Gender, the brain, and school segregation

Op-Ed article in USA Today
by Lise Eliot, Ph.D. and Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D.
August 20, 2008

As summer vacation draws to a close, a growing number of children will be entering public schools without their opposite-sex peers. Driven by widespread fears about a "boy crisis" in education, and exacerbated by claims of dramatic brain differences between boys and girls, K-12 educators are caught in a spreading fire for gender segregation — a fire fueled by misperceptions more than reality.

Though good arguments can be made for single-sex educational experiences, gender differences in the brain are not among them. Boys and girls do not see, hear, read, remember, or calculate in any meaningfully different way that justifies segregating them into separate classrooms.

Yes, boys' brains average about 9% larger than girls', and girls' brains finish growing a year or two earlier than boys' do. Even so, these differences correlate better with bodily growth than cognitive ability.

While subtle gender differences exist in sensory, motor, cognitive and emotional skills, sex typically accounts for only 1% to 5% of the total variance — meaning the range of such abilities is much larger within a group of girls or boys than between the sexes. And yet, we have educators who believe they should separate boys and girls because of differences in hearing or visual abilities, serotonin or oxytocin levels, corpus callosum or planum temporale sizes.

Hyping the differences

Sex differences are sexy. Scientists often publish data showing profound gender similarities, but these studies rarely make it into public view. Rather, it is the studies reporting gender differences, however small or tentative, that are hyped. The same is true for research on single-sex K-12 education, which has generally found that success in such settings is not caused by gender segregation per se, or even gender-geared instructional techniques, but to the high expectations, dedicated faculty, family involvement and engaged students who choose to attend such schools.

The reality is that boys' achievement has not precipitously declined. On average, boys earn slightly lower grades than girls (about 0.2 out of a possible 4.0 high school GPA), but they also score better on high-stakes standardized tests, notably both math and verbal SAT exams. Nor is this "grade-test" disparity new; it has been with us as long as the National Center for Education Statistics and College Board have been tracking such data.

The hype about brain differences has also masked the good news about boys' and girls' achievement. Boys are closing the gap in elementary school reading and graduating from high school with higher writing scores than ever. Girls are taking more challenging math and science classes and participating in athletics in far greater numbers than decades ago.

Most important, students have done all this primarily in co-ed settings. We know boys and girls can both benefit from an instructional mix that includes cooperation and competition; hands-on learning; physical recreation; a broad sampling of literature; a blend of practical, essay and multiple-choice exams; and science and math instruction that emphasize real-world applications.

Preparing young people for citizenship in a democracy is central to the mission of this country's public education system. This includes academic achievement, but also developing the values of diversity and understanding, which are best learned from working with others who might not look, act, or think the same way.

The message

Our workplaces are increasingly integrated, our marriages increasingly symmetrical. What message are we sending children when we tell them girls and boys are so different that we cannot even teach them together? Educators need to focus on the realities of students' lives, not perpetuating gender stereotypes.

Boys and girls have much to learn from one another, whether it's academic skills, relational styles, or mutual respect. It's an odd logic that says this can happen better in a segregated environment, and odder still to claim that brain research supports it. If anything, neuroscience research has revealed the enormous plasticity — or learning ability — of the brain, especially in childhood.

A focus on gender differences emphasizes limitations; we send our children to school to expand, not limit, their possibilities.

Lise Eliot, Ph.D., is associate professor of neuroscience at The Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University. She is completing a book about gender differences in children's brains and abilities. Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D., is executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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