Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Single-Sex Classes Gain Favor, Despite Study

Classes separated by gender gain favor in South Bay schools

Emmaly Johnson, left, and Alexis Johnson watch the flight of a gummy bear shot from their catapult design in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson
Emmaly Johnson, left, and Alexis Johnson watch the flight of a gummy bear shot from their catapult design in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson

In one classroom, 30 middle school girls work in pairs to design and build catapults made of Popsicle sticks and a plastic spoon that will launch gummy bears. In a separate room down the hall, 30 boys work on the same project.

It might sound like a day in the life of a Catholic school, but the setting is Manhattan Beach Middle School.

Once the primary province of private schools, single-sex classrooms have become increasingly common in the public sphere, including the math- and science- based elective splitting the genders at Manhattan Beach Middle and an algebra class that does the same at Adams Middle School in Redondo Beach.

But a new report has concluded that single-sex education does more harm than good, arguing that it fails to improve academic outcomes, reinforces gender stereotypes and legitimizes institutional sexism.

Published Friday in Science, a leading academic journal, the article — titled “The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling” — made a nationwide media splash last week. Aside from challenging the popular notion that boys and girls learn differently, it questions the wisdom of a 2006 law making it easier to separate genders in public schools.

Largely as a result, the number of public schools offering at least some single-sex instruction has skyrocketed in a decade, from just a handful to about 500, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Instruction.

Diane Halpern, the paper’s lead author and a psychology chair at Claremont McKenna College, said that despite some anecdotal success, broad research shows the practice is misguided.

“Any time you divide people into groups, they develop stereotypes and prejudice,” she told the Daily Breeze. “They come to like their own group better and avoid interacting with the members of the other group.”

Halpern added that the findings apply to all forms of single-sex education, from entire schools to the optional classes that are found in the beach cities.

But local educators say their programs have been successful.

Girls have fun in class with a calculator in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson
Girls have fun in class with a calculator in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson

The girls-only class at Manhattan Beach Middle School, made possible by a $250,000 grant from Chevron to last three years, was launched in the fall of 2010 to generate female interest in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math, often collectively referred to as STEM.

Last year, the girls-only class took third place in a national contest put on by NASA, in which students were instructed to design a game for astronauts in orbit demonstrating Newton’s laws of motion. As a reward, the Manhattan Beach girls will soon watch a video of real astronauts in the International Space Station playing their game, which involves tossing Q-tips through floating paper rings.

This year, Manhattan Beach administrators came back to Chevron with a successful request for $100,000 to start an equivalent class for boys, which began this fall.

Carolyn Seaton, spokeswoman for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, said the elective class is not meant to boost the school’s already stratospheric test scores. Rather, the idea was initially to promote interest and excitement in the STEM fields to an under-represented group – girls – and later to extend the same opportunity to the boys. But she said she is open to learning from any new research.

“I’m not convinced the research shows us we need to stop doing what we are doing, but I do think it is something we should take a look at,” she said.

On the other side of the coin, Seaton cited a 2005 study finding that middle-school girls – and in particular gifted girls – are often afraid to speak up in class, because of how they might be perceived by peers.

“They didn’t want the boys to perceive them as being a brainiac, and therefore not being cute or pretty,” she said. “They would either not comment at all or pretend to not know things they actually knew. It’s just another reason to offer this opportunity (at Manhattan Beach Middle), where there isn’t that awkwardness that can come sometimes with that age group.”

In Redondo Beach, Adams Middle School is three years into a program for algebra in which girls and boys have the option of taking a class that is either coed or gender-separated. All three courses are equally popular, enrolling 26 to 28 students.

According to the latest available data provided by the district, the differences in performance have been minimal, with the girls-only class edging out the mixed class on the 2010 California Standards Test in algebra, and the boys finishing a close third. (The three groups stacked up in the same order for overall performance in the class.)

More noteworthy, though, were the results of a two-part survey distributed first in the fall and then in June. In general, girls seemed to respond better to the gender separation than boys. For instance, the proportion of students in the girls-only class who believed they could better concentrate in a single-gender class rose from 65 percent in the fall to 90 percent in late spring of 2010. Meanwhile, the corresponding figure from the boys-only class actually went down – from 50 percent to 41 percent.

Also remarkable was the large jump in the percentage of girls who reported that the gender split “caused (them) to enjoy math more” – from 20 percent in October to 58 percent in June. Conversely, the separation seemed to have no significant effect on boys’ enjoyment levels, which went from 15 percent in the fall to 16 percent in late spring.

Redondo Beach educators generally were unavailable for comment this week, in part because the school’s principal when the class was started at Adams – Nicole Wesley – has since taken the top job at Redondo Union High School. She referred questions to the teacher of the class, Michelle Fader, who in turn deferred to the principal, Anthony Taranto, who is new this year.

“I support the idea,” he said. “I think we owe it to all of our students to give them the experience, or multiple options to be successful in the classroom.”

As for the report in Science, it argues that separating the genders tends to reinforce gender stereotypes, such as that boys respond better to aggressive teachers and girls prefer a softer approach.

The differences found in many classrooms, though not necessarily the ones locally, range from the setting of the thermostat – boys-only rooms tend to be colder – to the style of instruction, Halpern said. For instance, girls tend to spend more time in small discussion groups while boys will sometimes pass a ball around the room to signal that they have the floor.

“I think plenty of girls would love to throw balls to each other when it’s their turn to talk, and plenty of boys would certainly benefit from having more small class discussion,” she said.

Perhaps more to the point in Manhattan Beach, Halpern said there are other ways to foster female interest in the STEM fields, such as exposing girls to women who have succeeded in math and science.

Still, teachers of the class in Manhattan Beach say separating the genders can prevent certain stereotypes from manifesting themselves.

For instance, “It prevents the girl (in a group) from always doing the write-up because her handwriting is neater,” said James Locke, teacher of the boys STEM elective.

On a recent day at Manhattan Beach Middle School, the girls and boys groups both reached a point about halfway through the period when it was time to test their products. As both genders came together outside to measure the length of their gummy-bear launches, a spirit of friendly competition was palpable. (The longest fling on that day was 90 feet, achieved by a pair of boys, Bennett Yee and Nico Brunstein.)

While working with her partner, seventh-grader Alexa Underwood said separating the genders has its benefits.

“It’s easier to pair girls to girls because sometimes guys want their idea and they influence everyone to have the idea, instead of going with the girl’s idea,” she said.

Student Lucas Neao said he has noticed some gender differences in styles of learning.

“Guys usually just go head on and do” the project at hand, he said. “Girls do more planning.”