Divide and conquer?

May 14, 2002

THE FIFTH-GRADE girls are reading biographies. The boys prefer National Geographic. In their separate classes in Baltimore's Maree Garnett Farring Elementary, the language arts curriculum allows their different interests to guide reading choices.

Both classes are making progress, according to principal Tom Stroschein. That's what matters.

Or is it? Until recently, laws ensuring that boys and girls have equal opportunities in public education often have been interpreted to mean that what's good for one gender is fine for the other.

Never mind research showing that the traditional classroom structure fails many of the youngest boys; that in later grades, some teachers will call on boys more often than girls; that despite strides made since the feminist movement, in science and math, some girls are still left behind. Never mind classroom distractions associated with hormonal hell.

So vocal has been the opposition to change, and so strictly interpreted the law, that single-sex public school programs in some states have been forced to shut down.

Yet there continue to be exceptions, often with parents' blessings: Despite occasional challenges, Baltimore has maintained all-girls Western High School, the last of the city's original single-gender public schools, for 159 years. The city also has its Paquin School for teen-age mothers. And discreetly, about a dozen Baltimore schools, including Farring, have organized single-gender classes in the past decade, with varying degrees of success, and lots of anxiety about running afoul of Title IX.

These experiments won't rankle the Bush administration: With the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government recently endorsed single-sex public schooling, departing from 30 years of thinking on how to ensure educational equality. Anticipated new regulations will make it easier for schools to offer parents this choice, and draw fire from some civil rights and feminist groups.

Yet the choice will be welcome, indeed, if in practice it is an option and not a mandate turning back the clock to a time of stereotyped destinies.

Research suggests that single-sex classrooms can help some students excel, yet it's not clear how a school district would ensure enrollment for those who would benefit most. Quite likely, parents would shop around, raising the stakes and complications for neighborhood-based schools.

Single-sex classes and schools may help some students achieve, and should be an option, but dividing the genders should not be mistaken for a magic wand to conquer public schools' ills. Many schools would discover, as have pioneers in Baltimore, that fluctuating class sizes and budgets are major obstacles to splitting up classes by gender.

This change in federal policy will be positive only if it spurs the development of programs that are as rigorous for girls as boys, and based on sound research and high-quality instruction instead of fad notions about how the genders differ as learners.

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