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.

Recently, talk about placing boys and girls in separate classrooms has emerged from an experiment in Carrboro’s McDougle Middle School. A 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. She didn’t consult the school superintendent or the school board; parents and children were notified the Friday afternoon before the split took place Monday. Works didn’t want “to run the risk of someone saying, ‘No, no, no.’”

Discussions about boy-girl brain differences, distractions, socialization, maturity, intimidation, learning styles, expression, discrimination, and academic rigor have been around for quite some time. 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 might 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 such as “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);
• 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.

As for the Carrboro experiment, whether results are good or bad, 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 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.” Works’ attitude toward her school board and administration doesn’t score any higher, either.

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 might end, but the lesson will linger.

Dr. Karen Palasek is director of educational and academic programs for the John Locke Foundation.