Do female students really need online enrichment classes tailored to their learning styles?

By Judy Berman
Published July 6, 2009 10:07PM (UTC)
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Ever since resolving that women are, in fact, entitled to an education, scholars have debated whether classrooms should be coed or single-sex. So is it any wonder that, in the 21st century, schools are moving that discussion to the Internet? In Monday's Washington Post, Michael Birnbaum looks at the Online School for Girls, a project of four private girls' high schools. Set to launch this fall, the pilot program will offer  classes that "range in subject from multivariable calculus and differential equations to women in art and literature" and utilize teaching strategies designed to appeal to girls, such as collaboration. While initial availability will be limited to the participating institutions, the Online School for Girls plans to widen its enrollment in time for the 2010-11 school year. "When the classes open to the public," writes Birnbaum, "the educators hope that students around the world -- including homeschoolers and girls at coed schools -- will be able to take part in a version of the girls' school experience."

Although single-sex education is nothing new for independent schools, Birnbaum cites statistics that show its growing popularity in public institutions: "In 2002, just 11 public schools across the country offered single-sex classrooms, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Now they number more than 500." As the market for online enrichment courses has also grown, the Online School for Girls seems like a potentially lucrative venture. According to Larry Goodman, director of strategic programming at Ohio's Laurel School, "There's no one out there who's thinking with a specifically feminine audience in mind."

But is there evidence that the Online School for Girls is anything more than a shrewd business move? Is there really any benefit to offering gender-specific Internet courses? "If [the students are] in an online environment where they're going to be doing wikis and blogs, that would serve the girls," Frances R. Spielhagen, an assistant professor of education at Mount Saint Mary College, told the Post. But, she allowed, "the online capability is as good as, and only as good as, the educational experience that the teacher has crafted." Spielhagen also "cautioned that she hadn't found that simply separating the sexes, whether in the classroom or on the Internet, is inherently beneficial."

Amanda Hess at Washington City Paper offers an additional, very smart, critique:

I find this particular solution to gender inequality in education to be utter bullshit. Tailoring teaching methods to girls, eliminating gender sterotypes [sic] in the classroom, and encouraging girls to participate? These goals ought to be no-brainers in every classroom, and teachers ought to be instructed to teach to the whole class. Why not put our resources toward addressing these issues together?

Amen! Why aren't we integrating teaching strategies that have proven more effective with girls into the traditional curriculum, rather than asking an already-overloaded generation of teenagers to participate in yet another extracurricular academic pursuit? If there really is a major deficiency in the way we're teaching girls in coed classrooms, is it fair to relegate the remedy to a game of after-hours catch-up?

Hess goes on to make what, to me, has always seemed like the most convincing argument in the single-sex v. coeducation debate. "Girls and boys will be collaborating and competing with each other well past prep school," she writes. "Learning to collaborate and compete as equals is important, and not just in the interest of everyone getting along. If the sexes have different educational needs, as these segregated programs suggest, why see it as a liability? Why not, instead, see difference as a huge asset to both boys and girls, who can learn valuable tactics from each other?"

The only point I want to add  is this: It isn't only girls who are struggling in school. As this LiveScience piece (along with a slew of other earlier studies) confirms, boys in the American educational system are also suffering. University of Alaska at Fairbanks psychologist Judith Kleinfeld says that "while neither gender is in a crisis, boys' issues are troubling and overlooked." Boys, she has found, tend to be deficient in writing and are much more likely than their female counterparts to commit suicide. But rather than separate the sexes -- or the races, or the socioeconomic classes -- in hopes of improving each in isolation, why not use these findings to create curricula that seeks to address everyone's needs?

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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