WASHINGTON -- Now that the Bush administration has removed some of the onus on single sex education, perhaps the Byzantine and often self-serving world of public education can begin to take some other common sense steps to meet the demands of the 21st century. But don't count on that occurring rapidly in a system that for decades has refused to budge from traditional approaches and has been misused by causists.
Educators worthy of the title know in their heart of hearts that most boys and girls would do better being taught separately from kindergarten through the 8th grade and probably beyond, particularly the males who are often lost in a female world of academia. But getting many teachers to express that openly in the face of often devastating attacks by the extremist fringe of the women's movement has been almost out of the question. Those administering the schools, meanwhile, have been content to let sleeping dogs alone because of the controversy and the increased costs the concept may carry with it.
But finally the U.S. Department of Education has put a stamp of approval on a program that only a relatively small number of the nation's public schools currently are engaged in. Hopefully there will be a steady if not dramatic increase as more mothers and fathers override irrational objections, realizing that boys and girls learn at different paces because of different mental and physical maturity rates. Ask any parent with both.
When a colleague with several boys was told that his expecting wife would have a female this time, another colleague said it wouldn't take much experience with the little girl for him to begin to think that his boys were retarded. From their earliest moments a girl's mental agility is 10 degrees above that of their male siblings.
In the early stages of their education girls are verbal, follow written instructions far better and have an attention span infinitely longer than boys, who generally do better with things they can feel. Boys spend a lot of time each day bouncing around in between assignments, frequently annoying the girls. A part of every boy's day is looking out the window. Because most of the teachers in these grades are women, they inherently communicate better with their female charges than their male ones whose parents they placate by explaining that the boys are "dreamers" or "late bloomers" who ultimately will catch up.
The feminist argument that single sex education would be just another victimization of females is utter nonsense. It is the males who increasingly are victims, particularly in elementary grades and even further, a fact that prompted this decision and is highlighted by falling male enrollments in college. At the high school level, girls who once were afraid of not being attractive to boys if they are too bright have become fiercely competitive. Boys, while making up some ground in their learning skills, have fallen further behind. So it always has made sense to teach them at in separate classes where they can learn at the pace that suits their differences and avoids the distractions. Socialization can come at recess or during other out-of-class activities.
Even at the college level opposition to admission of women to both state and federal military academies actually was based not as much on the physical differences but on what women would do to the classroom curve. Women have persevered in engineering despite the bankrupt belief that women don't do well in math and science. My daughter-in-law has two degrees and a heck of a good job in mechanical engineering.
Now if there is hope finally for the single sex concept, maybe other less radical ideas like adjusting times to permit high school students to come to school an hour later each day have some chance. Several major studies have shown that when teenagers get just 60 minutes more sleep there is substantial improvement in their attentiveness and thus their grades.
Tragically, while the simple solutions would enhance the success of the mission by improving a system that has been increasingly maligned, these controversial measures rarely gain purchase for a variety of superficial reasons, including the personal needs of the teachers or the administrators. Coming to school later, for instance, means leaving later in the afternoon and is inconvenient for teachers and their bosses.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard.