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.
Because single-sex classes are a recent phenomenon in public schools, the jury is still out about whether they truly improve learning. Still, the early results are promising. Students in Carver Elementary's boys- and girls-only classes outperformed the district's coed pupils on standardized tests. In South Carolina, the state with the most single-sex public classrooms (164 out of its 1,173 K-through-12 schools offer it), 80 percent of parents whose kids attend boys- or girls-only classes credited them with improving their child's academic performance, according to a 2010 DOE survey. And their kids agree: 75 percent of those polled said that single-sex classrooms had helped their grades, their self-confidence, and their study habits.
Boys- and girls-only classes may also benefit students by helping to curb stereotypical sex roles. When girls and boys are placed together, they tend to be mindful of what the prevailing culture suggests is appropriate for their respective sexes--a phenomenon Dr. Sax calls gender intensification. That's one reason why you don't commonly hear boys in a coed class recite a Shel Silverstein poem or see girls going gaga (in a good way) over the solar system. Yet if you were to visit a girls' classroom, proponents like MacIsaac say, you're more likely to see girls participating enthusiastically in math, science, and computers; at a boys' school, you're more likely to see students avidly engaged in subjects such as art, music, and drama.
Aside from these advantages, many parents point out that their kids' manners improve after switching to a single-sex class. That likely has more to do with the classroom dynamic than anything else. At Carver Elementary, "Mealey's Men" and "Mulcare's Ladies," as the first-graders dub themselves, follow a strict code of conduct that emphasizes kindness, respect, and responsibility. Tom Mealey's students know to stand when an adult enters the room and to use "Mr." and the person's surname when addressing each other. "Brody impressed people at a wedding recently by shaking the adults' hands, making eye contact, and acting like a total gentleman, which he learned from being in Mr. Mealey's class," says Julie Bjellos, whose son turns 10 this month.
But not everyone is convinced that single-sex classrooms are a good thing. A recent study in the scholarly journal Sex Roles found that the public-school students who joined a girls-only middle school tended to be academically advanced already. This may be because high-achieving children and their parents are more likely to choose a classroom setting that they feel will give them an edge or because the school administrators selected students for admission so their single-sex program would succeed, notes Rebecca Bigler, Ph.D., one of the study's researchers and a psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin.
Beyond this, some experts caution that separating classrooms by sex in grade school may hurt kids' social skills in the long run. "Losing out on the opportunity to interact with the opposite sex during a child's formative years can make it more difficult to communicate in relationships later on," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain. But since boys and girls in single-sex classes at public schools still commingle at lunch, recess, and on field trips, that last concern may be overstated.
With less than 1 percent of schools now offering sex-segregated classes, they may not be coming to your district anytime soon. But there are several steps you can take to ensure that your child's instructors are catering to his or her learning style.
• Check out the significant academic differences between boys and girls at sites such as singlesexschools.org and gurianinstitute.com. Then talk to your child's teacher about specific strategies that might benefit your child's classroom as a whole.
• Donate books about the topic to your school library, such as Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, coauthored by Parents advisor Michael Thompson, Ph.D., and A Gendered Choice: Implementing Single-Sex Programs and Schools, by David Chadwell.
• Lobby your PTA to fund a teacher workshop that offers techniques for reaching kids of both sexes. No money in the budget? South Carolina's Department of Education (ed.sc.gov/sgi) offers free webinars and newsletters about single-sex education that are open to anyone.
• Check your school's test scores to see if there are notable achievement gaps between the sexes. If so, you have a clear case for approaching your school board about instituting boys- and girls-only classes.
The single-sex classroom may be only a small part of the solution for our nation's academic problems, but it seems to work well for many kids who've tried it, like Blake Gardner. "His reading and writing skills improved greatly in the boys-only classrooms because his teacher focused on things he enjoys and relates to--sharks, sports, bugs," says his mom, Dixie. "And that approach helped him love school even more."
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Parents magazine.