by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Right off the bat, I confess a certain nostalgia for my school years. I had fun. I had friends. I had laughs. So perhaps my logic is blurry. I never realized that being a boy was such a distraction.

I knew girls were a distraction. I discovered that in sixth grade, when the first girl I liked cast a quick glance in my direction, fluttered her eyelashes, and I felt a queasy, goose-bumping rush. At that moment, the teacher could have said “America was discovered by hyenas” and I would have written it down.

Still, I never knew that such episodes were reason enough to separate boys from girls. Apparently, they are. Apparently, while the presence of girls has been a dream-inducing distraction to boys, the presence of boys has been a flat-out hindrance to girls’ education. We bother them. We intimidate them. We throw them off — at least according to some educators.

This is partly why all-girl and all-boy schools have been established. For decades, girls have lagged behind boys in several subjects, most notably math, where high school girls have averaged 35-40 points lower on SAT tests. Separated by sex — the theory goes — boys and girls will concentrate better and learn more.

One problem. It doesn’t seem to work.

A new report by the American Association of University Women, which studied single-sex schools, said that while “girls perceive the classrooms …to be superior and may register gains in confidence, these benefits have not translated into measured improvements in achievement.

“Some studies, in fact, report diminishing achievement.”

OK, boys. Back in the pool!

The uniform issue

Now, I am not surprised by this report. It’s true, boys and girls spend an awful lot of time on each other from age 10 to oh, say, death. And recently, I have heard from many parents saying never mind this new study, separate is the only way to go.

“My daughter wasn’t getting anything accomplished except gossip and passing notes,” they say, “now, with no boys around, she concentrates on schoolwork.”

“Boys don’t like to sing or do creative things in front of girls,” they say,
“but come out of their shell when it’s only boys.”

This may be true. But let’s be honest. Intimidation and embarrassment are not gender-unique. Girls can be intimidating to other girls. Boys can be embarrassed in front of other boys.

Nor are distractions limited to the opposite sex. When adolescence hits, kids will chatter and fuss about anything, from who’s the most popular kid to which MTV video is the coolest.

I recently spoke to some religious school parents, who thought they’d solve the problem of “clothes competition” once their kids wore uniforms to school. Instead, the kids began competing within the uniforms, some with the pants slung low, or certain buttons unbuttoned.

The fact is, teenage competition isn’t about the item, it’s about identity.

Other answers

Now, this latest study did say girls in all-female schools showed higher
“self-esteem.” Americans are big on this. In a recent study of top students worldwide, we were No. 1 in self-esteem. Unfortunately, we didn’t do so well in math and science, behind such poorer countries as Cyprus.


This suggests that maybe our problem has less to do with passing notes and more to do with the teaching, administration, curriculum, class size, TV watching, endless after-school soccer games and ballet classes, and the lawsuits for schools that exert too much discipline.

Not to mention parents complaining if teachers assign too much homework.

Self-esteem is good. But self-esteem should, like most things, begin at home. Same goes for how the sexes treat each other. Having your boy go to an all-boy school, then come home and listen to a rap record about “slapping bitches” seems a little counterproductive, doesn’t it?

Besides, there’s a certain sweet awkwardness to the whole boy-girl thing in junior high and high school. Not all of it is about intimidation, teasing and sexual pressure. Some is about learning how to get along with someone different from you. Some is about discovering your capacity to like, love, to hurt and to be hurt.

With the right guidance, this can all be a beneficial, educating experience. Nobody talks about what happens to single-gender graduates when they finally hit a college campus and discover things are mixed. Whoa! You want to talk confusion, sexual pressure and wild parties? Only by that point, the parents aren’t around.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have the right to choose all-boys or all-girls schools. And I don’t doubt that, despite this new report, certain things are easier in gender-separate programs.

But life is with people, it always will be, boys with girls, blacks with whites, nationals with foreigners. And somehow, deep inside, the sooner we learn to work together as kids, the better we’ll all be as adults.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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