Move to Single-Sex Classes Fans Debate ; New Federal Rules Let US Public Schools Split Up Boys and Girls. Research on the Practice Is Inconclusive

Article excerpt

Controversial new regulations give educators far more latitude to establish schools and classes strictly for a single gender, even as research on the practice is scarce and inconclusive.

The regulations, released Wednesday by the Department of Education, mark a major shift in the interpretation of Title IX, approved 34 years ago to bar sex discrimination in schools.

It's a change that has intensified a long-running debate over whether boys and girls learn better in a single-sex environment, with critics warning the regulations may roll back years of hard- won ground.

Even the Department of Education, in announcing the rules, acknowledged research is mixed and backed away from endorsing single- sex classrooms.

"The research, though it's ongoing and shows mixed results, suggests that single-sex education can provide benefits to some students under certain circumstances," said Assistant Secretary of Education Stephanie Monroe, in a news briefing. She emphasized any single-sex environment would be voluntary, and an equivalent coeducational option would be available.

Research on the practice has been controversial. Theories that each gender has different learning styles or brain growth, or that boys are losing ground in traditional schools, have caught on in the media and popular imagination.

However critics say little of it stands up to scrutiny, and there are far more similarities between genders - and differences among individuals - than there are broad general differences between the sexes.

"Race and class are the two biggest predictors [of achievement] in every single study I've looked at," says Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass. "Of all the things you could think about doing to improve educational outcomes, separating kids by gender is really low on the list."

Dr. Barnett questions using resources for something with so little scientific basis, and she worries there could be negative consequences if girls and boys start to believe what she says are myths of gender differences - that girls are challenged in math and science, and boys have a harder time with reading and verbal skills.

Nonetheless, single-sex classrooms are catching on among many parents and educators who feel they see a difference in kids and believe it might help them focus.

Public school districts have held off on doing much that's separated by gender for fear of legal challenges, but a few single- sex schools have opened in recent years as pilot programs or if the district could show a compelling reason for doing so. …

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