Pseudo-Science, Scripps, and Single-Sex Schooling

If you are a male, you will probably better understand this article if someone reads it to you in a loud voice in a room with a crisp temperature of 71°.  Any women perusing this piece would undoubtedly benefit from hearing it read by a calm, assuring voice in a balmy room of 77°.  This genre of misguided teaching and learning styles based on gender is exactly what Diane Halpern,Trustee Professor of Psychology and Roberts Fellow, calls “pseudo-science,” or science that “cherry-picks” from among anecdotes and irrelevant studies to attempt to claim something without hard scientific proof.  It is this very misinformed belief that boys and girls have different learning styles that Halpern tackled in her article “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” published on September 23 of this year.  Her findings appeared first in a New York Times article.

In a series of interviews for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Washington Post Halpern presents a pointed and, at times, scathing criticism of single-sex schooling and accuses its supporters of promulgating “pseudo-science.”  Halpern, a former president of the American Psychological Association, has been studying sex differences in cognition throughout her career.  Halpern wrote the original study with seven other colleagues from ACCES (the American Council for CoEducation Schooling) that was published in the prestigious Science magazine.  The paper makes the argument for the termination of funding for single-sex classes in public schools.

Halpern and her associates openly criticize Title IX’s lack of commitment to “evidence-based policy-making” even asserting, “The Department of Education’s own review failed to find any benefit for single-sex education.” The paper exposes fallacies in the argument for single-sex schooling in public institutions and argues against the funding allotted to it by Title IX.

Because we come from the 5 Claremont Colleges, it is easy to assume that Halpern’s findings are anti-Scripps.  This is far from true.  When asked if her study had any relevance to nearby Scripps College’s educational model, Halpern promptly denied any connection saying, “Scripps is a wonderful place [that] actually doesn’t fit most of the kinds of criticisms we made in the article.”  Scripps College evades the many traps other institutions fall prey to because of its co-educational classrooms.  Halpern asserts that “the social-psychological literature is pretty clear": when dividing people into groups, whether it is by t-shirt, eye color, or gender, they begin to identify with that group and form a bias against outsiders.  “The best way to get people to learn to appreciate and respect each other,” offers Halpern, “is through purposeful interaction” which presumably cannot be accomplished in a single-sex classroom.  Scripps’ gender integration in academic settings escapes creating a learning divide between male and female groups.

Lily Foss, a junior at Scripps College agrees that Scripps as a single-sex institution fights the very labeling and separating that single-sex public school classrooms often thrive on and says, “Women's colleges like Scripps weren't created because women can't learn in coed classrooms.  They're places to learn without being expected to fit the mold of 'male' behavior and 'female' behavior.”

Roshni Kakaiya, a junior at Scripps College and member of the club Feminist Remix, appreciates that at the 5Cs, “It is more important to focus on the fact that individuals have different learning styles,” not to tailor an education based on gender over personality or ability.

On the topic of co-educational opportunities at her college, Foss adds, “Being in a place free from pressure to conform to gender roles is an invaluable experience, both for men and women.”  Unfortunately not all schools balance co-education as well as Scripps and many fall prey to anecdotal “evidence” that single-sex schooling is a cheap way to produce better results in students.

While Scripps may not fit the model of schools separating male and female students to cater to supposed differences in learning, there exist over 500 education programs that are doing just that.  Halpern notes that there are likely even more that are simply not registered. She says many educators have been misinformed and consider separation to be an efficient and effective way to tailor methods of teaching to their students.  Halpern imitates the perspective of proponents of single-sex schooling supporters with only slight exaggeration by joking, “Girls are six years ahead of boys in reading.  By that logic, boys shouldn’t start learning to read until they’re twelve.”  Arguments like the one above are often the fare of Leonard Sax, the founding member of NASSPE (the National Association for Single Sex Public Education). It is this very "pseudo-science" that Halpern and her fellow ACCES members got together to work against; these uninformed beliefs about learning styles are the reason behind Halpern’s recent publication.

So what’s next for ACCES’s crusade against inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars to fund single-sex classrooms based on the premise of pseudo-science?  Halpern offers that that is up to the “Obama administration with [the help of] the Department of Justice and Arnie Duncan, our Secretary of Education.” Though her interest was scientific, says Halpern, she was also motivated by an obligation to help.  She ended the interview with a call-to-arms to Claremont students saying, “You will come away with an excellent education and I hope that you will use it for good.”  Her argument in Science against publicly funded single-sex schooling does not apply to Scripps College, an institution that escapes common single-sex education downfalls, but it does apply to all of us: we too have an obligation to correct the wrongs we see.  Whether you’re a poetry-loving man or a calculus-addicted woman, your learning styles are the same and you should take away the very same message.  Even if your interests don’t lie with challenging Title IX via scientific study, get out there and make your far-from cheap education worth it.