Thursday, October 03, 2002

The Coed Question

In an engaging New York Times magazine piece Margaret Talbot questions the new-found support for single-sex education. She notes that the evidence that boys and girls learn better when they are apart is slim and argues for the positive benefits of learning in a coed environment.

What is troubling about this breezy new enthusiasm for segregation is not that it may lead to new single-sex schools, some of which will be good schools whatever their gender makeup. What is troubling is the tenor of the arguments. There is no solid body of evidence showing that single-sex education is better for girls or boys. A handful of public schools, including the six-year-old Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem, have shown impressive results. But whether this is because these schools also tend to have small classes and the kind of committed teachers and parents eager to devote themselves to an educational experiment is not clear.

As for research showing that boys and girls (or men and women) use their brains in vastly different ways, it comes in two forms: the soft and speculative social psychology of books like ''Women's Ways of Knowing'' and brand-new, small-scale brain-imaging studies. Brain imaging may yield all sorts of durable insights into gender differences, but it certainly has not yet. The recent and much-bruited study that showed that women are ''hard wired'' to recall emotions better than men involved a grand total of 12 men and 12 women.

But perhaps the most insidious aspect of the latest advocacy is the idea that boys inevitably bring out the worst in girls, or hopelessly intimidate them. For while single-sex education is sometimes presented as a boon for boys, especially in the inner city, it is usually portrayed as a way of rescuing and protecting girls.

Talbot notes that there is nothing wrong with parents paying for private single-sex schools. I would go farther and argue that school choice would make this whole debate go away.

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