ORLANDO — Make no mistake, Leonard Sax told educators from as far away as Iceland and Argentina: Single-gender education is under attack.
And it's not likely to stop with last month's article in the journal Science, which asserted all-boy and all-girl instruction has not been proved effective and will lead to stereotyping.
Expect more such attacks, said Sax, chairman of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, which is meeting this weekend in Orlando.
"The angry eight," he called the professors who wrote the article, "assume we are all idiots, Republicans, or both."
Picking apart their well-publicized article, which calls on the Obama administration to take action against the practice, Sax accused the authors of ignoring modern research and drawing false conclusions from a limited study of Arizona preschoolers.
Referring to lead author Diane Halpern, Sax said, "I'm curious to know whether she's going to launch a campaign against the Girl Scouts."
Advocates of single-gender education, while allowing it is not for every child, say it can address a number of challenges, from aggression among male students lacking role models to a reluctance among some girls to assert themselves if boys are present.
"The objective is to help every child to fulfill their potential, academically and every other way," Sax said.
That might mean helping boys feel comfortable taking art or poetry. It also might mean an outcome as basic as cutting down on teen pregnancy.
That's because the reality of modern society, he said, is that many boys are embarrassed about earning good grades while many girls think they need to look pretty for the boys.
"The challenges facing girls are different from the challenges boys face," he said.
The conference, which attracted more than 400 educators, had workshops on everything from how to get boys excited about writing to strategies that can help girls excel in math.
Participants included a contingent from Hillsborough County, which has offered single-gender classes for several years and this year opened two middle schools, Franklin Boys Preparatory and Ferrell Girls Preparatory, in east Tampa.
In addition to separating the sexes, Franklin and Ferrell are creating college-going cultures that resemble those in elite prep schools.
Students are divided into multigrade houses to develop leadership. Community service is emphasized and there are stringent dress codes, along with extensive after-school and Saturday activities.
Overseeing the project is Carla Sparks, an educator with extensive training in gender-specific instruction. "I have taught all boys and I have taught all girls," she said. "I was successful at both and I liked both."
Speaking last week, she and magnet programs supervisor Susan King said it's important for all teachers to be current on the research about male and female brain development, even in a coed classroom. This understanding, like cultural competence, helps them give differentiated, child-centered instruction.
Sparks said girls often have more sharply developed senses, making them more responsive to colors, sounds and smells. And "boys need a lot of movement." But those qualities are not universal: some 20 percent of children do not fall neatly into the categories.
She's pleased with the Tampa middle schools so far.
"Already, we are seeing better attendance and behaviors among the boys," she said. That's not surprising: Improvement under single gender tends to be more dramatic among boys, although Sparks and King said the benefits to girls are significant as well.
Because the schools are all-magnet and enjoy many advantages over standard middle schools, they could succeed regardless of gender separation.
That shouldn't matter, Sparks and King said. Their bottom line is that this is a choice, as it is a choice to attend a school for the performing arts or engineering.
"If I have a waiting list, I'm happy," King said.
At the conference, Sax echoed the importance of choice.
He also emphasized training is important for any teacher who transitions to a single-gender environment, and teachers in the audience said they were eager to get that training.
Tampa's Blake High School has begun teaching math and English to some single-gender groups in the younger grades, said principal Jacqueline Haynes, who was there with three of her teachers.
So far they have seen behavior improve, and the move has been embraced by parents.
"Our goal is to improve academics," Haynes said. "And this is one avenue to that."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]