This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Karen Palasek, Director of Educational and Academic Programs at the John Locke Foundation.

Should boys and girls attend classes together, in single-sex groups, or in some combination of single-sex and mixed-sex classes? The question is as ambiguous as the answers. In some cases, it appears that educators are seeking more boy-typical behaviors from girls and more girl-typical behavior from boys. Often, single-sex programs are unclear as to the goals they seek. This seems to stem from a general lack of clarity about the problem they have identified, and even as to which sex, if not both, experiences a problem that single-sex classes can address.

In recent weeks, talk about placing boys and girls in separate classrooms has emerged as the result of an experiment in Carrboro’s McDougle Middle School. It seems that one Carrboro middle school teacher, Dorothy Works, a 31-year teaching veteran who is retiring after this school year, decided to test her theory on some of the school’s students. Her school superintendent and school board weren’t consulted; parents and children were notified the Friday afternoon before the Monday split took place. Ms. Works didn’t want “to run the risk of someone saying, ‘No, no, no.'” An interesting strategy.

Discussions about boy-girl brain differences, distractions, socialization, maturity, intimidation, learning styles, expression, discrimination, and academic rigor have been around for quite some time. The practice of separate-sex education is nothing new in private education, where there are lots of examples of both single-sex and mixed-sex schools and classes. There are no conclusive answers about which is a superior system, no matter where one looks.

In public education, single-sex schools and classes are unusual and often controversial, but allowed under specific circumstances.

Here are some possible reasons for which parents may want to choose single-sex schools or classes for their children, for all or part of their academic careers. The single-sex setting:
• Reduces distraction from academic work and increases academic performance (because social concerns distract);
• Serves health, religious, or ethical concerns;
• Reduces competition (usually for girls—as a motivator);
• Increases competition (usually for boys—as a motivator);
• Reduces peer pressure (eliminating labels like “nerd,” “dummy,” and “teacher’s pet”);
• Allows more boy-centric or girl-centric learning styles, responses, or topics (if the students are uncomfortable with other-sex styles); and
• Reduces sex-based expectations and stereotyping (they should not be pigeonholed into “girl” topics/styles vs. “boy” styles—this is really a feminist equity complaint).

Does boy-girl interaction in school or in class do any good at all? One wouldn’t know it, given the litany above, but I think that the answer is yes. There are valuable lessons that mixed classes and mixed company convey. They include:
• Learning to deal with the opposite sex. Most boys will marry girls, and vice versa. Intellectual, physical, and emotional respect for the opposite sex is tougher to learn in a vacuum.
• Civilization. Girls civilize boys’ behavior, and vice versa. (Surprise!) Boys will do things in the company of boys that they would never do in mixed company. They include, to my knowledge, hawking huge gobs of spit at the ceiling of the locker room (best not to do this while a counselor is in the room, as these particular boys learned); and, in my experience at an all-girl high school, using the last class of every school day to apply makeup and roll up the waistband of the uniform skirt (before meeting up with the boys at the bus stop).

As for the Carrboro middle school experiment, whether results are good or bad, Ms. Works made a poor and an arrogant decision to separate her students. Her action demonstrates disrespect for these children’s parents. They could have been consulted or asked for their permission; they could have been taken seriously as authority figures in their children’s lives. If the parents thought Ms. Works’ plan was a good idea, they could have capitulated. Instead, they were discounted. It’s telling that this teacher suspected they would say, “No, no, no.” Ms. Works’ attitude toward her school board and administration doesn’t score any higher, either. She took a cowardly route and put her plan into action when she was effectively gone (retiring the next year) anyway.

If we want kids to behave well for whatever reason, including better academic performance, we need to make sure they see good behavior in the adults around them. Modeling behavior that says it’s OK to disrespect others, to act with impunity on your wishes, and to treat your goals as too important to merit consulting others’ opinion is the wrong message to send. The experiment may end, but the lesson will linger.