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When Separate Can Be Equal -- and Better
September 3, 2002
by Tresa McBee

Watching status-quo folks scurry to defend failure is so much fun.

Especially when theyıre working super hard to stem a tide they canıt stop, such as the probable creation of more single-sex public schools.

In a stunning break with how governmental bureaucracies normally work, the behemoth U.S. Department of Education is considering offering choice by changing how the 30-year-old Title IX statute is enforced. Because Title IX outlaws discrimination based on gender, single-sex schools have been discouraged. Law currently allows federal funds to be used for single-sex education as long as comparable opportunities exist for both sexes. "Comparable" is the key, because how that's defined can make single-sex efforts expensive and difficult.

But now, the ed feds think they just might allow local districts more latitude to determine what comprises a comparable education. Still no firm details, though, because we're waiting for new regulations. As Education Secretary Rod Paige told The Washington Times in May, "This is a complex and sensitive issue that requires a considerable amount of consultations." Translation: Special-interest groups must be conferred with repeatedly, and governmentspeak takes time to draft.

But positive behavior must be enforced, so kudos to officials who pay attention to the benefits single-sex education provides.

In a public-education world where -- to name only a few appalling examples -- Baltimore's abysmal schools were taken over by the state in 1997 and the same might happen in Maryland's Prince George's County; Philadelphia's public schools will undergo privatization this fall after repeatedly producing some of the worst-educated students; and half of New York's high school students fail to graduate on time and almost a third never graduate, some parents seek options.

And they've found single-sex classrooms are a solution. So have educators.

Examples abound, even if the actual number of single-sex programs is only about a dozen. The Young Women's Leadership School in East Harlem, N.Y., began in 1996 and serves mostly minority girls from low-income families. Attendance rates hover above 90 percent, higher than any other school in the district. Teenage pregnancy is rare. Most graduates are at four-year colleges, many on full scholarships, and most are the first in their families to attend college.

Last year, Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle began a pilot program in which boys and girls were separated in some classrooms. Suspension of boys dropped, and their test scores rose. Behavior problems have dipped, and stability and security are better. Seventy-three percent of boys in the pilot program passed the state standards, whereas 25 percent would be good in the school's co-ed classes.

Behavior and grades have improved among students who study separately at San Francisco 49ers Academies in East Palo Alto, Calif., and they are less likely to skip school or drop out. And since Jefferson Leadership Academies in Long Beach, Calif., split classrooms by gender, its overall standardized-test score has improved 16 percent. It's still below state average for middle schools, but higher among urban schools with similar demographics.

That's important, because research suggests single-sex schools especially benefit certain students. Cornelius Riordan, Providence College sociology professor, recently told The Washington Post that the consequences of single-sex schooling are "significant for students who are or have been historically or traditionally disadvantaged -- minorities, low- and working-class youth and females (so long as the females are not affluent)."

In other words, many of the children we've admitted to leaving behind in the very name of the recently passed No Child Left Behind Act. Children for whom choice doesn't exist.

Objections to single-sex education, of course, are many, mostly from gender groups that cry separate can never be equal and whine that we'd never tolerate such separation based on race all the while ignoring that race doesn't determine learning differences but gender most certainly can. It's why boys tend to the rowdy physical and girls the chatty social. It's why boys choose to read "All's Quiet on the Western Front," and girls pick "Pride and Prejudice."

The folly of the separate-can't-be-equal protestation is wonderfully illustrated in the comment of a National Education Association spokeswoman, who told The Washington Times that the NEA wants co-ed classroom equality for boys and girls with special "attention paid to making sure that the curriculum does not dumb down." Ha! That happened years ago, lady. Any more dumbing down, and we should keep our kids home.

My favorite objection, however, has to be that putting students in same-sex classes doesn't prepare them to interact in the real world, implying that co-education automatically does. Which it doesn't. The world is full of people of both genders who are easily threatened and thrown off by confidence and conviction. Co-ed schooling doesn't make dealing with such people any easier. Trust me.

Single-sex education isn't for every student. But it does work for some, and blocking their access to any opportunity is wrong.

Defensive status-quo folks illuminate just how wrong.

Tresa McBee is a columnist at the Northwest Arkansas Times. She can be reached at tresam@nwarktimes.com.

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