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Columns October 17, 2011 //  by  // 2 Comments

Mind the gap: Sex-segregated classrooms will not close the educational gender gap

The way we think about the gender gap in America is changing. By 2019, 59 percent of college freshman will be female, as well as 61 percent of graduate students. From 2002 to 2007, girls consistently outscored boys on early standardized tests, especially in reading and writing.

And in 2009, women took home more degrees at every level. Since 1975, the male drop-out rate has increased 6 percent, while the female drop-out rate has fallen at the same rate. This new gender gap is consistent at all levels of education.

Educators concerned with female academic achievement only decades ago are now focusing their efforts on a new generation of “lost boys.” But are our young men really lost?

The data above, from the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2010 report on the Condition of Education, can tell many different stories about the factors contributing to this widening achievement gap. Some point to a cultural malaise in men reflected in television shows like “Last Man Standing” or films like “Knocked Up,” which portray the post-feminist man as an enervated Peter Pan.

Some accuse educators of advancing girls at the expense of boys by designing education systems which favor girls. They believe that boys and girls learn so differently that it would benefit boys to be taught in gender-segregated classrooms that would permit them to express aggressive or competitive tendencies that proponents feel are stifled when girls are in the classroom.

Last week, Rene R. Rost Middle School in Kaplan, La. lost a lawsuit brought by the ACLU for separating classrooms by gender without parental consent. The school was held to have violated the Title IX legislation that requires students have access to all available educational programs, regardless of gender.

During the program’s limited run, eighth-graders spent the first three months of the semester in coed classes, and then were placed into gender-segregated classrooms. Despite the principal’s claims of the program’s success, closer analysis by the school board revealed that test scores actually dropped.

It is unsurprising that Rost’s program failed to result in improved performance. The program was based on the work of Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian, whose theories on gender segregation have been largely discredited.

The ACLU press release said, “These theories include the ideas that girls perform poorly under stress, and so should not be timed during exams; boys should be given Nerf baseball bats to hit things and relieve tension; and that boys that like to read, avoid sports and have close female friends should be forced to spend time with ‘normal’ boys.”

The former president of the American Psychological Association, Diane Halpern, and seven colleagues published a review of existing research last month in “Science,” which argued not only that no scientific evidence supports better outcomes from single-sex classes, but that these segregated classrooms actually negatively affect socialization later in life. Sex-segregation enforces gender stereotypes and results in increased difficulty socializing or working with the opposite sex later in life.

And isn’t later life what education is all about? After all, education is supposed to prepare students for the working world and make them productive citizens. Surprisingly, the academic gender gap doesn’t follow boys into the working world.

Despite the undeniable achievements of female students, the NCES report also found that as recently as 2008, at every degree level, males had higher median earnings than their identically qualified female counterparts. On average, a similarly educated woman will make 81 percent of her male colleagues’ salaries. Men still unquestionably dominate the working world.

A recent study by Maryann Baenninger for the Chronicle of Higher Education found that female students typically have higher GPAs, even when tests show equivalent aptitude. She concludes, “women underestimate their abilities and express lower levels of self-confidence than their abilities suggest. Men overestimate their abilities and express higher levels of confidence than their abilities warrant.” Thus, male students spend more time on leisure activities, and female students tend to spend more time on academic activities.

Economists believe that people make decisions based on marginal returns. If that extra hour of studying is worth another dollar of salary later on — study. But if it won’t make a difference, why not play Madden?

Perhaps male students tend to overestimate their abilities because they know that, even if they don’t perform as well as female students, they will still make more money and get more promotions. Maybe our young men are not in crisis, but just thinking on the margin.

Sex-segregation in the classroom won’t encourage male students, nor will gender-specific education methods. Sex-segregation only reinforces gender stereotyping that prevents students of both genders from reaching their full potential.

Equality and fair competition in the labor market is needed to incentivize boys and girls to learn at their full potential. Accusing boys who like to read or competitive girls of being abnormal only makes things worse.

We have made great progress in gender equality over the past century and we must take the last steps together.

Emily Brooks is an economics senior and may be reached at opinion@thedailycougar.com.


  • Rosa

    Interesting how all non-female students are grouped into one segment: male. As though all males think the same. As though all males expect things to be handed to them. As though all males play Madden football.

    That's called stereotyping.

    The schools punish boys for fighting. For rough-housing. For trespassing (AKA exploring) and for questioning authority.

    Yet girls don't get told it's wrong to have overly emotional relationships. Girls don't get punished for gossiping (AKA socialization). Girls don't get told to "man up".

    Think about how the schools encourage or discourage gender behavior. Also, reading is a gender-neutral activity.

  • Mike Wazowski

    Ms. Brooks, while I'm not terribly surprised to see this level of hypocrisy and sexism from you, I must say I am quite disappointed. Not a month ago you wrote a piece calling for more females in STEM fields; now you're using the fact that there are *so many* women in college and they are *so* successful to support a case against given the special treatment you called for for women being given to another group.

    The only thing worse than someone who thinks they can legislate better people (aka a progressive) is a progressive-hypocrite. Everyone deserves special treatment but white men, until the other groups are equal – then let's keep the white men down where they belong.

    (For reference: I could give a rented fiat about men's study performance. Man up, if you can't make the grades go home. But if we're going to demand and legally proscribe special access and programs for women (and if Emily Brooks specifically is going to support them) then we (she) darn well better support the same for men.

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