came from impoverished families. Many attended remedial classes. Nevertheless, the attendance rate—over 95%—is higher than any other school in the district. Out of the seven graduating classes, all were accepted to college with many receiving full scholarships. Over 90% of these graduates were the first in their family to go to college.

Back at South Kilbourne where Carol Anderson and Aba Wallace teach, Principal Sarah Smith says her school had major discipline problems with the first and second graders last year. The kids were so talkative and disruptive, they kept getting time-outs. But this year, since she’s implemented the single sex classes in those grades, they’ve had no discipline problems. Zero. Smith considers this a huge victory. “How can they learn to read if they’re constantly out of class?” she asks.

Leonard Sax is a pediatrician and psychologist in suburban Maryland who noticed an influx of second and third grade boys parading through his office for ADD evaluations. He found that many of them didn’t need medication. They needed, he wrote in his first book Why Gender Matters, “a teacher who understood the hard-wired differences in how girls and boys learn,” Drawing on research showing that boys don’t hear as well as girls, Sax thought that perhaps the reason had more to do with them sitting in the back of the room and a soft-spoken teacher than any learning disability or behavioral disorder.

Intrigued, Sax began to investigate how physical differences in girls and boys can affect childhood learning. Eventually, Sax came to believe that educators could address these differences if they wanted to – and, clearly, many did – but was bothered by the fact that most all-boys and all-girls schools were private.

So six years ago, he helped create a non-profit to train, in part, public educators to maximize learning single sex classes. There are benefits at every age, for both sexes, but the benefits are most dramatic for boys in kindergarten through grade 8, and for girls in grades 6 through 12.

According to Sax, girls’ educational horizons are narrowed during the middle school years. “I’ve seen girls who were really interested in computers or math in fifth grade, but three or four years later the same girl will tell you ‘computers are for guys.’ But if they attend an all-girls school during those crucial years, odds are much higher they will retain that interest or develop even more.”

Boys also benefit, but in very different ways, Sax says. In coed schools, it’s common for kindergarten teachers to ask students to sit still and be quiet for an hour or longer. “That’s just not developmentally appropriate, particularly for boys,” says Sax. “In an all-boys class, where their needs can be accommodated, boys can get off to a much better start.”

Sax is fully aware of concerns that publicly funded single-sex classes will hamper social equality and feed gender-based stereotypes. He even shares some of those worries himself. “Just putting the girls in one room and the boys in another accomplishes very little if the teachers don’t have any preparation in how to lead single-sex classes,” he says.

Sax says schools that prepare for the gender-separate format by seeing that teachers have proper training and engage the parents in the process have enormous success, both academically and otherwise. “Boys are more willing to show emotion, to read poetry out loud, to share their feelings. Girls show more interest in taking apart computers and building bridges,” he says. “Both girls and boys show more interest in a wider range of educational opportunities.”

A second, perhaps more substantive, critique of Sax work centers on questions about whether the science itself actually reveals the kind of physical differences that warrant single sex programs.

Mark Liberman, a phonetician and computational linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, has analyzed the data relied upon by Sax and other social scientists – and has come away skeptical.

“Misrepresentation is found again and again in the literature of the current movement for single sex education,” Liberman says. “If you look across the full range of cognitive and perceptual tests in school-age children, you’ll find some where there is no significant difference between boys and girls, and others where there is a difference in the group average that is a small proportion of the variation.” These negligible differences shouldn’t be used as rationale for separating the sexes, Liberman maintains, noting that several other individual scientists agree with him.

Even if the science doesn’t ultimately prove the case, David Chadwell,still believes in his mission to provide single sex options for every one of South Carolina’s kids, and is thrilled to see that, for the most part, his approach appears to be succeeding.

“We probably will never be able to say for sure if each strategy is responding to brain differences, but the bottom line is what matters,” he says. “When teachers use these techniques, it makes a difference in the child.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest