Single-Sex Math, Science Classes Raise Civil Rights, Bias Questions

Article excerpt

For Elizabeth Pine, walking into a nearly all-male physics class two years ago at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy was like walking into "a shark tank."

"The atmosphere in the class was almost crackling," said Pine, winner of the 1993 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and now a freshman at Harvard University. "There was an aura in the class where the last thing you wanted to do was ask a question and show you didn't know what you were doing."

David Workman, Pine's teacher at the elite high school in Aurora, Ill., west of Chicago, had noticed for years that his upper-level physics classes were populated almost entirely by boys. He also knew that girls who started the course dropped out at much higher rates. And now Pine - the top high school science researcher in the country - says she felt threatened in his class.

In searching for solutions, Workman and his colleagues came upon an idea that is gaining favor in coeducational schools across the nation: putting girls in separate math and science classes. Although most of the schools that have tried it are private, a few, including the Illinois academy and institutions in California and Maine, are public.

The idea is drawing mixed reviews. Academics who support it point to a growing body of research suggesting that single-sex education benefits girls, and teachers who run the courses say they notice an increase in the enthusiasm and self-esteem of their female students.

But critics warn that segregation by gender sets a dangerous precedent that could revive the notion that girls are intellectually inferior and cannot compete with boys. And others say the classes, if held in a public school, are discriminatory and flat-out illegal.

No one can say for sure why girls historically have had a difficult time in math and science, but, whatever the cause, the results are clear.

Girls and boys score nearly evenly on standardized math and science tests until about the seventh grade, when boys' scores start to pull away from girls', said Myra Sadker, dean of education at American University in Washington.

The gap continues to widen throughout high school and college, according to Sadker's research.

On the 1992 achievement tests for placement in college courses, Sadker said, boys averaged 62 points higher than girls in physics, 46 points higher in chemistry and 38 points higher on the Math II test. Boys also take more upper-level science and math courses and go on to earn more doctorates in lucrative fields such as engineering, math and physical sciences.

But it is the seventh grade that some teachers see as a crucial time in a girl's education - it may be the last chance teachers have to intervene in societal conditioning that may turn a girl from math and science.

Programs at some schools help to sensitize teachers to gender bias in the classroom, in the belief that girls need more encouragement and fairer treatment to achieve more in math and science.

But an increasing number of teachers have been given approval for the more radical step of segregating girls.

Pam Belitski, a math teacher at Anacapa Middle School in Ventura, Calif., started an all-girls general math class for seventh-graders. …