12 March 2009

Teaching Sexism?

At P.S. 140 in the Bronx, Michael Napolitano teaches a class with all boys, while another teacher (female -- of course?) has all the girls in another classroom down the hall. As Jennifer Medina tells it in the New York Times,
“There’s an aspect of male bonding, a closeness that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said. “I feel more like I am teaching them about right from wrong than I might have normally.” And he said he can “be a little more stern” with his students now. “If I get in the face of a girl, she would just cry,” he said. “The boys respond to it, they know it’s part of being a young man.”
It's an interesting experiment. The idea is that girls will be more comfortable asserting their ability, while boys will be less distracted, in single-sex classrooms.

Anecdotal evidence seems to bear this out: the father of one of the boys in the special class says his son is behaving better. The school principal says discipline is better and the kids involved participate more in class and take part in more after-school activities. These are important factors.

But the school also has a third classroom, with both boys and girls. And the kids in the co-ed class have been scoring better on city-wide math and social studies tests than the ones in the single-sex classrooms. A similar experiment done in the 1990s in California was stopped after a few years when, similarly, test scores didn't improve.

But perhaps more disturbing are the gender stereotypes being reinforced by, around, and in the classroom division. Boys need tough treatment. Girls cry. The girls' teacher has them do lots of collaborative work, reinforcing the idea that girls work well together, and scolds them "like a therapist." Ouch.

The school has 30 teachers, of whom only four are men. A better solution might be to increase the pay and improve the working conditions of classroom teaching until primary schools can attract as many male as female teachers -- so that both boys and girls will be as likely to have a male teacher as a female one in any given class.

Another important factor: training and frequent re-training in issues surrounding classroom dynamics as affected by gender as well as personality and other factors. Make sure all the teachers, male and female, are treating individual students as individuals, not as "boys" or as "girls."

One of the boy's in Mr. Napolitano's class, though, has learned well the perhaps unintentional lesson taught by the single-sex classes: “I am learning how to be a man.”

Remember "Math is hard" Barbie?