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Florida middle school boost academic results by going to all boys, but critics abound
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The teachers at Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy sat in stunned silence on their first day back from summer break. It was the fall of 2011, and principal John Haley had just announced that the state had given their school a D grade.

A year earlier, Haley and his team had taken over the failing middle school in Tampa, Florida, and turned it into an all boys magnet school, hoping a new culture of higher expectations and mutual respect among young men would lift the schools performance.

After one year, that plan was in doubt.

That D grade was a gut check, but it wasnt a pink slip. Changing a school's culture takes time, Haley reassured his teachers. And he was right. The next year the school earned a B, and each of the past two years the school earned an A grade.

Franklin is part of a radical experiment that could reshape how we think about education. Its success hinges on a simple, albeit controversial, premise: boys and girls do better academically when separated by gender, and this is especially true among students who are struggling.

Critics, including many social scientists, decry the notion of separating genders. But the parents and administrators who embrace it argue that boys and girls learn differently and that many kids, especially early adolescents who struggle in school, achieve better focus and better performance when separated.

In 2004, there were just 34 single-sex schools, according to the National Association of Single Sex Public Education. By 2014, the U.S. Department of Education estimated there were 850, according to the New York Times.

And measured by parental demand in Tampa, this phenomenon is not going away. There are 12 magnet middle schools in Hillsborough County with various emphases, but the two single-sex schools get more applications than the other 10 combined, says Carla Sparks, director of single gender programs for Tampas Hillsborough County Schools.

Pseudoscience? Maybe. Anachronistic? Perhaps. But single-sex education retains both a long tradition and a broad appeal that seems unlikely to fade in an era when parents have come to expect a smorgasbord of educational choice.

Vive la diffrence

The popularity of single sex schools rests, at least indirectly, on research that shows boys' and girls' brains are different.

One prominent neuroscientist who insists that boys and girls develop differently is Dr. Martha Denckla, a neurologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Denckla says she has conducted and replicated large-scale studies, always arriving at the same result. From 20 weeks of pregnancy through puberty, she says, the brains of girls develop faster than boys.

Thats a long time for girls to be in the front seat, she says.

One place the difference shows up is in the ability to make rapid sequenced movements with fingers, she says, which is in the same circuitry as using a pencil to make a quick sequence of moves.

Many little boys, Denckla says, have mitten hands, meaning the four fingers cant be manipulated separately. This difference is most stark in kindergarten. A normal distribution graph of 5-year-old girls can be overlaid directly on a graph of 6-year-old boys. The girls are a full year ahead of the boys.

At that age, the gender gap on finger control is dramatic. The most advanced 5-year-old boys, she says, will bump up against the least advanced girls. The gap narrows through grade school, but doesnt disappear until about the time of puberty.

And in general, boys develop at a slower rate than girls, Denckla said.

Denckla coauthored a study in the late 1980s that looked at readiness for reading and for math among kindergartners in over 400 kindergarten classes around New York. For reading, Denckla said, the top 10 kids out of a 100 were girls and the bottom 10 were boys. For math, boys held both the top and bottom 10.

Denckla is not necessarily an advocate of same-sex education, but she is certain that boys and girls develop differently and that boys need more time and less pressure in the early grades.

The reason Im shouting about it from the rooftops, Denckla said, is that our whole education system has decided we have to do everything earlier.

The creators of the Common Core she says, did what they called backmapping from college to kindergarten. They chopped it into 13 even intervals, like a sausage, Denkla said. Its anti-physiological. It has nothing to do with child development.

A critical age

Back at Franklin Academy, principal John Haley sees middle school as a critical time in the character and academic formation of young men a time when raging hormones, social pressures and identity crises flummox developing minds. He sees much less justification for gender separation in grade school or high school.

The key is to connect with the boys, Haley said. Theyve got to know thats your number one priority, and thats a lot harder to do in co-ed environment, especially for the boys who struggle.

Franklin Academy is divided into three houses, based on the British system made familiar in the Harry Potter series. Every other Friday, the houses clash for friendly debates and academic competition. And on the other Fridays, the houses meet with their advisers to talk through social and academic issues. Here and elsewhere, older boys in each of the houses serve as mentors to the younger boys, leading the dialogue.

The house competition, Haley said, takes advantage of what he sees as the male competitive spirit. When you make it a contest and make it engaging, they are often motivated to work harder. The school also creates incentives for honor roll students, and engages in kinesthetic learning, movement and frequent transitions, all of which he believes help boys stay focused.

The boys attention span on any topic is about 10 minutes, Haley said, and they need frequent brain breaks and physical activity. Our classrooms can be noisy sometimes.

Brain differences

The guru for many single-sex education advocates is a writer and consultant named Michael Gurian, who helps schools like Franklin frame a gender specific approach.

The Colorado-based Gurian Institute employs 70 trainers and has trained more than 60,000 teachers at over 2,000 schools, among them Hillsborough County and Franklin Academy.

Boys and girls brains are set up differently, Gurian said, arguing that boys are often up to 18 months behind girls in verbal development.

In a classroom of 30 students, Gurian says, four or five boys will struggle with reading skills, compared to one or two females. What Gurian does is offer a philosophical grounding along with a menu of options. These may involve more physical movement, use of manipulatives and visuals, or letting boys toss a Nerf ball up and down during a lesson.

Only a handful of neuroscience professors will come out and attack this, Gurian said, and they will do that for their own political reasons. Thirty years ago, they would say there is no proof. But now there is proof.

The critics hate single-sex education for political reasons, Gurian added. They still believe that some day male and female brains will be the same.

No evidence?

But Gurian is essentially a snake oil salesman in the eyes of Diane Halperin, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College and former president of the American Psychological Association.

Any success in single gender schools comes from other strategies that improve focus and behavior, she argues, and single-sex education is never justified.

She points to a 2014 meta-study that, after reviewing 184 separate studies, found no evidence of any academic boost due to single-sex education, so long as you control important variables.

Halperin does concede some biological differences, on average. But she sees the differences between boys and girls as being just on the edges of two widely overlapping bell curves. Some boys and some girls will be somewhat different. But the vast majority share the middle of the curve, and there are no real differences in how they learn.

"The underlying neuroscience of how people learn is the same," Halperin said. Some boys need to get up and move more in class, and some girls need a lot more activity than other girls do."

Halperin worries that emphasizing gender differences will send the wrong social signals, implying fundamental differences that then harden stereotypes.

"The answer is to take those at the low end of both genders and give them special training," Halperin said. "Everyone gets better with training."

As an analogy, Halperin argues that racial differences in classroom performance are significantly more marked than gender differences. Is anyone suggesting that we should racially segregate education? she asks. Its exactly the same idea."

Constant scrutiny

The notion that separate but equal in gender might be an echo of racial segregation is not lost on schools or regulators.

Hillsborough County has faced constant scrutiny from the ACLU, leading to repeated investigations from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, but those cases have all been closed with no violations found.

"We operate very conservatively to make sure we follow every letter of the law," said Carla Sparks at Hillsborough County Schools.

Sparks ensures that single-gender programs follow federal and state law and district policy. These require that parents have identical academic choices in both same-gender and mixed-gender schools, which requires regular oversight of the curriculum of all district schools.

In addition to legal compliance, Sparks conducts regular surveys among parents, students and teachers.

Based on the data she collects, Sparks rejects the notion, offered by some critics, that single-sex schools are purely a parental preference. Her surveys, she said, find that large majorities of students enjoy the single-gender environment.

The most recent open-ended surveys asked parents to name the greatest benefit they perceive from the single-gender school compared to their previous co-gender experience. The top response was "greater focus on academics," and a close second was "fewer distractions from the opposite sex."

Sparks said those two answers which, as she notes, are flip sides of the same coin were "offered resoundingly more often than any other answers by all three stakeholder groups."

Proof that matters

Disputes over science and politics aside, Franklin Academys John Haley looks in the hallways and to the parents to measure his impact.

Feedback from parents has been positive, Haley says. "It's not the right fit for every boy," Haley said. "Some don't connect with what we are doing here. But the vast majority say it's been a life-changing experience for their son and their family."

Haley is not too worried by the critics of single-sex education. I don't think there are a lot of opponents," he says, "but they have loud voices and prominent platforms."

What does he make of data suggesting that there are no distinct academic benefits from single-gender education?

"So what?" he responds.

Halley thinks he has all the proof he needs in how he sees teachers, parents and students respond. "I look at teachers greeting boys with fist bumps as the enter class. I see letter after letter from boys and parents saying how much they appreciate what we do here."