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Put single-sex education in principals’ tool box

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Sep. 6, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
September 6, 2011 5:45 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Pardon Jon Kellett for assuming Washington state was as interested in educational innovation as the federal government.

Last year, Kellett – the principal of Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma – launched what looked like a promising experiment in single-sex education.

Sixth-grade boys and girls were taught their core subjects in separate classrooms; the arrangement was to continue when they reached the seventh grade, phasing in separation-by-sex for all students in math, science and humanities.

Single-sex education is controversial in the public schools; some view it with deep suspicion, believing that any separation is bound to disadvantage someone or other. Yet there’s a pile of evidence that it can help both boys and girls, if done intelligently. Private and parochial schools have a long and distinguished record of educating both sexes successfully in separate classrooms.

It has worked well in such exclusive schools as Annie Wright in Tacoma. A growing number of public schools in other states have shown that it can also work well for poor students, blacks and Latinos.

That doesn’t mean single-sex classes are a magic solution for struggling children – many schools do quite well with mixed classes. Educators must also be careful not to rely on stereotypes and dubious extrapolations from research on brain differences.

But hormones and sex differences are inescapable realities. Adolescent boys and girls do try to impress each other in ways that can hurt their academic performance.

The U.S. government, at least, has enough sense to recognize this. Congress and the federal courts allow boys and girls to be taught separately if neither group is being shortchanged. In a key 1996 Supreme Court ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the two sexes do not have to be educated as if there were no differences between them as long as their opportunities aren’t compromised.

The state is another question. After the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction got wind of what Kellett was doing at Jason Lee, it disseminated a memo saying that sex separation was illegal under state law. As a result, the Jason Lee program has been dismantled.

If the law is really that rigid, it ought to be changed. The OSPI itself ought to be leading the charge.

Single-sex education isn’t an end in itself – the point is to give educators as many tools as possible. Jason Lee is one of the poorest schools in the state, and its test scores are among the lowest. Kellett and his team have been struggling to turn the school around; single-sex classrooms were a key tactic in their effort.

Some sixth-grade test scores shot up last year at Jason Lee, and sex separation may have been a factor. The school – and the school district – should have been allowed to let the experiment play out. One gets the impression that some enforcers of a hidebound orthodoxy may have been afraid it would succeed.

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