Segregating the Sexes


Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an article about the trend towards segregating boys and girls in America’s public school classrooms.

Segregating by gender used to be the exclusive domain of private and religious schools. But failing public schools are turning to gender segregation with hopes that it can help turn around poor academic performance, especially among boys.

I’m sure many of you remember the “girls crisis” in the 1990?s. Educators and social scientists claimed that the classroom’s competitive atmosphere damaged girls’ self-esteem, discouraging them from excelling in math and science.

Ten years later, girls are excelling and boys are struggling. We solved one problem, but created another. Some educators believe that to solve this quandary, gender segregation is the way to go. But it is far from a settled issue.

Are boys and girls different?

The idea behind gender segregated classrooms is that boys and girls do indeed learn differently. According to proponents of gender segregation, male and female brains are hardwired to develop and learn differently and at different rates. Studies from the National Institute of Mental Health back up these claims. After analyzing cat scans from 829 boys and girls, scientists discovered that total cerebral volume peaks at 10.5 years in girls and 14.5 years for boys. Thus, girls have bigger brains than boys during most of elementary school (this is how they travel to Mars to get more candy bars). The scientists who conducted the study, however, were quick to note that differences in brain size don’t correlate to differences in learning ability.

That hasn’t stopped educators from using studies like this to support the evidence they see firsthand in their classrooms. According to one teacher, when teaching boys:

You need to keep them up and moving. You need to engage boys’ energy.

However, most classrooms in America aren’t designed to keep children moving. You’re told to be quiet, sit “Indian-style” (oh wait, that got squashed by the PC police-it’s now “criss-cross applesauce), and not touch the kid next to you. All children are, as one educator put it, told to behave like girls.

Some educators believe that this demand on boys to behave like “little ladies” has resulted in dismal statistics for boys: boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to be suspended; more likely to drop out of high school; boys makeup 2/3 of special education students; and are 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

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