Look, I don't know if it makes any difference sending boys to all-boy academies and girls to all-girl academies. There are different points of view. Critics say that boys and girls should learn to interact in school because they're going to have to interact in college, in the workplace, in life in general. And they worry about sexual stereotyping. Proponents say it isn't for every child, but some children can flourish. As one proponent put it: "Girls cannot leave it to boys to dissect the frog, and boys cannot leave it to girls to edit the school newspaper."
Yesterday, Wake County opened its first two same-sex academies. What was striking was the image of all those enthusiastic parents cheering as their children entered the school. What was also striking were these three paragraphs in our story:
"Progressive groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the Great Schools in Wake Coalition and the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children cautioned Wake against starting the schools. ACLU chapters around the nation have sent warning letters to school districts offering single-sex classes.
“When resources are limited, it seems to make more sense to focus on things that work, like smaller class sizes, more teacher training, increased parental involvement,” said Sarah Preston, policy director for the ACLU of North Carolina.
Preston said the ACLU is continuing to monitor the two schools after reviewing records obtained as part of a public records request. She said they’re concerned that the schools will promote gender stereotypes instead of having teachers focus on the students as individuals."
A couple of observations. First, if these schools succeed in delivering great results, it may not be so much that they are single-sex as that people are paying a lot of attention to the students. Parents, teachers, administrators, the newspaper, etc. The kids know that they are part of something special, something different, something new.
There's a little of the Hawthorne Effect here. The effect gets its name from studies of workers in a Western Electric plant 90 years ago, and has for years been condensed, inaccurately, into an anecdote. The anecdote is actually more interesting than the reality, so I'll relate the anecdote. They wanted to see if changing the lighting in the plant would increase productivity, so they made the lights brighter. And productivity rose. Some smart engineer says, well let's see what happens when we make it dimmer. And productivity rose again.
The point of this anecdote is that when workers sensed they were being monitored, they picked up the pace. Whether the lights were getting brighter or dimmer. The real story is way more complicated, but that's the gist of the anecdote.
So making a big to-do over the kids and enrolling them in a selective and unique experiment may have the effect of motivating them. And because the parents are enthusiastic and involved, they will do the absolutely most important part of the education process, which is making sure the kids do their homework, get to school and are getting good grades, and help if they are struggling. Single-gender may wind up being the least of it. Although I probably would have focused way more when I was 13 if not for the presence of 13-year-old girls in my junior high school. I think the research is conclusive..
The other observation is this: I think a lot of people have a vague sense of disquiet about the state of public education. We are pouring billions of dollars into it in North Carolina, in salaries and operating expenses, and in the construction of new schools. But are we getting good results? One side says, well, we'd get better results if we spent more money. We'd get more and better teachers and smaller class sizes. The other side says, well, we're spending a ton of money already. Too many kids are dropping out and too many kids can't read and compute at grade level.
Too many kids graduate with diplomas and then find out at the community college that they test so low in reading and math that they have to take bunches of remedial courses.
So a lot of people don't just want to take it on faith that the solution is more money. Call them what you will, but these are the people footing the bill. And it doesn't impress them when experiments -- vouchers, charter schools, single-sex academies, online schools -- are dismissed in some quarters as crazy ideas and threats to public education.
Now everyone is accused of having has an agenda up their sleeve when it comes to education. The voucher-charter school-single-sex crowd is derided by the other side as just a bunch of Ayn Rand-loving Republicans out to do away with public education. The anti-voucher-charter school-all-of-the-above crowd is accused of just being out to protect and expand the status quo, i.e., the teachers in traditional public schools, some of the most reliable foot soldiers of the Democratic Party.
In the middle you have the citizenry, which is shelling out the billions for public schools, and wanting to get not just marginal improvements, but way better results. A much higher high school graduation rate, a substantial reduction in remedial courses, a much higher graduation rate at the community college level, and much better preparation to compete in the global economy with children in China, Brazil and India.
The citizens/taxpayers, who have considerable sovereignty and choice in the consumer economy, know intuitively that they face a more "take it or leave it" selection in public education, particularly if they are middle-income or poorer. They have gotten used to having a lot of choices in their daily lives - at the supermarket, on the Internet -- and they know what it looks like.
The government routinely disappoints us, but in this case, it has delivered a product that has some pizzazz, some excitement. Goodness gracious.
I was encouraged by those pictures of the parents and their kids at the two single-sex academies, and I wish them the best. As we all should.