For boys and girls, go single sex

Posted: Mar 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Your 8-year-old son who has trouble reading or little interest in picking up a book could benefit from the Larry Summers controversy.

    That's because from out of the ashes of the Harvard conflagration is rising a nugget of something valuable. The Harvard president, as everyone now knows, speculated at a seminar that men might be overrepresented for genetic reasons in the top jobs in science and engineering at universities. While Summers surely would now retract his comments, if nothing else, he struck a blow against the dreary orthodoxy of gender sameness.

    In response to the flap, Time magazine ran a cover story featuring the work of Leonard Sax, author of the new book "Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences." Sax might simply have been dismissed as a Neanderthal not too long ago. The Washington Post ran a piece exploring the different ways boys and girls learn to read.

    As Sax explains, at the heart of the debate about gender is a paradox: To ignore the hard-wired differences between boys and girls is to perpetuate gender stereotypes. That's because ignoring those differences means we will continue to fail to teach many boys how to read and many girls how to do math and science. Reaching a reasonable accommodation requires some give from both sides of America's culture wars.

    Liberals are often loath to admit that anything is hard-wired, believing that as long as toy trucks are thrust on girls and dolls on boys they will exist in one happy unisex stew. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to consider the current high proportion of men in math and science as an ineluctable fact to be accepted by all but the dreamiest gender utopians.

    As it happens, the gender-insensitive American education system hurts everyone. Take boys and reading. According to a National Endowment for the Arts survey, between 1992 and 2002 the gap between young women and young men in reading widened considerably. High-school seniors who are girls score on average 16 points higher than boys on a reading test given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As an NEA official wrote recently, "What was formerly a modest difference is fast becoming a marker of gender identity."

    Do boys not have an intrinsic aptitude for reading? No. But those parts of the brain involved in language develop more slowly in boys than in girls. According to Sax, the average 5-year-old boy is two to three years behind his female counterpart, and the average 14-year-old is four to five years behind. Eventually it evens out, but the danger is that by pushing a boy to read too soon, or to keep pace with the girls when he can't, you turn him off reading forever. Also, boys have different reading interests than girls (and their largely women teachers): war stories, technical information, potty humor. There is no better way to turn a generation of boys against reading than to assign them "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret."

    The flip side of this is girls when it comes to math and science -- they develop more slowly. They will suffer the same discouragement as boys if they are pushed too soon, or in the wrong way. Sax says that at age 12, for instance, girls are less interested in "pure math" than boys, so problems have to be presented with practical applications.

    It is obviously difficult to be mindful of these differences in coed classrooms, let alone coed classrooms devoted to the proposition that gender is a meaningless social construct. The institution of single-sex education, long ago tossed in the ash bin of history, would better serve both genders. Girls who go to all-girl schools are six times more likely than girls in coed schools to major in math or science in college.

    The first step to overcoming gender, it turns out, is admitting how much it matters.