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
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
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
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