Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Anything boys can do...

From time to time I read other blogs. One of the other blogs I read is this one:

This morning while I was catching up on some recent entries I happened along the author's post about women's colleges (Monday, Aug 9, 9:05pm).

I've gone back and forth about this over the years. In principle I really oppose single sex education. The world has two sexes, and men and women should be socialized to interact with each other as peers both personally and professionally. On the other hand, the success rate of girls' schools and especially women's colleges speaks for itself: more than half the math/science PhDs awarded to women in the 1990s went to women who had attended one of a handful of elite women's colleges as undergraduates (Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Smith, etc.). And girls studying in single sex schools tend to outperform their female peers in coed schools, especially in math and science.

What such studies often neglect to mention is that women attending elite women's colleges are, well, elite. A better study would compare these women not to women everywhere but to women attending MIT, Princeton, Northwestern, and other elite coed institutions. And when you start considering those numbers, things start looking a lot more balanced. Even girls' schools usually select for many factors other than gender, simply by virtue of the fact that the vast majority of them are private.

However, my real problem with single sex education is not whether or not it is effective -- and it has often been effective -- but rather whether it is a reasonable approach to fixing the problems with coed education simply by herding all the smartest girls and women into their own classrooms. That there is bias in education is not particularly controversial; there are myriad studies showing that even from a very early age girls get less attention from their (often female) teachers than boys do. I wasn't aware of this bias as a learner -- I'm pretty assertive and certainly didn't suffer from lack of attention from my male or female teachers -- but I became aware of it bigtime when I started teaching, where I'd find myself struggling to remember to give as much energy to my (often quieter, less assertive) female students as I instinctively gave to my male students who were more likely to demand my attention.

But it disturbs me that our way of handling the status quo is to calmly accept it and respond by segregating one sex from the other. What kind of a message does it send to boys if they don't get to/have to interact with the brightest, most assertive girls while growing up? What does it mean for us to just accept that in order to give girls a fighting chance at equal achievement we need to isolate them and remove them from coed environments?


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