Why fix the problem when we can push for a feel-good policy that won’t work?

Apparently, there’s still a horrible crisis in education.  And the answer according to some pundits is to go back to single sex schools.

Advocates of single-sex education for girls believe that, in general, many girls thrive when educated apart from boys. Research concerning the academic achievement of girls suggests that in coeducational classrooms they often defer to boys, are called on less frequently than boys, receive significantly less teacher attention than boys, and are less likely than boys to study mathematics and science. Evidence suggests that attending single-sex schools improves many girls’ academic performance and attitude toward less traditional school subjects for girls while encouraging them to assume non-traditional career paths.

Granted, it’s compelling.  The problem is, it disregards the fact that girls have, in fact, been doing better in school thanks to a new awareness of the problem and steps to correct it.

The single-sex empowerment theory has already been called into question.

The study identified some benefits to both girls and boys: The single-sex setting in some cases eliminated social distractions and allowed for better concentration on academics and open discussion about dating and pregnancy.

But these benefits were undermined because gender equity often was not addressed in the classrooms, gender stereotypes were often reinforced and in some cases stereotypical behaviors were worsened, according to the report. "Single-gender, public academies need to guard against becoming a new form of tracking or resegregation," it said. "Segregation might lead to a safe or comfortable space for some populations, but they clearly create tensions for race and gender equity."

The academic success of both girls and boys was influenced more by small classes, strong curricula, dedicated teachers and equitable teaching practices than by single-sex settings, the researchers said. This finding reinforced those of a 1998 study by the American Association of University Women that concluded that separating the sexes does not necessarily improve the quality of education for girls. [Emphasis mine.]

So the next tactic is to talk about how horrible it is for boys.

For boys, single-sex schools may be more likely to provide male role models; consequently many perceive them as effective remedies in communities where boys suffer from high dropout rates, low academic achievement, truancy and violence. Because of the potential for providing role models for high risk youth, the few single-sex programs for boys that have emerged in public schools are usually in urban areas and emphasize mentoring relationships between men and boys, high academic achievement, self-esteem building, and responsibility to the community.

Male role models are great–but what are you going to do if there aren’t a lot of male teachers?  My father was taught in all-boys schools, and in grade school his teachers were nuns (in high school they were Jesuit priests).  How many male role models do you think he had in school during his formative years?

Those "at risk youth"?  They are at risk because they are poor.  High dropout rates, low academic achievement, truancy, and violence are almost all resulting from poverty (although wealthy white entitled boys have their own tendency to violence; this, however, is not a problem but a bit of fun).

The problem isn’t girls.  It’s poverty.

Poor neighborhoods (many of which are Black and Latino) are not able to raise as many funds to keep their schools in good shape, to get updated textbooks, to pay teachers well, or to have the basics that many of the pundits take for granted, like, say, working bathrooms. But when it comes to funding schools the at-risk youth attend, especially when those "at-risk" youth are Black, people balk.

Ostensibly, the message was about the decision 11 schools made to secede from a high school athletic conference, the South Inter Conference Association. But the message went well beyond athletics and focused squarely on academic achievement. In pertinent part, the caller said, "I watched the neighborhoods all change. The schools that used to be good like Rich Central, Rich East and Rich South are all failing. Why are they failing? Because of what’s in ’em."

The caller left no doubt about what she meant by "what’s in ’em." She meant, in her words, "poor blackie." Earlier in her recorded message, she bemoaned giving "poor blackie" a free education, subsidized housing and welfare. So there you have it. According to the mystery caller, schools in communities such as Harvey, Dolton and South Holland fail because they are full of poor black kids.

If the caller did some research before launching her diatribe, she’d realize she was only half right. It’s not race that leads to failing academics, but poverty. Consider the students in Odin High School in rural, southern Illinois. According to the most recent Illinois School Report Card, Odin High is on the academic watch list because of poor test scores.

Most kids in Odin, just like Dolton, fail Illinois state standardized tests that cover math, reading, writing, science and social studies. In some subjects, the kids in Dolton scored higher; in others, the kids in Odin. Bottom line: Most children in both schools registered failing grades in all subjects and live in poverty. The only key difference between the two schools is race. More than 95 percent of the kids in Dolton are black, while in Odin more than 95 percent are white. Do you think the person who left the message with the Sun-Times would amend it to complain about "poor whitey"?

Poor kids often go to school with empty stomachs.  They go to school with untreated illness.  They live in neighborhoods that tend to have a higher concentration of environmentally damaging businesses–medical incinerators,  factory dumping, and toxic waste.  The kids get sick from ingesting lead and other damaging materials, they get asthma from all of the crap in the air, and they have subpar medical care because they are poor.  They live in unsafe, run-down firetraps.  They go to school with untreated dental problems because their parents can’t afford to take them to the dentist.  Ever try to concentrate when you had a toothache?  When you were sick but your parents couldn’t stay home with you because they both had to work a couple of jobs to make rent?  Ever try to concentrate with a neck or back that’s thrown out because you have to sleep on the couch since there is only one bedroom and your other siblings have it?

Current funding policies exacerbate this problem.

The nation’s main program for educating the disadvantaged, Title I, is hampered by loopholes that prevent it from fulfilling its mission, according to a new study.

The $13 billion Title I program, now the major funding arm of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind act, must close the loopholes if it is to ensure that school districts channel the money to needy schools, said lead author Marguerite Roza, a research assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

The new research documents how current rules allow the federal funds intended for low-income schools to be shifted – sometimes inadvertently – to affluent schools within the same district.

"In some places," Roza said, "taxpayer money intended to help overcome the effects of poverty is actually diverted to schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods."

This stems from a practice that was scrutinized by Roza and her colleagues at the university’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. In almost every school district, experienced teachers are not only far better-paid than novice teachers, but they are far more likely to work in wealthier parts of town.

However, district accounting practices typically fail to show this hidden subsidy for affluent students. Instead, most districts count costs as if salaries were the same in every school.

In the real world, the study shows, this means poor children get shortchanged. When Houston’s actual teacher salaries are factored in, for example, low-income schools there get $472 less per student in non-targeted state and local funds than the district average.

Thus, the study found that despite Title I language requiring that the aid reach schools in impoverished neighborhoods, in practice the grant flows into district funding systems favoring the rich.

Do you think that maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t that boys and girls go to school together, but that the kids who are furthest behind are shortchanged?  A feel-good, retro "solution" isn’t going to fix the problem.  Blaming race or gender for this won’t help.  Actually providing the funding for a decent place to learn, coupled with efforts to alleviate and eradicate poverty will.

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15 comments for “Why fix the problem when we can push for a feel-good policy that won’t work?

  1. La Lubu
    October 31, 2006 at 8:49 am

    Thank you for this post. I am very opposed to single-sex schools in my community, where it would unquestionably be another powerful vehicle for indocrinating sexist values in the minds of children. To claim that because single-sex wealthy prep schools have a positive effect on young women, that single-sex schools are the “answer” to sexism is flat-out wrong. In school districts already pressed for money, hard choices have to be made—if a district has to choose which school gets the science lab, which school gets the shop class, which school gets the new computers for calculus class—who do you think is going to receive the funding for these educational advantages? The girls school? When we still have to yell loud and strong that yes, girls can perform well at math?!

    Another thing that bothers me is the sex-segregated culture that would be reinforced under such a plan. I battle this sex-segregation through my employment. It is harder for women to find mentors and advance in the trades because of the long standing culture of not socializing with women*. It’s not just on-the-job that one forms a network, y’know. Every male apprentice that I watched become a foreman, general foreman, superintendent even—did so primarily on the basis of his close personal relationships with the other males who had the power to help him advance. Their working relationships weren’t just solidified on the job, but off the job as well. That was how the trust was built, and more knowledge handed down. Men use vehicles like the Masonic lodge, the K of C, and various other clubs in my area to make contacts and build a network. All of these clubs have as their common denominator single-sex membership.

    Starting early on reinforcing single-sex friendships, partnerships, and communication in general is only going to serve to increase the prevailing myths about men and women. This is not, I repeat, not a battle we have even come close to winning yet. As such, we shouldn’t be willing to cede ground.

    *many men are reluctant to develop the same type of “friend” relationship with female coworkers. It isn’t based in a hostility to women, but is a strategy to avoid “sexual tension” or teasing by other workers. See, tradespeople don’t have a whole helluva lot of time for on-the-job socializing, and we don’t tend to work in large teams. The deepest bonds are made off-the-job, or on-the-road. About the only way for a woman to crack this barrier is to be strongly involved in the union and the political movement the union supports, and to go on the road for at least a while. Still, it’s depressing to see young men have their talents recognized and developed, while young (or old) women of equal or superior skills fall by the wayside. I always tell female apprentices to get involved in union work and causes, because it presents the only vehicle she has for fitting in.

  2. Louise
    October 31, 2006 at 9:10 am

    Oh, this is an EXCELLENT post! Well done! My husband went to an all-boy, expensive prep school outside of Boston, and I went to a public school in an area so small that kids from 15+ towns were bussed as far as 50 miles one-way to the high school. Poverty was DEFINITELY a factor in some of my classmates!

    One friend, whose father died suddenly of a heart attack when we were sophmores, grew up in a shack. She was a smart kid who knew college was not going to be in the cards for her, so she graduated and became a clerk at an automotive parts store. Her mother was an alcoholic and my friend had to support her mom, her younger brother (who got a girl pregnant when they were 15 or so), the GF (who got booted out by her own family) and their baby.

    Poverty causes so much despair and hopelessness; it also can cause people to make horrendous choices and throw their lives away. Every day the news brings us more and more examples of this. How the hell can a kid TRY to get out of that trap when they are cold and/or hungry? At that point, who the hell CARES about algebra or anything else?

    I was lucky. My parents were DETERMINED to give me a chance. They scrimped so we kids were fed and warm. So we could get good grades and scholarships to help pay for college and graduated without thousands in debt. I can never thank them enough.

  3. Louise
    October 31, 2006 at 9:24 am

    Oh, and Lubu’s comments reminded me (because I also HATE the men/women roles foisted upon children!!)- my friend later became MANAGER of her automotic parts/national chain store. She may have been a petite 5′ at most, and her people skills were excellent- she learned everything from complete scratch about the store and corporate nature. The guys in the garage bays had nothing for respect for her- they KNEW she could handle the job of managing the store with ease!

    As I learned from my best friend (my grandfather, who also felt girls and boys were equal- I had to cut and stack firewood, just like the boys did, on weekends at his house): ANY JOB WORTH DOING IS WORTH DOING WELL. He was a deaf janitor’s son with only 8 years of formal education, and one of the best self-educated men I have yet to meet.

    The bigger problem is HOW to overcome poverty- and I’m at a loss how that is done, other than on an individual basis. But it needs to be addressed, without judgement or shame. Poverty can happen to ANYONE for a variety of reasons.

  4. Hawise
    October 31, 2006 at 10:03 am

    Louise says: The bigger problem is HOW to overcome poverty- and I’m at a loss how that is done, other than on an individual basis. But it needs to be addressed, without judgement or shame. Poverty can happen to ANYONE for a variety of reasons.

    Part of the problem is that we treat poverty as a disease and we define it narrowly. We often assume that the presence of stuff is proof of wealth and therefore the reverse must be true. How often have we seen people buy their way into poverty by the accumulation of consumer goods? How many of us are on the precipice of bancruptcy for that very reason? We keep forgetting that poverty is not the absence of things but the absence of options.
    This is why poverty is so difficult a task to combat. It is individual and each individual has to be dealt with based on their needs and requirements. Society can help by creating options but only the individual knows which ones apply. I f we start with the most basic and work our way up then we can solve the problem- no quick fixes, just a day-by-day, case-by-case slog. Water, shelter, food, work, education, health. Educate for self-reliance (not self-esteem), for the process of learning and for skills. Teach people preventive medecine and how the system works in practice and not in theory. Encourage people to find work that they will be good at and not just the next hot job.
    The problem is that practical solutions are hard work and take a concentrated effort. We live in a 24 hour news cycle where the next new thing is just a click away and where legislators have to pass their own new and improved bill and not fix the old and reliable system that needs a tweak now and then. Sometimes we just need to tweak and stack, no matter how long it takes.

  5. Louise
    October 31, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    Hawise, brilliantly said.

  6. Hawise
    October 31, 2006 at 1:08 pm

    Of course my ten-year old has an opinion on same sex education. He would like it because ‘girls have cooties.’ When I explained that he would still have to get his homework done before computer or playstation time, he felt that he needed no change in the current coed situation.

  7. Louise
    October 31, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    My 11 year old daughter says it’s the BOYS with cooties!! And she gives me the same grief over electronics and homework- wouldn’t it horrify them to realize- GASP!- boys and girls have something in common??? (besides us evil moms, that is…)

  8. Hawise
    October 31, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    Evil Moms rule- especially on Halloween. I am being especially evil as my son has decided at the last moment to reject the costume planned for tonight. Result-no Trick-or-treating.

  9. twf
    October 31, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    I’m volunteering with an all-girls after-school science program. I have mixed feelings about it. Normally I’m opposed to gender segregation, but this is extracurricular rather than the school itself, and its goal of introducing more girls to doing science for fun is a good one.

    I actually tend to forget that all the kids I’m working with are girls. I even call them “guys” most of the time. One of my two co-volunteers never forgets. She tells me we should introduce more art because “girls like colouring.” She also thinks girls like pink and purple. Sigh.

    But at least we’ve got a range of role-models for these kids. The pretty-girl ultra-femme physiotherapist, the very-conventional some-makeup biologist, and me, the engineer in jeans and no makeup.

  10. kate
    October 31, 2006 at 9:58 pm

    The bigger problem is HOW to overcome poverty- and I’m at a loss how that is done, other than on an individual basis. But it needs to be addressed, without judgement or shame. Poverty can happen to ANYONE for a variety of reasons.

    Poverty is a conundrum because we as a society choose to make it a conundrum. It is systemic, it is individual, it is societal, it is cultural. It is all of those things. But none of them seperately.

    In around 1999, I heard that it takes about $13.50 to care for a family of four, at poverty level. That was in 1999, I’m sure the numbers have increased.

    And yet middle class and lower middle class people will constantly assume the positions of the ‘rich’ man by defending tax cuts, defending the abolition of the estate tax and other actions that benefit only the wealthy. It is ingrained in our culture to side with the millionaire, to sympathize with his/her cause and ignore the loss that such incurrs for us. Argue with a working guy about why the Republicans have no interest in his welfare and certainly you’ll get a lot of defense of the wealthy coming at you.

    No one wants to be poor.

    We don’t see poor people like the images we think of, homeless people on the streets, the unwashed and the unkept. Poverty runs deeper and can easily hide behind dollar store dresses and shiny used cars bought on installments (which do nothing to build credit by the way), or furniture from Rent-A-Center.

    When people move down the economic ladder to the depths of poverty, they disappear, ignored, scuttled along and dehumanized. Ashamed they stay there, in the poor neighborhood, rebuffed at what many middle class people consider regular social events (such as events for the kids), they stay home instead.

    Poverty leads to hopeless, despair and increased stress and anxiety. Imagine having to work all day at a bone numbing dead-end job (factor work, service work), where you have no ability to make even the most rudimentary decisions. Every week you receive a check that you know won’t cover all the bills, what to do? You need an education to get better pay, how long will that take? Two years? Four years? Out of the question, you need a solution now, the landlord wants the rent by Friday and the lights are getting shut off tomorrow. What to do? Hope for that nickel raise? If you are a single mother with kids, you have no rest, no time to play, no time for friends, work and sleep.

    Take the kids to the park? Only if you can walk and only if you have the time. Need a sitter? Only if you have the cash. Brakes bad in the car? Now you got a ticket for non-inspection and you can’t get to work tomorrow. Fired, start all over again, move, beg a landlord to let you in..

    Drug use and alcohol consumption are the poor person’s elixer against the constant hopeless grind of dead-end jobs, substandard housing, social rejection and alienation. Alcoholism and drug addiction lead to and thrive in poverty. And these people are the least able to afford a habit that can lead to poor judgment and even greater economic loss or crisis.

    As long as poor people remain invisible, then everyone can pretend to understand or look the other way, generalizing that poverty exists because of people’s inability or unwillingness to just ‘get up and change’ one day. It isn’t that simple

    Also, you get into culture, where those who have grown up in a certain class adopt their own ways of coping and living in the world they know and understand. They cope in the ways they learned; not valuing education, not trusting police or other civic authorities who could actually help them which also leads to a distrust of any established institutions, whether the local social services organization or the public school system. Alienation breeds ignorance and assumptions. Poor people have as many wrong assumptions about middle class folks and about how the world around them works as the other way around. They adopt a perception based on their own experience, based on what they know.

    To blame these people entirely for not trusting established institutions denies the real rejection, alienation and downright hatred poor people have to face everyday in ‘regular’ society. School teachers looking down on them, patronizing or not caring about their children (or them), police who are quick to judge, however unfairly, based on prejudices or stereotypes – a year in jail as opposed to probation or even a not guilty verdict; social workers who want to preach at or take the kids away, but not offer real understanding or help; teachers quick to blame the parents for the child who is sleepy in class (didn’t get to bed soon enough) or can’t read up to speed (who has time to read to her?), or is distracted because the other kids are teasing her for the fortieth time about her dollar store shoes or her patched or cheap jeans.

    I could go on, but I”ll stop.

    What was the post? Oh, segregated schools. I used to be for it, but I’ve changed my mind over the years, for the reasons stated above. It only puts our society backward to the days when girls and boys barely knew eachother and mythology about one or the other (usually the females) persist, into adulthood. I don’t want us making those kind of adults.

  11. Dianne
    October 31, 2006 at 10:29 pm

    Research concerning the academic achievement of girls suggests that in coeducational classrooms they often defer to boys, are called on less frequently than boys

    When I was in college, back in the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth, a professor in one of my classes stated, without citing evidence, that women spoke up in class less often because they were “inately” less assertive. Being a good little academic nerd, I decided to test his underlying hypothesis (ie that women were less likely to speak up in class). So I observed the interactions in my classes for the next week. The results? When a professor asked a question of the class at large, men and women were equally likely to respond. When he or she asked a question of a specific person, however, that person was 3X more likely to be a man than a woman.

    So, I told the prof my results the next time he gave the lecture (in this course, three profs lectured a large group which then separated into 3 smaller discussion groups twice a week.) He could have responded in a number of ways. He could have told me that this sort of uncontrolled study was only slightly better than anecdote. He could have pointed out numerous potential confounders, from the content of the classes I was taking to the nature of the students that this particular college attracted. He could have, in the best case scenario, said “interesting observation…let’s talk about how to do a formal study.” But he didn’t do any of these things. He simply said, condescendingly, “that’s unusual”, again offering no evidence for his statement, and went on to answer, in much greater detail, a question from a boy in the class.

    Fortunately for my academic career, the prof who ran my small group section hated this prof and was very amused that I contradicted him, so my grade didn’t suffer and may even have improved as a result of that episode. But I’ve always felt that I missed an opportunity by not studying the issue formally. And when people start to talk about how women are intimidated by the presence of male classmates and therefore don’t speak up, I rarely believe them.

  12. Hawise
    November 1, 2006 at 8:27 am

    Diane- When a professor asked a question of the class at large, men and women were equally likely to respond. When he or she asked a question of a specific person, however, that person was 3X more likely to be a man than a woman.

    I solved this problem in my Jurassic university years by using my profs’ bias against him. I started to sit in the front row and embroider during the lectures. I became the target of his questions as he tried to prove that I couldn’t be paying attention to him. Soon a friend came down and started knitting beside me. The prof would invariably aim his questions at us and we would invariably answer correctly or add on to his arguments. He seemed to think that we couldn’t work with our hands and listen at the same time, boy was he wrong. Eventually he gave up but by then the men had taken to leaving tape recorders and leaving, so he had to choice but to include the women.
    I still embroider during meetings but those who know me don’t question it.

  13. Dianne
    November 1, 2006 at 12:43 pm

    Hawise, that’s just beautiful!

  14. Hawise
    November 1, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    Everything worth knowing I learned from the French Revolution ;)

  15. Louise
    November 1, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    LOL! I was thinking “Tale of Two Cities” as I read your post!!! But maybe that’s because we’ve been making Dickensian fruitcakes this week…

Comments are closed.