By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller
Dr. Leonard Sax didn't have a very supportive response when a patient in his private practice in Maryland told him that her son's academic performance improved when she placed him in an all-boys Catholic school.
"I told her that with all due respect, I regarded single-sex education as an antiquated relic," he told Our Sunday Visitor. "She told me, 'With all due respect, you have no idea what you are talking about."
Curious, he visited a similar school and was surprised to see that the boys in the third and fourth grades did not have chairs.
"I was told that when boys of that age sit down, their brains shut off," he said.
That was eight years ago. Since then, Sax, who holds a doctorate in psychology as well as a medical degree, founded and is the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, based in Exton, Pa.
He has visited more than 270 schools in the United States and abroad, many in the Catholic schools system, and is the author of many scholarly papers and articles, plus two books, "Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences"(Broadway, $14.95) and "Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men" (Basic Books, $15.95). He has been interviewed on numerous national and international news programs and was featured in Time Magazine in 2005 and in the New York Times Magazine in 2008 -- first in a more positive article, and later when his work was criticized.
The issue of single-sex education is not without controversy, and Sax is quick to point out that NASSPE "does not assert that single-sex education is best."
"We assert that children come in all different shapes and sizes and lots of variations," he said. "Girls-only schools are best for some girls and boys-only schools are great for some boys, but not all, and every parent should have a choice."
According to Brian Gray of the communications office of the National Catholic Educational Association, in Washington, D.C., there are 29 all-boys and 26 all-girls Catholic elementary schools in the United States, and 163 all-boys and 239 all-girls high schools. That represents 6.2 percent of all Catholic schools.
"We really don't have a position on single-gender education," he said, adding that what works best "really depends on the student." In his own family, a son did well in an all-boys high school, while his daughter preferred coeducation.
Sister of Notre Dame Mary Frances Paymans is the NCEA's executive director of the secondary schools department and has taught or been principal at both coed and girls-only schools.
"The single-gender schools are part of the richness of our Catholic education heritage in this country and tend to be more historic schools," she said. "So many of them were founded by religious congregations when they first came to the United States, and they are wonderful legacies."
That tradition changed in the 1970s. Before then, Sax noted, more than 80 percent of diocesan and parochial secondary schools were single-sex, compared with 85 percent coed today.
"What happened was that St. Mary's School for Girls and St. Joseph's School for Boys just went out of existence, or they merged, because prior to the 1960s, boys grew up to inhabit one world, and girls grew up in another, and secondary schools prepared them for those roles," he said.
A trend toward equality pushed for equal education, but, Sax said, that isn't necessarily how it turns out because different biological, cognitive and emotional responses influence how boys and girls learn.
"The differences between adult males and females at age 40 are trivial," he said. "But there are quite striking differences between the brains of 14-year-old males and females."
And, he added, the differences surface even earlier, when many 6-year-old boys have trouble sitting still and may thrive in what looks like chaotic classrooms, while many girls prefer quiet and order.
There also are preferences in how students want to learn. One teacher told Sax about a young man who was doing well in Spanish where vocabulary was taught through simulated shopping, but he switched to Latin where he could read ancient literature.
"He said that he didn't want to go shopping," Sax said. "He wanted to kill barbarians."
On the other hand, same-gender stereotypes can create problems when not all boys want to learn algebra with football analogies, and some girls really want to read the Spanish version of "Don Quixote."
Sax cites research that points to social developmental advantages in separating the sexes, too. One study was conducted in Belfast, Ireland, where coed or single-gender schools are randomly assigned, eliminating bias in demographics.
In response to questions about self-esteem, girls at coeducational settings defined their worth by how pretty they thought they were, whereas students in all-girls schools valued themselves through their grades, sports and other achievements.
However, Sax discourages turning single-gender schools into "monasteries and convents." Rather, he encourages healthy coed contact, like two schools he visited that plan monthly socials when their respective boys and girls are required to speak French to each other.
"I can give examples of boys schools doing it wrong, and girls schools doing it wrong, where boys don't know how to talk to girls and girls become nervous and giggly around boys," Sax said. "And a bad boys school is worse than a bad coed school because it can turn out like 'Lord of the Flies,' where the jocks beat up the geeks."
Some schools try same-sex classrooms in coed buildings, an option studied by Cornelius Riordan, professor of Sociology at Providence (Rhode Island) College, who headed a three-year research project by the U.S. Department of Education. Although his conclusions were that more evidence is needed to support gender-specific classrooms, separating boys and girls in stand-alone buildings is a better option because it "creates an academic climate that is conducive to learning."
One of the greatest disadvantages of single-sex education, Sax cautioned, is that it can be perceived as "going back to the bad old days of 40, 50 or 100 years ago." He also doesn't support segregated classrooms in the same building, and said that failure rates rise if teachers are not "trained with what works" and parents aren't educated about the options that are best for their children.
"There are definitely differences in coed and single-sex education, but I don't know if one is better or more desirable than the other," Sister Paymans said. "But I think it's wonderful that both exist."
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
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