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Single-Gender Classes Can Respond to the Needs of Boys and Girls
Schools looking for ways to increase student motivation and academic achievement ought to consider offering single-gender classrooms as one highly effective change that can address students' needs.
Single-gender education is a legal option for any K-12 public school, and it can be implemented quickly and at little cost. In South Carolina, school interest in the single-gender choice is growing: Our state has 160 schools now offering such options for students—the highest in the nation—and 100 more are considering doing so for the 2010-11 school year. Currently, single-gender classes are offered in kindergarten through 9th grade in urban, rural, and suburban districts across the state.
Offering single-gender classes is an effective response to school-level data that shows achievement gaps between males and females, where students are not achieving at expected levels, or as a way to engage parents by offering a choice. Educators thinking boys and girls learn differently isn't justification for offering single-gender classes. Rather, gender differences are a further reason for teachers to embrace differentiated instruction within coed as well as single-gender classes.
Although experience clearly affects the development and wiring of the brain, growing evidence suggests that gender also seems to be a contributing factor in brain development. In general, researchers agree that
This means that there are probably more boys who are more active more often in the classroom and more girls who more often show strengths in using words verbally and in writing.
Learning about gender differences can help teachers of single-gender and coed classes meet the needs of students more effectively. In single-gender classes, building a community and implementing strategies may be easier.
Differentiating in the Classroom
Structure and connection are two key concepts when examining gender in the classroom. All students certainly need both, but it seems that teachers need to consider the issue of structure more with boys and the issue of connection more with girls.
In general, boys seem to be more successful with increased structure. For instance, one of the best ways to provide instructions for boys is to list directions in bullet format on the board and provide a time frame for completing all steps, or even each step. In this way, teachers can also define specifically how they want students to prepare for tests. Boys will typically only read over their notes or the textbook as preparation, sometimes the morning of the test. Requiring specific steps—such as making vocabulary flash cards the first night, sketching key concepts the second night, and making their own questions the third night—in studying for a test provides clearer expectations and directs students to prepare appropriately.
After several months of setting study expectations, teachers could then make a transition to requiring exit slips, in which students explain how they will prepare for the test as they leave class. Again, this provides more structure in which students take ownership and can be held accountable.
On the other hand, girls tend to benefit from increased opportunities for making connections between themselves and the content. To tap this, teachers could build in more cycles where students voice their opinion about content, make comparisons between content and their own experience, and use manipulatives or real objects to explore concepts.
Will girls benefit from additional structure and boys benefit from more opportunities to make connections? Of course! Understanding gender is not about pitting girls against boys; it's about bringing in more activities and procedures that can benefit the students in the classroom. Seeing through the lens of gender in the classroom can help teachers reconsider or examine their current practices.
Increasing Student Engagement
Every year, we administer student, parent, and teacher surveys at schools with single-gender classes with regard to self-confidence, motivation, participation, and desire to complete hard work. Last year's results show that an average of 60 percent of the students' self-reports indicate that these characteristics increase by being in single-gender classes. Another 20 percent of students indicate "no change," while 20 percent perceive a decrease in those traits. It is important to note that within the student surveys, generally, African American students indicate the highest levels in increase across characteristics, a possible indication that gendered classrooms could be part of a response to the current achievement gap. Overall, about 75 percent of teachers and 68 percent of parents responded that they had seen an increase in those positive traits among their children involved in single-gender education.
In addition to survey data, in the 2008-09 school year we received achievement and discipline data from a small sample of schools that hints at the potential benefit of single-gender classes.
Additionally, building a sense of community and implementing teaching strategies may be easier in single-gender classes.
To provide a more systematic review of programs, we are requiring all schools with single-gender programs in math, science, English, language arts, and social studies to submit Measures of Academic Performance data by gender and ethnicity for the 2009-2010 school year.
Making the Move to Single-Gender Classes
Establishing single-gender classes requires time for planning, training for teachers, and a thorough review of the federal regulations. In South Carolina, the state department of education assists schools with each of these areas and provides ongoing technical assistance through a statewide coordinator whose sole function is to support schools in creating, implementing, and sustaining single-gender programs.
The South Carolina Office of Public School Choice and Innovation offers statewide workshops, on-site or Web-based professional development, monthly newsletters, an annual conference, and site visits. However, there is no required model, template, or program guide for schools. Ultimately, each school determines whether exercising the single-gender option would be a good fit and then takes responsibility for the program's success.
David Chadwell is the coordinator for Single-Gender Initiatives for the South Carolina Department of Education. He is the author of A Gendered Choice: Designing and Implementing Single-Sex Programs and School.
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