Blake Gardner is a confident fourth-grader who actively participates in class discussions at Carver Elementary, in Maplewood, Minnesota. But he wasn't always this way. "Blake was shy and uncomfortable answering questions in kindergarten," says his mom, Dixie. That changed when he joined the public school's boys-only classroom for first and second grades (he switched back to coed last year because Carver didn't offer single-sex classes in third grade). "The feeling of brotherhood and the 'we're-all-in-this-together' camaraderie helped Blake come out of his shell," believes Dixie.
For generations, sex-segregated classrooms were the exclusive domain of private schools, more than 1,300 of which still teach boys and girls separately. That's no longer the case. About 500 public schools--including 170 at the elementary level--now offer boys- and girls-only classes as an option, as compared with only a dozen such schools that did so ten years ago.
The main explanation for the increase: Pushed by the higher academic benchmarks set by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) changed its policy in 2006 to allow coed public schools to teach boys and girls separately as long as there was a justifiable reason for doing so--such as if one group consistently scored lower on achievement tests. Since boys tend to lag behind girls in reading and writing, clearing this hurdle has been no problem in most districts. A bigger obstacle has been that smaller schools may not have enough students to offer both single-sex and coed classes with a balance of boys and girls, as is also required to establish this system.
Despite these limitations, the old-fashioned notion of separating boys and girls is becoming very of-the-moment. "There are sex-based differences in the way boys and girls learn," says Doug MacIsaac, assistant professor of teacher education at Stetson University's Hollis Institute for Education Reform, in DeLand, Florida. "The sooner we capitalize on their specific strengths, the better each sex will fare academically."
An increasing body of research supports MacIsaac's argument. According to Michael Gurian, an educator and author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents, boys tend to thrive on competition much more than girls do. Noise is another major dividing point. Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), reports that boys typically tolerate a higher level of background noise compared with girls--about 6 to 8 decibels higher on average. That's why a boy may be unaffected by chattering classmates while a girl might be disturbed by the sound of a tapping pencil.
But catering to these innate contrasts isn't as simple as placing girls in one room and boys in another. Teachers are the X factor. By tailoring their approach to connect better with one sex or the other, they can make the single-sex approach pay off (or not). In fact, many schools hire professional-development groups to lead workshops about sex-based instruction. "When teachers receive some sort of boy- or girl-specific training through webinars, books, or seminars, the students generally fare better," explains David Chadwell, coordinator of single-gender initiatives for South Carolina's Department of Education.
Like his fellow teachers at Carver Elementary, Tom Mealey has attended several NASSPE instructional conferences. One of the things he's learned is that his first-grade class of boys needs to move around a lot. "Before diving into a reading lesson, we'll do push-ups or play a motion game set to music," he says. During reading time, the boys are free to sprawl on the floor on their belly, stand, or sit on a stability ball.
Things are a lot quieter down the hall in Christine Mulcare's all-girls first-grade class. There, the students cluster around blocks and counting boards to solve math problems. "Boys tend to treat these objects as toys, not learning tools, because they're better at doing addition and subtraction in their head," says Mulcare, who previously taught coed classes for 12 years. She's also noticed that her students tend to get anxious at test time. So to calm the girls down before an occasional quiz, she leads them in deep-breathing exercises and plays soothing music.