- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

Single-sex education in public schools: good or bad?The question is moot. Single-sex education in American public schools has been essentially outlawed since the 1972 passage of Title IX, the federal statute that prohibits publicly funded single-sex education. At the time Title IX was passed, most "experts" thought that there were no educationally meaningful differences between the sexes, and therefore no justification for educating boys and girls in separate environments.
Guess what. The experts were wrong. In the 29 years that have passed since Title IX became law, brain scientists as well as educational psychologists have learned just how wrong they were. Recent studies using MRI scans show clearly that the average boy's brain develops much more slowly than the average girl's. Some studies show that the brain of a 17-year-old boy looks like the brain of a 13-year-old girl. The men don't catch up with the women until about age 30.
Given that the girl's brain develops more rapidly than the boy's, it should come as no surprise that girls, on average, acquire language skills more rapidly and proficiently than boys do. As soon as children begin to speak, girls articulate better than boys do. Girls' sentences are also longer and more complex. Girls' superior verbal abilities appear to be independent of culture and race. One South African study found that girls outperformed boys in all verbal tasks studied, and that the size of the sex difference was roughly the same in blacks, whites and Indians.
Another study compared Japanese high schoolers with Americans in Miami. Once again, the girls outperformed the boys by a large margin: and the margin in Japan was nearly identical to that in Miami. Girls get better grades than boys do, on average, in every subject in school, including math and science. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 11th-grade boys write, on average, at the same level as 8th-grade girls.
Additionally, the learning styles of boys and girls differ in ways that are now fairly well understood (and which were not as well recognized in 1972). Girls thrive in noncompetitive, collaborative learning situations; boys are motivated more effectively by competitive environments with clearly defined winners and losers. Girls are more likely to keep records, set goals and consult adults for help in schoolwork; boys are less likely to employ any of these strategies. Girls prefer short stories and novels; boys are more likely to choose illustrated descriptions of the way things work (snakes, spaceships, volcanoes).
There is good reason to believe that these differences in educational style are biologically programmed, reflecting innate neuroanatomical differences between the sexes.
Suppose that the principal of an elementary school wanted to capitalize on these differences. Suppose the principal wanted to take boys who are having problems learning to read, and put them in an all-boys class with books on snakes, spaceships and volcanoes. Such an approach might be successful for boys for whom other approaches have failed. But in this country, it would be illegal to create such a class in a public school. The implementing regulation for Title IX (34 CFR 106.34) states that no school receiving any federal funds shall "provide any course or otherwise carry out any of its education program or activity separately on the basis of sex."
Single-sex schools are all the rage in Britain right now. After the most recent round of nationwide testing, single-sex schools took 39 of the top 40 positions there. The one coed school among the top 40 squeezed in at number 38. Some have suggested that the superior performance of students in single-sex schools stems from the higher socioeconomic class from which such students are often recruited, rather than the single-sex character of the school itself.
The British Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) tested that theory by comparing results from 800 schools, single-sex and mixed. OFSTED found that the superior performance of students in single-sex schools cannot be accounted for by socioeconomic factors, but appears instead to be a direct result of single-sex education. They also found that students in single-sex schools have a significantly more positive attitude toward learning.
This remarkable study, which understandably garnered considerable press in Britain, has never been mentioned in any American newspaper. British Education Secretary David Blunkett has suggested greatly expanding the number of publicly funded single-sex schools. In the United States, however, a proposal merely to study the effects of single-sex education, on a trial basis, runs afoul of Title IX.
In principle, research should guide the formation of policy. In the case of education, we have a bizarre inversion: policy and political correctness constrain research. Because Title IX says that schools cannot administer their programs separately on the basis of sex, few American researchers dare to investigate whether girls and boys would benefit if programs were administered separately on the basis of sex.
We have come a long way in the 29 years since Title IX became law. We now know that sex differences in brain development are real, and that these sex differences have real consequences for the way children learn. If we continue to ignore those differences, we are doing a disservice to children, both girls and boys. It's time to rethink, and rewrite, Title IX.

Leonard Sax is a physician and psychologist practicing in Montgomery County.

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