Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Single-Sex Schools, the Education Gap and - Catholic News?

Sister Edith, who blogs at Monastic Musings and teaches Sociology at St Scholastica in Duluth, has posted an extremely interesting item on the education of boys and girls and same-sex versus separate classes.

An article on gender differences in education in Zenit, the Catholic News Service? Last Wednesday, there it was, nestled among more predictable titles like Croatian Leader Visits Benedict XVI and Charity Unites Christians, Pope Says.

Written by Fr. John Flynn, frequent news analyst for Zenit, the report begins with a quote the British newspaper The Telegraph:

Boys should be taught separately to stop them falling further behind girls as part of an extensive overhaul of the education system, a powerful Government-backed review says today. ... Teachers should be encouraged to tailor classes to fit the needs of boys, with more emphasis on "competitive" lessons and the reading of non-fiction books, according to the review, chaired by Christine Gilbert, the head of Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education), the schools watchdog.
I was surprised, but encouraged, to see an article with the first emphasis on the achievement deficits of boys compared to girls, recognized as a serious problem in Britain but not yet in the U.S. Fr. Flynn's article acccurately reported both sides of the gender gap, male and female:
A study published by the Program for International Student Assessment in 2000 showed that girls performed significantly better than boys on the reading test in all but one country. Mathematics also showed a gender gap -- in favor of boys -- although this was much smaller.
Much of the middle of Father Flynn's article focused on the impact of single-sex schools on girls' achievement - a surprising turn after his opening paragraphs. His examples, though, were interesting: girls who attend single-sex schools, according to studies, follow a wider variety of academic interests and careers; those in mixed-sex schools follow stereotypically female career paths, with reduced average earnings. The head of one school said that single-sex education was important if girls were to develop their full potential.
Sociologists, psychologists, and educators speculate about the reasons for the large and growing achievement gap between boys and girls. While subtle differences in brain and cognitive development may have some impact, they cannot be the primary factor: this gap has opened up, from a prior male-dominance, in just a few decades.

Christina Hoff Sommers, in The War Against Boys, blames a particular style of political correctness and feminism that turns schools into institutions hostile to the way boys naturally think and act. Others suggest that girls, aware of high divorce rates and the rising cost of living, take education seriously as a way to higher wages, while boys, especially in the working class, hope to earn good wages in skilled labor jobs as previous generations did - unaware that many of these jobs have been automated or globalized. Other explanations focus on boys' attraction to distractors - video games, online relationships, pornography - to the detriment of their school work. None of these theoretical positions would predict that single-sex education would benefit both boys and girls, although Sommers would not be surprised.

Fr Flynn closes with a quote from Lorraine Garnett Ward's editorial The Wonders of a Single-Sex Education. She is uniquely qualified to write, after teaching young women at Wellesley for 20 years and then teen boys at the Fenn School in Concord. Ward said:
If boys are falling behind girls in school, as some argue, we should not ask whether, in our admirable quest to level the playing field for girls, we have shortchanged boys. The right question to ask is, what must we do to ensure that both boys and girls grow to their full moral and intellectual potential?

Exactly! For decades, it has only been acceptable to recognize and act on girls' lower performance in math and science - especially as these areas open the door to higher salaries. We have not been willing to address boys' problems in academic achievement and finishing high school. The reduced proportion of men on college campuses is viewed as a problem in students' social lives, or of college income (we need those students to make our budget!) but not as a nationwide educational problem. Building on-campus drinking establishments, offering football teams, and improving internet access for gaming may lure more young men to campus, but it will not engage them in the academic endeavor - at least, not with the depth and enthusiasm that Ward describes at Fenn. [...Snip] Read the balance at Monastic Musings.

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