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The Trouble with Boys-Only Schooling

Advocates say parents should be able to choose single-sex public schools. It's not clear if that's a good choice

Joe Corrigan/Getty Images Entertainment

Ever since conservatives began describing plans to privatize public education as a matter of “school choice,” dubious pedagogies have been using the phrase in their own defenses. And while some initiatives, such as the most successful charter schools, deliver much-touted results, many others entrench the disparities between rich and poor, minorities and whites, that education reformers hope to erase. One of the latest brands of education seeking safe passage from the choice movement mandates a different kind of separation: boys from girls. 

Single-sex education has taken off in public schools in the U.S., especially in disadvantaged areas where parents are least satisfied with the options they already have. There are an estimated 500 programs in the country today, up from just a handful a decade ago. And across the country and the political spectrum, proponents of single-sex education are wielding choice arguments, and winning. In October, former Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski editorialized in The Wall Street Journal, “Attempts to eliminate single-sex education are equivalent to taking away students’ and parents’ choice about one of the most fundamentally important aspects of childhood and future indicators of success—a child’s education.” School choice has been a buzzword in cities setting single-sex programs in motion this year, from Boston, to Austin, to Palm Beach. “Some parents already have the choice—but only if they can afford a private school,” said Democratic East Boston representative Carlo Basile. “I think all parents should have the choice, regardless of their ability to pay for education.”

While single-sex education was a cause célèbre for feminists in the 1990s, the version popular today took root in the early 2000s as a way to reverse the tide of boys—especially low-income minority boys—who were falling behind. As fear of a “boy crisis” mounted, an unexpected trend hopped on its coattails: a theory of single-sex education based on unproven brain science, which claimed that boys and girls could not be taught effectively using the same methods because of fundamental differences in the structures of their brains. Though these claims have been debunked over the last decade, they’re alive in schools today, and their advocates demand as much deference as any other educational “choice.” They’ve produced a hubbub of controversy, but not the promised silver bullet.

The single-sex education theorist with the most establishment clout is Leonard Sax, an MD-PhD whose 2005 Why Gender Matters was edited by conservative paladin Adam Bellow and swooned over by New York Times columnist David Brooks. The most prolific is probably Michael Gurian, who has no discernable science background but calls himself “the people’s philosopher,” and who published twenty-two books about sex differences, six on education, between 1999 and 2012. Gurian also runs a summer institute for teachers, and Sax built a non-profit around himself, called the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), complete with annual conferences and an academic journal.1 Both have travelled the country “consulting” with schools that implement their theories.

The debate over single-sex schooling has long divided the world of private education—does it foster confidence and openness, or fail to prepare students for a co-ed world?—but these public schools raise different issues. Sax’s first book claims that girls’ ears are more sensitive than boys’; that girls’ eyes are adapted to see facial expressions while boys’ are better at perceiving action. He has instructed teachers across the country to speak more loudly and energetically to boys than to girls; to encourage boys but not girls to run around during class; to keep boys’ classrooms cold and bright, and girls’ classrooms warm and softly illuminated. In 2008, he told a New York Times reporter that boys struggle because schools are taught by “soft-spoken women who bore” them. Boys like “pure math,” but “to get girls the same age excited…you need to connect it with the real world.” And “girls and boys respond to threat and confrontation” differently, because stress “enhances the growth of neural connections in the male hippocampus” but shuts down the female one. Therefore, yell at boys, but be gentle with girls. Boys learn by competing; girls by collaborating. Gurian, too, says that boys are gifted with abstract reasoning, while girls are naturally concrete thinkers. He goes so far as to argue that boys are better at math because they get daily “surges of testosterone,” and girls can only keep up when they are comparably flooded with estrogen (at that time of the month). “[M]ales dominate (race, culture, etc. does not have a significant bearing) on abstract-mechanical, abstract-spatial, abstract-geographical reasoning as well as many of the other markers of abstract vs. sensorial,” he wrote to me in an email.

The scientific community has attacked Sax, Gurian, and their lot for hyperbole, and downright absurdity. A group of psychologists and neuroscientists wrote an article in Science magazine debunking their claims as “deeply misguided” and “justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence.” Their tactic, critics say, is to take a tiny difference, only discernable in a lab, and amplify it into an explanation for stereotypes and conventional truths already rooted in our culture. “Arguing for separate schools because of the small sex difference in hearing sensitivity is just dopey,” the author of a study on auditory thresholds Sax regularly cites wrote in an email to one of the Science article’s authors. An author of another study Sax likes to pull from, about brain development, wrote scathingly: “certainly all of my studies argue against Dr. Sax and do not support him … Taking one sentence out of thousands of hundreds and then distorting that one sentence to support an absurd idea that is contrary to main findings of the study is what unethical people do.” 2

In the face of this opprobrium, Sax retreated. He published a list of “updates and corrections” on the Why Gender Matters website (he told me he tried to get Doubleday to reissue the book to reflect his current views, but they said no), and his subsequent books, Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge, moved away from cognitive science and toward observations of classrooms he visited (sometimes in places far afield, such as England and Australia). But his original arguments—including his analyses of the hearing and brain development studies—still appear, unqualified, on his website, and in his first book, which remains in print. And while many of his pronouncements are a decade old, they’re riddled with cautionary tales that compel parents just as urgently today. Why Gender Matters opens with the “true stories” of a bright five-year-old boy who refuses to go to school and a teenage golden girl who tries to commit suicide—all because their schooling is at odds with their brains.

Across America, parents and teachers are still reading these horror stories and their purported solutions. A principal who brought single-sex education to her middle school just outside of Cleveland, Ohio told me she followed Sax and Gurian’s advice, word for word. “Dr. Sax, Why Gender Matters—that’s like our Bible,” she said.3 An Associated Press article from the summer described an Idaho school where, “when preparing for a test, the boys may go for a run, or engage in some other activity, while the girls are more likely to do calming exercises, such as yoga.” These classrooms made headlines last spring and summer when the ACLU sent cease-and-desist letters to school boards and represented a West Virginia family in a lawsuit against a middle school, claiming that a daughter with ADD was reprimanded for fidgeting while boys were encouraged to get up and move. Another girl with poor eyesight could not see in her dim classroom. The ACLU won the battle but lost the war: The judge ruled that the opt-out structure of the program did not comply with federal standards, which require single-sex programs to be voluntary with an equivalent co-ed alternative, but did not pass judgment on the theories at work. 4

Those theories might be more palatable if, as their advocates argue, they produced results. But critics of single-sex schools claim that their successes are propelled by self-selecting parents and teachers, and by the enthusiasm that comes with trying something new. If you control for such variables, they say, single-sex schools get the same scores as regular public schools. Pedro Noguera, a sociologist at NYU who has written extensively about the educational struggles of urban minority boys, recently completed a broad-ranging study of all-boys’ schools across the country. “Generally what we found is, where they were working well, it was because of all the things you would suspect in any school that’s been successful,” he told me. “There are some great schools for boys that have been created. What you can’t say is that they’re great because they’re all-male.” Single-sex adherents swear the schools can be safe havens from the biases that pervade co-ed culture—Sax told me the story of a boys’ school in Virginia with a thriving Jane Austen club—but this has nothing to do with cognitive wiring.

When all is said and done, choice may seem like an incongruous doctrine for a movement predicated on a statement of hard scientific realities, and sure enough, Sax doesn’t mention “school choice” a single time in Why Gender Matters. But now that he’s the face of a highly controversial movement—or, as he put it to me, “The ACLU likes to create this figment of their imagination and put my name on it”—the argument has changed. Sax is in the process of rebranding NASSPE as The National Association for Choice in Education. “It’s not that single-sex education is better than co-ed education—we’ve never made such a silly claim,” Sax told me in November. “We don’t have that arrogance. We don’t claim that all kids or even most kids should be in single-sex classrooms. But why should that be available only to wealthy families?” Lately, he’s led with that thinking in debates with his critics, and has won over the audience. Shortly after the Science article came out in 2011, one of its authors appeared with Sax on Philadelphia radio and was assailed by callers: “As a taxpayer… I hear a dismissing of parents actually being able to be intelligent enough to be able to know their children better than anybody else, and to be given choice,” said one disgruntled dad.

Repackaging these teaching methods as a benevolent expansion of parental choice might make them popular, but it doesn’t change their substance, or stop them from instilling regressive notions about gender in a new generation of kids. And unsurprisingly, these less-than-kosher classrooms usually crop up in communities where kids are already behind—where the single-sex idea hits a nerve because it promises a magic fix for the “boy crisis.” “[Leonard Sax’s] main motivator is fear,” says Lise Eliot, one of the authors of the condemnatory Science article. “Everything’s a crisis. We know fear sells.” One education scholar who attended Sax and Gurian’s annual conferences in the course of her research told me it was “a disturbing experience.”

“People were coming there with a deeply held commitment to be the best teachers they could possibly be and do something about the failing schools that too many felt they were teaching in,” she said. “Schools and individuals paid a lot of money for this training, and they were being fed untruths.” 5

Of the six states whose schools received demand letters from the ACLU, three—Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama—are among the poorest in the nation. The disciples Sax celebrated at his last conference hailed, among other places, from the depressed and majority African American cities of Detroit, Michigan; Bedford Heights, Ohio; and Lake City, South Carolina; as well as largely Hispanic parts of Houston and San Antonio. Single-sex education isn’t solely a phenomenon of failing schools—it has also gained traction in affluent and diverse communities in Virginia and Florida, for example. But like many experiments, it finds most of its volunteers among people who are short on better options.

This, ultimately, is the problem with relying on the principle of choice to save our education system. It confuses quantity of options with quality, and paves the way for lesser alternatives as easily as better ones. In the case of single-sex education, bitter disagreements have created a sound and fury that distracts from its lack of proven efficacy, and from the dire problems it hasn’t helped to solve. When it comes down to it, where change is most needed, a host of bad choices doesn’t add up to one good one.

  1. NASSPE slowed its activities at the end of 2012, halting its conferences and the publication of its journal, though not its consultations with schools. Sax told me his finances necessitated a return to family medicine, but the journal’s editor told me in November that she thinks Sax wants to “regroup” from the mounting controversy. “I think he wants to think about where can we go without having to get into a series of conflicts about an issue that wasn’t meant to be a conflict,” she said.

  2. In 2005, Sax said this study shows that “When it comes to learning geometry, the brain of the average 12-year-old girl resembles the brain of the average 8-year-old boy. When it comes to writing poetry, the brain of the average 12-year-old boy resembles the brain of the average 8-year-old girl.”

  3. When I asked her if the refutations of their work had reached her attention, she told me, chagrined, that they had not. “We’re still at the little baby stage, we really are,” she said. “I see the success we’re having, and I do need to read the counterargument, but I still feel I have so much more to read and to learn about what I’m doing. So, no, I haven’t.”

  4. According to the Department of Education, schools experimenting with single-sex must also be able to show that the methods are “substantially related” to their educational goals. The ACLU and other opponents have seized on this vague language, and say most schools ignore the condition.

  5. Registration for Sax’s 2012 conference ran up to $400 a person; Gurian’s 2013 Summer Institute will cost $595 per early registrant, $750 for those who register within two weeks of the start date.