- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The cheer of Christmas may wear off fast for some folks in Washington. The city is talking about closing nearly two dozen public schools, and for many parents it will be tough to see their neighborhood school shuttered. But the closings, spurred by declining enrollments and mandates of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, also present a unique opportunity. Fresh ideas will fill old buildings. One approach making a comeback in public schools around the country is single-sex education. It deserves to be an option in some of the new District schools.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty and public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee propose to close currently under-enrolled and chronically failing schools in the District, adding new programs and new schools in their stead. Explaining the decision, the mayor and chancellor said that they sought to “overhaul the city’s poor performing public schools by delivering new, innovative programs.” Included in the closure proposal are plans to introduce Montessori education in at least two schools, a “gifted education” program in another and increased art and music programs in several more.

The closures are driven in part by NCLB, which requires public schools to make major changes after five years of failure to achieve adequate academic progress. Mrs. Rhee has suggested that the failing schools could be turned over to an outside education management firm, which would run the schools as public charters. Charter schools, freed from a one-size-fits-all model and much of the city’s notorious school bureaucracy, have more flexibility to utilize the “new, innovative programs” which are essential for reform. Thanks to NCLB, one of those programs could be single-sex education.

Educating boys and girls in separate schools, or in separate classes in the same school, has a long tradition in American education, and is an option widely available in public schools in other countries, including England and Australia. But Title IX, the 37-word amendment to the American Higher Education Act of 1965 which so controversially affected schools’ athletic teams, sounded the death knell for single-sex public education; by 1995 only three public schools nationwide offered such options.

However last fall, supported by the 2001 NCLB law, the U.S. Department of Education approved changes to federal Title IX regulations. The changes give public schools, especially charter schools, the flexibility to implement an all-boys and all-girls strategy. The National Association for Single Sex Education reports that 366 public schools now offer such opportunities in the United States These schools have sprung up despite some very zealous opponents.

Witness the recent showdown over a proposed single-sex charter school in Philadelphia. The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Women’s Law Project and the American Association of University Women were quick to oppose the school as illegal and immoral, claiming that it would reinforce culturally assigned gender roles on both sexes.

The charge of illegality was refuted by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, which approved the school, and they claimed harmful gender stereotyping is refuted by much evidence. A 2003 University of Virginia study found that boys in all-boys schools were more than twice as likely to pursue interests in art and music, areas that are characterized as “gender-counterintuitive.” And a recent four-year Cambridge University study of 50 schools found that girls’ schools are breaking down gender stereotypes. One British student explained that in her all girls school it is “far less embarrassing when doing talks if the blokes aren’t there to rubbish you.” Without all that “rubbishing” going on, many students also benefit academically from an all-male or all-female environment.

Washington currently has two public schools offering single-sex options. The Septima Clark Public Charter School is an all-boys K-8th-grade school, and the Hope Community Charter offers middle-school students single-sex classes. Septima Clark explains that it opened its school in response to the “educational crisis” facing boys and young men; elementary-school boys in southeast Washington are three times as likely as girls to be suspended, and less than 25 percent read or compute at grade level. These schools are providing a different learning environment that works better for some students.

Charter-school leaders typically claim that their biggest problem in creating a new school is finding a suitable building and the money for it. Fortunately, the Washington Business Journal reports that the public school closures will open up 2.2 million square feet of building space on some 75 acres of land. That’s plenty of room for more charter schools to offer boys or girls an educational setting that works better for them. It would make a nice belated Christmas gift for many of D.C.’s students and parents.

Phil Brand is director of Education Watch at the Capital Research Center.

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