Monday, March 03, 2008

Segregated Education: The New York Times Considers the Same-Sex Education Issue

I came across an interesting and lengthy piece by Elizabeth Weil in the New York Times which tackles the question of whether single-sex education is a beneficial and justifiable educational option. I worked for eighteen months on research for a book on manhood and thus found the article compelling. I'll give you a few key sections from it.

Here are the results from over 2,000 studies on whether same-sex schooling offers students a better education:

"In 2005, the United States Department of Education, along with the American Institute for Research, tried to weigh in, publishing a meta-analysis comparing single-sex and coed schooling. The authors started out with 2,221 citations on the subject that they then whittled down to 40 usable studies. Yet even those 40 studies did not yield strong results: 41 percent favored single-sex schools, 45 percent found no positive or negative effects for either single-sex or coed schools, 6 percent were mixed (meaning they found positive results for one gender but not the other) and 8 percent favored coed schools. This meta-analysis is part of a larger project by the Department of Education being led by Cornelius Riordan, a Providence College professor. He explained to me that such muddled findings are the norm for education research on school effects."

The students who most benefit from same-sex schools are generally disadvantaged:

"That certainly appears to be the case for single-sex schools. The data do not suggest that they’re clearly better for all kids. Nor do they suggest that they’re worse. The most concrete findings from the research on single-sex schools come from studies of Catholic schools, which have a long history of single-sex education, and suggest that while single-sex schools may not have much of an impact on the educational achievement of white, middle-class boys, they do measurably benefit poor and minority students. According to Riordan, disadvantaged students at single-sex schools have higher scores on standardized math, reading, science and civics tests than their counterparts in coed schools."

Some wonder if the same-sex education project doesn't compromise essential principles of American education:

"Given the myriad ways in which our schools are failing, it may be hard to remember that public schools were intended not only to instruct children in reading and math but also to teach them commonality, tolerance and what it means to be American. “When you segregate, by any means, you lose some of that,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “Even if one could prove that sending a kid off to his or her own school based on religion or race or ethnicity or gender did a little bit better job of raising the academic skills for workers in the economy, there’s also the issue of trying to create tolerant citizens in a democracy.”

I won't comment at length on the piece. There are far too many questions to consider for a blog of this length (and depth). I will say quickly that it is clear that Weil is skeptical (highly) about the effects of same-sex education. The piece is written from that slant. I would also say that it is not immediately clear to me that it has been proved that same-sex education is in fact better for boys and girls than coed education. The first quotation illustrates the difficult time researchers have had attempting to figure this question out. However, I can also say that I myself do not subscribe to a worldview in which my beliefs must be based in verifiable science. That is to say, I do not use the scientific method to determine what I believe. I do not need a study to make me believe everything I hold to be true. Some things I believe have been backed up by science and some have not. This does not cause me to lose much sleep because I know that science is itself imperfect, that research findings are no sure thing and are constantly disputed, and that even with its power to empirically substantiate or disprove science is not equipped to answer the larger metaphysical questions of life. While I am interested, then, in what studies have to say about varying forms of education, I do not feel the need to rely on them to make my own educational decisions.

Furthermore, it is interesting that even as Weil makes a case in this article for the lack of positive proof for theories of same-sex education, she manages to provide at least some empirical verification for this educational model. Did you catch that? Look at the first quotation--41 percent of studies favored the single-sex model while only 8 percent (!) favored the coed model. Yes, there is a large percentage of data that offers neither a negative or positive judgment on educational models, but we should not allow Weil to skim over the fact that the single-sex model achieved five times the level of educational satisfaction--or whatever the term is--that coed education did. Even as Weil's skill with the pen and ability to present two sides of a story seems to prove her side of the case, the data she cites point in exactly the opposite direction, though it requires further clarification.

It is interesting as well to note one liberal writer's political philosophy butt up against her philosophy of gender. Did you see that one? The third paragraph, that which closes the article, pushes us to remember that education is, after all, about teaching things like tolerance, and thus the implicit point made is that coed education is best. And yet just a few paragraphs earlier Weil has said, with uncharacteristic clarity, that single-sex education most benefits disadvantaged youth from minority backgrounds. This is a fascinating quagmire. A liberal view of social justice runs headlong into a liberal view of education, and the result is strewn all across one's web page. Where is Weil's heart for the disadvantaged? If single-sex education benefits the American disadvantaged, the group whose cause papers like the New York Times seek to champion, why would single-sex education not be embraced? Because of this: gender ideology runs very deep in Weil and in our society. Nothing is so sacred, it seems, as holding on to a view of gender--and, accordingly, of a coed classroom--that preserves feminist ideology. One is sad for the disadvantaged contingent who stand to benefit from single-sex classrooms. They are poised to reap great help from their schools, but may never receive it because of ideology that refuses the truth even when it stares it in the face.

Christians have a stake in this debate. The issues are many and difficult. Of course, many among us would question the underlying assumption of Weil's article, that the state should educate our children. Christians will go different routes on this question, but it can be hoped that we will train our children in such a way that they are allowed to succeed. For us, ideology will not--must not--trump truth. Though I cannot point definitively to a study that proves it, it seems clear to me that boys and girls will benefit hugely from being in environments that allow their particular traits to run free. I don't know about you, but I don't need a scientific study to tell me that, on average, boys are far more active than girls in school and require a good deal more attention than girls. I don't know why this is; I didn't make things this way. But my lack of knowledge does not refute my personal experience and the experience of countless others who educate and raise children according to biblical principles and a basic commitment to common sense. I don't by any means think that a coed classroom is evil, and I do not seek to demonize it, but neither do I think for a moment that the educational experience is not greatly improved by classrooms in which boys and girls do not worry about one another, make statements according to how the opposite sex will respond, and bother one another, all products of a coed classroom.

In a world that allows flawed ideology to drive its educational institutions, we Christians must educate our children well and commonsensically. More than this, though, we must stand beside our children and train them up in the faith, whether they are home-schooled or educated outside of the home. Whether they are in a coed classroom, a home-school basement, or a number of other environs, we must ensure that we do not cede theological, philosophical, and intellectual instruction of our children to the lost among us. The ideological battles over education discussed in this article may seem esoteric, but they have a clear and powerful impact on those who must bear their consequences: children.

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