The Mars-Venus curriculum
Early edition: At a Clearwater elementary school, an experiment is under way. The idea: Since boys and girls learn differently, why not teach them separately?
By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published January 20, 2007
CLEARWATER -- Just when Fran Harvey thought she had her third-grade boys figured out, they turned the tables on her.
Assuming they would crave action, she packed her bookshelves with adventure stories. Then several of the boys became concerned about a character who was injured in a bicycle accident.
After bracing herself for student essays that would be fast-paced and maybe a bit violent, she received missives about family vacations and puppies.
Harvey, who has been teaching an all-boys class at Belcher Elementary since August, quickly adjusted her expectations.
“I can’t lump them into one category and say, 'Boys are like this,’” she said. “Boys are not all one way.”
Six months after the creation of four single-sex classrooms at the Clearwater school, Harvey and the other single-gender teachers are finding a basis in fact for much of the research regarding “boy brains” and “girl brains.”
They’re learning that girls tend to work better in groups, and boys, who are more active, benefit from daily breaks that allow them to burn off excess energy.
But there have been surprises.
It turns out second-grade girls can be just as competitive as second-grade boys in math. And third-grade boys can be every bit as chatty as third-grade girls — in every subject.
The school decided to try single-gender classes last spring after reviewing data that showed boys were outpacing girls in math and science while girls were surpassing the boys in reading and writing. Teachers spent the summer tailoring their styles to match the different ways boys and girls learn and debuted the single-gender option at the start of the school year.
Early indications are that the strategies are working, said principal Lisa Roth. A comparison of children’s math scores at the end of November showed the gap has narrowed between boys and girls in the single-gender classes since the beginning of the year.
Meanwhile, reading scores for girls in the third-grade single-gender class surpassed those of girls in the co-ed third grade. Most exciting of all, Roth said, reading scores of boys in the single-gender second grade shot up dramatically.
But while the test scores are encouraging, they’re not the only way to measure success, said Carol Thomas, an assistant superintendent in charge of elementary education for Pinellas schools.
“The children appeared comfortable in the single-gender classes I visited,” Thomas said. “I felt that joy for learning.”
• • •
While single-gender education is unusual in west-central Florida — Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties have discussed it but have not come up with a plan — it is not new in Florida.
Several schools, including Odyssey Middle in Boynton Beach, began offering single sex classrooms in 2003. Woodward Avenue Elementary in DeLand followed suit in 2005. Both schools have posted higher test scores overall and have narrowed the gap between boys and girls in math and reading.
The schools’ success doesn’t surprise Kathy Stevens, training director for the Gurian Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo., which helps schools and parents understand how gender affects learning.
Focusing on the difference in learning styles between boys and girls only makes sense, especially for boys, Stevens said.
“Usually by third grade, boys have decided school is for girls,” Stevens said. “They’ve been sitting across the aisle from a girl who has beautiful handwriting and who reads more words than they can. Boys see that as competition, and they tend not to want to play games they can’t win.”
Meanwhile, boys tend to gobble up so much of a teacher’s attention that girls often feel left out, Stevens said.
Girls, who she said are less assertive by nature, can feel marginalized.
“What you’re doing in a single-gender elementary class is getting girls into the mind-set right from the beginning that they are capable and that they can compete,” Stevens said.
Belcher parents lend credence to Stevens’ assessment.
Cathy Flowers, whose son Jacob is in Harvey’s single-gender third grade, said she has seen positive changes in the 8-year-old.
“Last year, it was a big struggle to get him to read,” Flowers said. “He’s reading more on his own now. He’s also more fluent.”
William Montfort has noticed that his 7-year-old daughter Angel has “blossomed” in the five months she has been in Steve Abernathy’s single-gender third-grade class.
“I quiz her in math every day,” Montfort said. “She’s gone from answering my questions slowly to answering them immediately.”
But it’s unclear whether the improvement Belcher parents are seeing is due to gender-specific instructional techniques or because the children are being taught by proactive teachers who meet regularly to review data and share ideas.
“The minute you start to pay that much attention to what you’re doing,” Stevens said, “you’re going to change the culture of the classroom.”
Most parents who chose to place their children in single-gender classrooms at Belcher say it doesn’t matter to them why their children are excelling this year. And at least one mother and father say they opted for single-gender education simply because they figured the set-up would ensure quality teachers.
“We weren’t as concerned about getting our kids away from boys,” said Cynthia Pohl, who has a daughter in each of the all girls classes. “We focused more on the aspect of 'These are the chosen teachers.’”
• • •
Abernathy, the third-grade girls teacher, doesn’t necessarily consider himself chosen. But he does consider himself lucky.
“It’s like heaven on earth being in that class,” Abernathy said. “There just aren’t a lot of challenges.”
Contrary to what he expected, cliques are nonexistent. The girls have formed a strong bond and behavior problems are rare. But many of the girls struggle with math, Abernathy said.
In an effort to turn things around, he has stopped giving timed tests. He has lowered the volume of his voice and has begun encouraging the girls to talk about math, playing off their verbal strengths.
He bristles at the suggestion that such techniques are reinforcing gender stereotypes, as some critics have suggested.
“We’re not teaching boys to be a certain way or girls to be a certain way,” Abernathy said. “We’re simply using what we know about how their brains work to help them be as successful as possible.”
Heidi Baird, the second-grade girls’ teacher, also has adjusted her teaching style. After noticing that the same girls were answering questions in reading group, she started meeting with her students individually so each one would have to “take responsibility” for her own assignment.
And while her students seem relieved to be in a class free of “boy interruptions,” Baird said she is careful to steer clear of the “We don’t like boys” attitude, realizing that at some point the girls will return to a co-ed environment.
That may be later rather than sooner for many Belcher students. School administrators have decided to expand the “gender project” so that it will begin in first grade next year and reach up to fourth grade. If all goes well, they say, every grade will have a single-gender option by the 2008-09 school year.
“We know what the differences are in the ways boys and girls learn,” said Roth, the principal. “By recognizing the differences, we can maximize opportunities for children. If you can increase their chances for success, why wouldn’t you do that?”
Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Tom Marshall contributed to this report.
What research says about boys and girls
These points, which experts say generally are true but not universal, were among those Belcher Elementary staff reviewed before devising teaching methods for all-boys and all-girls classes.
Source: the Gurian Institute, an educational consulting organization in Colorado Springs, Colo., that helps schools and parents understand how gender affects learning
This chart shows the “gender gap” in reading and math scores among third-graders who took the FCAT last year at Belcher Elementary. School administrators say this data was compelling enough to cause them to create separate classrooms for boys and girls.
• Take longer than girls to attain reading mastery.
• Need more help with organizational skills.
• See better in brighter light.
• Are better than girls at three-dimensional reasoning.
• Are better able to separate emotion from reason.
• Read better and sooner than boys.
• Hear better than boys.
• Tend to work better in groups.
• Perform better than boys on tests that include verbal instructions.
• Acquire verbal ability younger than boys.
Percent at grade level or above in reading
Percent at grade level or above in math