It's blue and pink for Lincoln and Stewart schools. Yes, we're supposed to be beyond silly gender color-coding, but everything old is new again.
So it is with the single-sex proposal for two of Toledo's lowest-performing grade schools, where officials decreed the new-but-old-fashioned approach of separating genders.
School chief Eugene Sanders: “This is about school improvement, pure and simple.”
The Bush administration crafted incentives for single-sex education with a small clause tucked in 2001's No Child Left Behind Act, offering $3 million for such programs. Last May, the Department of Education issued revised guidelines; just one year later, TPS announced plans for Lincoln and Stewart.
“We understand there are some federal dollars available,” says Dr. Sanders. “Any economic advantage we can get is obviously something we're interested in ... [But] all we want to do is raise test scores.”
But who says gender separation improves academic performance? While Dr. Sanders says “significant research” supports the case for single-sex schools, using that research to bolster the TPS plan compares apples to oranges - his initiative involves grade schools, while nearly all the research focuses on high school and college.
Plus, as a National Association of State Boards of Education policy paper notes, the majority of data comes from private schools or overseas, and “student characteristics vary considerably between private and public schools, and between American students and those of other countries.”
Policymakers, the association warns, “cannot assume that the positive outcomes associated with single-sex education documented by research would be replicated among diverse public school populations.”
Academics aside, others say it's a step backward.
Says Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an umbrella agency representing 185 rights organizations: “We would not accept `separate but equal' in a race context. Why would we ever accept it in a gender context? Separate is never equal. That's why schools were integrated [by the U.S. Supreme Court], and that's why we cannot go back to segregation in any way.”
The education boards' association says “most experts agree that the successes of single-sex schools are due, in part, to strategies that can easily be incorporated into co-educational schools. State boards may want to consider ways to encourage all schools to develop the positive characteristics of single-sex schools, including small classes, academic rigor, and clearly defined mission statements.”
To Ms. Zirkin's ears, “it sounds like what is being proposed in Toledo is taking two schools, improving them, and leaving the other ones alone. But public education's goal should always be to raise all boats equally.”
Dr. Sanders, who must be a frustrated man if ever there was one, knows such arguments well. He knows, for example, the data overwhelmingly favor smaller class sizes - but he's the guy facing budget realities.
“We've got to take bold, aggressive moves. We can't do the same old thing we've always done. This is one of many steps I plan to introduce to the board to jolt and bring academic revolution to Toledo Public Schools.”