In the sixth-grade class, the boys are making robots — more than a dozen students stand around work stations and chat as they cut cardboard with scissors, or glance at comic books for inspiration.
Down the hall, a room full of girls is working — quietly and independently — on the same project.
The recent scenes at Atlanta’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School may become more common in the coming years as a federal regulations change is expected to make it easier for public schools to experiment with single-gender schools and classrooms.
Supporters argue boys and girls learn differently, and that single-sex education can help both genders perform better. Critics compare it to the “separate but equal” segregation-era classrooms.
At least 223 public schools across the country already offer some single-sex classrooms — up from four in 1998, said Leonard Sax, director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.
Sax predicts thousands more schools will join the movement once the Education Department finalizes new Title IX regulations first proposed in March 2004. Department officials have said their final regulations should be released this summer.
Backers of single-sex classes point to research that shows the genders learn in different ways. At elementary school age, they say, girls’ vision and thought processes have developed to respond better to color and detail, while boys’ brains are more apt at processing motion and direction.
“If you don’t understand those differences and you teach boys and girls as if they were the same, the end result is a kindergarten classroom where the boys tell you drawing is for girls and a middle school classroom where girls tell you computers are for boys,” said Sax, one of the nation’s leading proponents of single-sex education. “If you don’t understand gender differences, you end up furthering gender stereotypes.”
Women's group opposes
Not everyone agrees. A 2004 statement from the American Association of University Women says single-sex classrooms distract from real problems in schools and “would throw out the most basic legal standards prohibiting sex discrimination in education.”
Lisa Maatz, public policy director for the university women’s group, said not enough research exists to show that single-sex schools truly improve student performance.
“There are other ways to close the achievement gaps that are proven,” she said, mentioning smaller class sizes and extra training for teachers. “People are looking for a single silver bullet, but there’s no quick fix.”
Sax said that as more same-sex schools crop up, data is beginning to show results. He and other proponents point to an elementary school in Deland, Fla., where fourth graders last year were randomly assigned to either a single-sex classroom or a co-ed one. In Woodward Elementary School’s co-ed classrooms, 57 percent of girls and 37 percent of boys passed a state writing test. In the single-sex classes, 75 percent of girls and 86 percent of boys passed.
“There is greater confidence, greater enjoyment, greater interest,” said David Chadwell, lead teacher at The Two Academies at Dent, a pair of single-gender middle schools in Columbia, S.C.
Said Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall: “This is a strategy designed to really turn around what is a failing environment for lots and lots of young people.” Hall and others in Atlanta say they like the results they’ve seen the past three years at Martin Luther King, where more than 400 sixth and seventh-grade students are divided by gender.
Travis Brown, whose boys’ math class was building the cardboard robots, said the system lets him gear his lessons specifically for an all-male class.
“It gives me a chance to prepare especially for them,” Brown said. “I don’t expect them to sit still, so I know I’m going to have to have some hands-on stuff.”
Equality among single-sex schools
Current federal rules allow single-sex schools, but only when a district creates a comparable single-sex school for the other gender. That restriction would disappear under the proposed changes.
An overview of the proposed changes from the Education Department says that while discrimination against female students was widespread when the regulations were enacted in 1975, “the situation has changed dramatically.”
Sax said hundreds of school districts have expressed interest in the concept but are waiting for final word from the federal government. Currently, 32 states have public schools with at least some single-gender classrooms.