Virginia School Puts Unique Spin on Single-Sex Teaching
by Allison Ford
Just a few years ago, Woodbridge Middle School was not so different from many other suburban middle schools, with a large and diverse student body and middling test scores. The school lies in a northern Virginia district with high schools that offer a number of specialty programs for students, including performing arts, biotechnology, language and global affairs, and environmental studies. After seeing a presentation by Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist whose book Why Gender Matters details the innate differences in the way boys and girls learn, a new superintendant and the school administration decided that the best way to serve their students and improve their academic record would be to separate the girls from the boys—and teach each gender according to how they learn best.
Our Brains Are Not the Same
“We knew it was going to be somewhat controversial,” says Kristen Williams, chair of the school’s math department. After holding informational meetings for curious parents, the teachers at Woodbridge underwent extensive training to learn about how girls’ and boys’ brains develop differently and to develop teaching strategies that would take advantage of those variations. Dr. Sax theorized that because of those inborn differences—in girls, the language areas of the brain develop before the areas used for spatial relations and math; in boys, it’s the other way around—traditional education does both genders a grave injustice. “A curriculum that teaches the same subjects in the same sequence to girls and boys runs the risk of giving rise to twelve-year-old girls who think they can’t do geometry—and that they will never be any good at geometry—and twelve-year-old boys who don’t like to read or write,” he told Education Week in 2005.
In 2006, Woodbridge began the opt-in Same Gender Program, which separates girls and boys for their core academic subjects: math, language arts, social studies, and science. Although each class follows the same curriculum, the techniques used to teach each class are different. The girls’ classes at Woodbridge feature collaborative and social learning, while boys’ lessons are based on competition and physical activity. Other unconventional adjustments to the teaching curriculum help make a difference; for example, according to the Woodbridge Web site, teachers use surnames to address the male students, while color-coded notes help establish learning patterns in the girls’ classes.
At the beginning of the program, parents and students may have been skeptical, but Ms. Williams says, “As it’s caught on, the data is speaking for itself.” The program has been successful enough that each year, more parents request to place their children in a same-sex classroom. Now in its third full year, the current group of eighth-graders is the first to progress all the way through the program. As a girls’ math teacher, she says, “You can see a dramatic difference in the way the girls are willing to perform in class, especially in math.”
In a typical junior high classroom, students not only have to contend with learning the material, but they also have to overcome the pressure of interacting with the opposite sex. But at Woodbridge, the Same Gender Program offers a distraction-free environment in which students can learn. “A strong student is a strong student, no matter what environment you put them in,” says Ms. Williams. But girls, who often struggle in math, are sometimes less willing to take a chance in coed classes, fearing that they might get an answer wrong. “They’re so much more willing to step out of their comfort zone when they’re with female peers,” she says. “‘Safe’ is the word they use; they feel like they don’t have to perform in front of the boys.” For girls in math class, just like for boys in language arts classes, the students learn without the distraction of the opposite sex, and as much as they’re learning their lessons, they’re also gaining confidence and self-sufficiency.
One of the major criticisms of Woodbridge’s program is that it reinforces gender stereotypes and could leave the students without the skills to thrive in a traditional academic setting, where all students are expected to learn by the same means. Ms. Williams disagrees, saying, “Our students are no different than students who go to traditional private or traditional single-sex schools.” Just as students of single-sex schools or other specialty programs have no trouble adjusting to traditional education, there’s no reason to think that students from Woodbridge’s program would have a different experience. Woodbridge’s goal is to give the students a solid academic foundation, which will prepare them to go on to whatever higher education they choose.
The National Association for Single Sex Public Education advises that the key to successful single-sex schooling is more than just putting girls and boys in different rooms; teachers need the correct training and experience to differentiate their teaching strategies to help each student reach his or her potential. Although there are countless studies that show students in single-sex environments test higher and report higher self-esteem and confidence, one of the biggest benefits to single-sex education is that it breaks down gender stereotypes, instead of reinforcing them. A study conducted at the University of Virginia in 2003 found that boys enrolled in single-sex education were more than twice as likely to pursue traditionally “feminine” subjects like art, music, and drama. Other studies show that girls are much more likely to express interest in higher mathematics, advanced science, and computer technology.
For some people, single-sex education sounds suspiciously like gender stereotyping, but schools like Woodbridge are showing that it can help both girls and boys achieve success with the exact same materials, teachers, and resources. “We’re not teaching girls to be Holly Homemakers,” says Ms. Williams. “Once parents get the information, they understand that it’s just an instructional delivery method—we’re teaching the exact same material.”
Single-sex programs, once solely the province of private and religious schools, are beginning to show up in public schools all over the country. Only a few years in, it’s too soon to predict the future of Woodbridge’s Same Gender Program, but since enrollment and test scores are both up, all signs point to success. Although the school’s Web site is full of praise from proud parents, and teachers like Ms. Williams profess to love the change, the ones who benefit the most are, of course, the kids themselves, and Ms. Williams says that they’re happy, too. “They will tell you that they really feel like they can learn better.”