Try, but verify how single-sex class works

A Times Editorial
Published February 6, 2007

After a two-year series of starts, stops and pauses, the Hernando County School District is ready to move forward again on its proposal for a pilot program of single-sex classes.

The plan that administrators will present at a meeting tonight is better than the one submitted in 2006, but School Board members should make sure the district is clear about the program's mission and methods.

The proposal calls for separating some students at Westside Elementary School in Spring Hill by gender for the 2007-08 school year.

One class of boys and one of girls from kindergarten through fifth grade would participate in this experiment, which would affect only core academic subjects.

Enrollment is voluntary, but the board should make sure parents are asked to volunteer, or opt in, and not be required to opt out of a blanket notification. This is more fair-minded, and it also ensures the participants' parents are buying into the pilot program. That should make them more receptive when supplying feedback to the district, which should be an essential component in this plan.

The board also should question how teachers and administrators plan to measure the success of the program. Clearly, that would include academic performance, but it also should extend to recording incidents of discipline and teachers' observations about motivational successes or failures.

In addition, the board should question whether the teachers, all of whom volunteered for this experimental assessment and most of whom are women, will receive any special training to prepare for their assignment. Any such training should be balanced so teachers are aware of the pros and cons.

It is particularly important that teachers do not, even unintentionally or in the spirit of competitiveness, reinforce gender stereotypes or make one sex feel superior or inferior to the other. Similar programs are under way in other Florida districts, and the idea is gaining momentum elsewhere in the country. Debate is fierce on both sides of the argument: Are children products of their environment or their genetics? How much do socioeconomic conditions and interpersonal skills affect learning?

So far, the results of the research are a mixed bag. But this much is clear: Educators are looking for ways to correct the declines they see in academics and behavior, and they share the goal of improving both.

Since this is the first such program in Hernando County, it is imperative that it be planned carefully, monitored meticulously and the results dissected. The board's responsibility tonight, if it approves the pilot program at Westside, is to adopt that standard as the minimum.