National Post

May 18, 2002

Single-sex algebra adds up

Separating boys and girls may promote better learning

Meghan Cox Gurdon
National Post

Quick question: When you think "segregation," what comes to mind? Police dogs tearing at the trousers of civil rights protesters? "Nie Blankes" signs at a South African beach? White bigots jeering at pigtailed Southern black schoolgirls? Segregation is one of those nouns that has lost its neutrality; it now carries indelible connotations of racial separation.

So when someone starts flinging accusations of "resegregation" around, one ought to take it seriously. Unless, perhaps, that person is Ellen Goodman, the Boston-based columnist whose rant against the Bush administration appeared in these pages on Thursday. According to Goodman, the administration has not proposed changes in U.S. federal education regulations "to provide schools as much flexibility as possible," as Education Secretary Rod Paige explained it. Goodman says this is "a pose," and perceives a dark ulterior objective: "What they really want is ... to allow funding for resegregation."

It sounds terrible, doesn't it? Except the "segregation" she describes has nothing to do with race, and shouldn't be remotely scary to anyone but an excitable feminist who sees the patriarchy lurking behind every Bush. The U.S. Education Department has released a "notice of intent to regulate," being the first step in a tedious and lengthy regulatory process that, in the end, will encourage public schools to offer single-sex classes if teachers, parents, and administrators think students will benefit.

Egad! Single-sex algebra! It's back to the 1950s! No, Ms. Goodman, "intent to regulate" is a call for public input. "This is a complex and sensitive issue that requires a considerable amount of consultations," said Secretary Paige, the cunning resegregator.

There are 11 same-sex public schools in the United States. At those few schools, as at the many expensive private ones that offer same-sex environments, children perform better than average in tests. Boys gravitate more freely into such subjects as theatre that, in coed schools, are dominated by girls, and girls are more likely to be science nerds when they're safely among their own. Anecdotally, graduates of single-sex schools always seem to me relieved to have escaped the sex-charged weirdness of coed public high school. As a product of the sex-charged weirdness, myself, I can only hear their stories with envy and wish I hadn't wasted so much potential academic time on spotty boys.

Letting public school districts create separate classes -- and entire same-sex schools, if they want -- to promote better educational outcomes for children makes such obvious good sense that it has attracted both right- and left-wing supporters, including Senator Hillary Clinton, who went to all-girls' Wellesley College. But feminist groups and activist civil rights lawyers are going to fight this. For them, Title IX -- the 1972 amendment to the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex -- is a sacred text, and anything "separate" must necessarily be unfair discrimination.

Where equality alarmists stray into absurdity, I think, is when they assert that schools are where children learn about life, and that, therefore, a same-sex classroom is dangerously artificial. Coeducation means "we are less likely to see each other as 'other,' " Goodman wrote, as if men and women are Nazis and Jews. "This school world is, after all, a mirror image of the larger world." She's got it totally wrong. In school, you get all types -- preppies, jocks, druggies and nerds -- from the same age cohorts, packed in together, moving from room to room according to the clock and getting the whole summer off. In real life, you can associate with whomever you like, go to bed whenever you want, choose your job, spend your money as you like and maybe take two weeks off in August. Not the same at all. Adults do not fear cliques; teenagers live in dread of them.

I would like to think that the stirrings of bipartisan support for same-sex classes shows that we're finally shaking off the hangover of the Sixties and Seventies. For 30-odd years feminists have lectured about the infinite mutability of "gender," if only children were free of sex stereotypes foisted upon them by "societal expectations" and the patriarchy. Even now they bang on about "gendered perceptions" making boys masculine and girls feminine, when any mother can tell you that from infancy boys are, generally, more masculine (toddler boys turn bananas into weapons) and girls are, generally, more feminine (little girls give names to toy trucks, and build nests for them). Slowly it is becoming acceptable to acknowledge the obvious differences between the sexes -- differences which extend beyond children's interests to neurological disparities that, for example, give kindergarten girls a major advantage in learning to write. If boys learn better without the distraction of girls, and girls without boys, then what, please, is the big deal? Is not school where children go to be educated?

Permitting public schools to offer same-sex classes to help children learn more isn't apartheid. It is the triumph of common sense over a tired -- and tiresome -- ideology.

Copyright © 2002 National Post Online