Is Separate More Equal?

Jana Freiband

INSIDE ROOM 33, the kids are suffering from Halloween hangover. "Did you guys watch House of Frankenstein?" asks a girl wearing a blue and gold Starter jacket.

"It was so good," says another girl.

"Niñas, shhhhh!" implores Elizabeth Dwight to her sixth-grade charges at Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center, a public school in Minneapolis.

Dwight, like all Emerson teachers, is bilingual, but that's not what makes the school unusual. During the 80 minutes of daily math instruction, sixth-grade girls and boys are separated. Dwight teaches the girls; VaNita Miller, her colleague, leads the boys. It's a bold attempt to boost girls' classroom participation at a critical stage in their lives. And according to city and state education officials, it may be the first effort of its kind in a Minnesota public school. A suburban school, Roseville Area Middle School, plans to begin single-sex math and science classes next spring. Emerson, meanwhile, is in its second year of single-sex math classes.

"When you work in a diverse urban setting, you're always looking for new strategies to benefit a group that's not doing as well but holds harmless the rest," says Karen Pedersen, the school's principal.

But not everyone is buying the notion that separate is equal in the classroom. "Single-sex classrooms aren't necessary," says Elizabeth Fennema, senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "People are always looking for the simplistic solution. There's no panacea."

The idea may face legal roadblocks as well. "It's a difficult question," says Teresa Nelson, legal counsel for the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. "There's a history of girls not performing as well in science and math. By doing this, are we saying girls need remedial action to succeed in school?"

Sometimes unequal treatment of girls is unintentional. During Dwight's first teaching job at P.S. 72 in East Harlem, New York, the Minnesota native watched a videotape of herself instructing a small group of children. "I looked right over the girls," she says of the female pupils in the front row. "It was an eye-opening thing. I was totally unaware I was paying more attention to the boys."

The decision to teach single-gender math at Emerson began when Dwight noticed little enthusiasm among girls for the subject. "That's when I got worried," she says. Dwight and Miller persuaded Emerson officials to experiment with the classes in 1996. A year later, parents say they're pleased.

"I think it's great," says Susan Haas, the mother of a sixth-grade girl. "It gives girls a break from that energy." In a written survey of students, many girls agreed. When asked to gauge the class's effect on her ability to concentrate, one noted that "there aren't boys yelling and being annoying all the time."

Students were also asked if they favored continued separation of the sexes during math. The girls responded with an overwhelming number of "yes" votes, while the boys split their responses between "yes" and "don't care." Despite the apparent ambivalence of the male students, Miller is convinced most welcome the change. "I think the boys like it more than they let on," she says. "I had 30 boys in my math class last year, and I never had any problems. No pushing, no vying for attention. They come in and they're calmer."

According to National Assessment of Educational Progress data, there's no statistical difference in the mathematics performance of boys and girls at ages 9 and 13. But nearing graduation at age 17, the 1996 study shows girls lagging behind boys among top achievers in the subject.

Those gender differences also show up among students trying to earn college credit for high-school math and science courses. In 1994, not as many Minnesota girls as boys took advanced-placement tests. While girls make up about 52 percent of the student population in the state, only 47 percent of the calculus and 42 percent of the advanced-science (chemistry, biology, physics) test takers were girls.

Lagging test scores for girls lead Sharon Stenglein, mathematics specialist at the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning, to conclude that single-sex classrooms can be helpful, especially during the middle-school years when self-confidence dips for many. "It seems worth doing for a time," she says. "But by high school, most girls are willing to say, 'Stick it in your ear' if they have to."

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