Just the Facts, Please!!! – or, how the New York Times got this story all wrong

By Leonard Sax, MD, PhD

March 2, 2008 (with addenda March 3, 2008)

The New York Times is a newspaper which enjoys considerable influence and prestige in the United States.  So it is a real disappointment that the newspaper’s lengthy feature on single-sex education, published March 2, 2008 and written by Elizabeth Weil, is awash in misrepresentations and distortions.  Some of the major problems in the article include:

·         Misrepresenting my position; portraying me (Dr. Sax) as a ‘gender essentialist’

·         Misrepresenting the relevant brain research

·         The narrow focus on Foley Intermediate School

·         The artificial tension which Weil invents between NASSPE and the YWL Foundation

·         Unbalanced (and unfactual) criticism without any rebuttal

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

Misrepresentation of my position; portraying me as a ‘gender essentialist’

One of the most irritating aspects of Ms. Weil’s story is her studied and deliberate neglect of my constant emphasis on variation within sexes, and the importance of these variations.  She portrays me (Dr. Sax) as a superficial “gender essentialist” who lumps all girls into one pink box, and all boys into one blue box.  Weil asserts that I tell teachers that “Boys covet risk; girls shy away.”  I repeatedly emphasized to Ms. Weil that these differences are differences in average tendencies.  Not all boys ‘covet’ risk; and many girls are risk-takers.  The longest chapter in my book Why Gender Matters (chapter 9) is devoted specifically to girls and boys who don’t fit the usual stereotype.  Some girls despise Barbie dolls and would rather play soccer.  Some boys don’t care for football or soccer; they would rather sit quietly and read a book, or write a poem.  She quotes me, correctly, as saying that “human nature is gendered to the core.”  She neglects the rest of the quote, when I told her that “how we express our gender is a big piece of who each of us is, as a person.  The girl who prefers to wrestle hogs, rather than play with dolls, is truly different from the girl who loves to play with Barbies, and that’s a key feature of her individuality.”  Ms. Weil cites my book Why Gender Matters, but it seems clear that she has never read it.  If she had, she would have known that I am continually emphasizing the importance of variation AMONG girls and variation AMONG boys.

Likewise, if Ms. Weil had read the opening page of the NASSPE web site, www.singlesexschools.org, she would have read this in the opening paragraph:

Advocates of single-sex education do NOT believe that "all girls learn one way and all boys learn another way." On the contrary, we cherish and celebrate the diversity among girls and among boys. . . Educators who understand these differences can inspire every child to learn to the best of her or his ability.

Misrepresentation of the relevant brain research

Ms. Weil spoke with Dr. Jay Giedd, lead investigator of the NIMH study on brain development in children.  She mentions that Dr. Giedd was a keynote speaker at our 2007 NASSPE conference in Illinois.  Ms. Weil previously asked me (in December) to describe Dr. Giedd’s presentation, since she was having trouble at that time reaching him directly.  I explained that Dr. Giedd was not able to finish his presentation in the time allotted; he emphasized the importance of sex differences, and said that “it would be surprising if we did NOT find significant sex differences in the brain” based on his understanding of the adaptive value of sex differences.  Weil condenses this as follows:  “Giedd spoke for 90 minutes, but made no comments on schooling at all.”  She next quotes Dr. Giedd as saying that “height differences between boys and girls are two standard deviations.”  On this point either Dr. Giedd misspoke, or Ms. Weil misunderstood Dr. Giedd, because there is no difference at all in average height between girls and boys at age 11, the age on which Dr. Giedd focused when he spoke at our NASSPE conference.  (Ms. Weil did not attend the conference, despite my repeated invitations to her throughout the summer and fall of 2007.  She explained that the New York Times would not pay for her to make a trip to Chicago for this purpose.)  Despite the fact that there is NO difference in average height between 11-year-old girls and 11-year-old boys, the difference in trajectories of brain development at age 11 are more than two standard deviations.  See for example the figure at left, figure 2(a), p. 1168, from the study which Weil cites in support of her assertion that I have misrepresented the relevant brain science.  The abscissa is age, in years; the ordinate is brain volume, in cubic centimeters.  The mean value for the boys is in blue; the mean value for girls is in red; and the 95% confidence intervals are shown above and below.  Note that the difference between girls and boys on this parameter, at age 11, is between two and three standard deviations, while the difference in height between girls and boys at age 11 is ZERO.  You can download the full text of the NIH/NIMH study, at no charge, at this link.  (This article is reprinted from NeuroImage, http://www.elsevier.com/locate/ynimg, “Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence,” Rhoshel K. Lenroot et al., volume 36, pp. 1065 – 1073, 2007, with permission from Elsevier.)

Ms. Weil repeatedly creates a straw man – a misrepresentation of what advocates of single-sex education believe – and then shows how silly that position is.   So, she asks Dr. Giedd about the wisdom of using “gender alone to assign educational experiences for kids.  Yes, you’ll get more students who favor cooperative learning in the girls’ room, and more students who enjoy competitive learning in the boys’, but you won’t do very well.”  Of course not!  The straw man here is the notion that “girls are cooperative, while boys are competitive.”  This notion is precisely one of the gender myths which I personally am most adamant about deconstructing when I do my presentations.  Notice that Ms. Weil doesn’t actually attribute this belief – that “girls are cooperative, while boys are competitive” – to me personally, or to anyone in particular.  Ms. Weil simply assumes that this silly stereotyped notion is something which advocates of single-sex education believe.

She quotes Dr. Giedd as saying that “there are just too many exceptions to the rule” for single-sex education to work.  Dr. Giedd is responding to Ms. Weil’s leading question about whether it would make sense to push all girls into “cooperative” classrooms and all boys into “competitive” classrooms.  I would have responded precisely as Dr. Giedd did:  there are too many exceptions to the rule for that sort of “pink and blue” stereotyping to be effective.  That’s why our training workshops are important:  to help teachers accommodate variations within each sex.  But Ms. Weil has built her article on the premise that I put all girls in one stereotyped box, and all boys in another.  Dr. Giedd is then put in the role of the reasonable scientist who points out the importance of variation within each sex – precisely the role which I usually play!  But Ms. Weil has assigned each of us to play the roles she wants us to play:  and she has cast me (Dr. Sax) in the role of ignorant zealot.

The narrow focus on Foley Intermediate School

On October 19, 2007, Ms. Weil called me (Dr. Sax) to ask for my suggestions about schools for her to visit:  public schools which have successfully implemented the single-sex format.  I quickly listed about a dozen schools, but I particularly encouraged her to visit the Detroit International Academy, an amazing all-girls public school which had at that time received no media coverage whatsoever.  Ms. Weil wasn’t interested in that choice (I understood why, after reading the finished article; Weil must have already decided to paint me as an opponent of all-girls high schools).  I next suggested Woodward Avenue Elementary School, in Volusia County, Florida.

“Has anybody else written about that school?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.  USA Today, People magazine, and NBC Nightly News, among others.”

“We want a school that hasn’t been covered in the media previously,” Weil said.

I next suggested Stewart Elementary School, an all-girls school in Toledo, Ohio, which has achieved amazing results since adopting the all-girls format.  Weil wasn’t interested. 

Finally, I suggested Foley Intermediate School in Foley, Alabama.  However, I had a major reservation about Foley.  At this school, parents chose whether or not their kids would be in the single-sex format.  I explained that because parents at this school choose whether their kids will be in the single-sex classrooms or not, any conclusions about the effectiveness of the single-sex format would be compromised.  In addition, teachers were allowed to choose which format they would teach, single-sex or coed.  If kids do better in the single-sex classrooms, it’s possible that they do better just because their parents are more involved, or because those kids are more academically oriented to begin with, or because they have better teachers.  If Ms. Weil was going to visit Foley, she should at least visit two or three other schools where kids are either assigned to the single-sex or coed formats (as at Woodward Avenue Elementary) or where all the students in the school are in single-sex classrooms (as at Stewart Elementary, or Lyng High). 

Ms. Weil explained that the New York Times would only provide funds for her to visit ONE school outside of New York City.  She told me that the one school would probably be Foley Intermediate.  I told her that if she was going to visit Foley and no other schools, she must at least mention these other schools.  If she only discussed Foley, it would be difficult for readers to get any sense of the diversity of schools which are having success with this format, with unselected students.

Ms. Weil ignored my advice.  She described the success at Foley reasonably enough, but concluded that the “data are compromised, as [the] highest-performing teachers and most-motivated students have chosen single-sex.”

She went on to assert that single-sex education is growing in popularity “despite a lack of empirical evidence.”  Recall that I offered Ms. Weil more than a dozen examples of public schools which have had tremendous success with this format over the past five years, such as Woodward Avenue Elementary School in Volusia County, Florida; Stewart Elementary School in Toledo, Ohio; James Lyng High School in Montreal, Quebec; and many others.  I could have offered her at least forty examples, if she had had the time and the patience to hear (which she didn’t).  Ms. Weil wasn’t interested in any of those stories and she never mentions any of those schools in her article.  What’s particularly annoying is that after refusing to cite any of the success stories which I provided her, she asserts that there is “a lack of empirical evidence” that this approach works. 

The artificial tension between NASSPE and the YWL Foundation

Weil creates an artificial tension between “those who favor separating boys from girls because they are essentially different and those who favor separating boys from girls because they have different social experiences and social needs.”  This division, and this tension, is entirely Weil’s invention.  A moment’s reflection will reveal that one might easily believe that single-sex education is beneficial BOTH because girls and boys develop according to different developmental timetables AND because they have different social experiences and social needs.  Indeed, I personally strongly endorse Emily Wylie’s comment that a girls’ school can foster ‘subversive’ girls who rebel against the narrow social roles prescribed for them.

Weil quotes me as saying that the Young Women’s Leadership School an “anachronism.”  Here’s the full text of our conversation, as I recall it:

One of the factors which motivated Ann Tisch to establish TYWLS, as Ms. Tisch has herself explained on many occasions, was her concern about teenage pregnancy.  She believed that girls would be less pressured to engage in teenage sex if girls were at an all-girls school.  There is very strong empirical support for this belief, which I share with Ms. Tisch.  One of the great advantages of single-sex education for teenage girls, without doubt, is a dramatic drop in the risk of teenage pregnancy.  But the basic idea – that separating girls from boys will reduce the risk of pregnancy – is not a new idea.  In fact, one could reasonably have made such an argument in 1977, or in 1957.  In that sense, the Young Women’s Leadership School might be said to be an anachronism. 

Note that Weil takes ONE WORD out of a lengthy comment and uses that ONE WORD to portray me as an adversary of the Young Women’s Leadership Foundation.  I understand that journalists learn in Journalism 101 that a good article has to have conflict.  I expected her to focus on the very real tension between advocates of single-sex education, on the one hand, and opponents such as the ACLU and the National Organization for Women.  She does indeed have a short segment on this topic, when she discusses Rosemary Salomone.  I didn’t expect her to try to invent another, imaginary, source of conflict.

Addendum March 3, 2008:  I sent an e-mail to Ann Rubenstein Tisch, founder of the Young Women’s Leadership Foundation, apologizing for the way the article quoted me and assuring her that I have nothing but the highest regard and respect for the work of the YWL Foundation.  Ms. Tisch sent me back a very friendly note assuring me that she took no offense, she realized that Ms. Weil was merely trying “to create more of an edge to her story.”

Unbalanced criticism without rebuttal

Weil then provides Mark Liberman a platform on which to rehash his previous negative comments about me.  Mr. Liberman wrote several blogs in 2006 attacking Why Gender Matters.  He never made any attempt to contact me personally, preferring to post his negative comments online.  When an acquaintance notified me of these blogs in 2007, I wrote to Professor Liberman, explaining how he had misrepresented my position, and rebutting each of his assertions point by point.  Professor Liberman has never responded to my letters.  You can read my letters at this link (scroll to the bottom of the page, under “correspondence”, or just look for “Liberman”).

Weil then moves on to Jabali Sawicki’s school.  She asserts that Mr. Sawicki is “using some of what Sax has to offer while quietly refuting other claims.”  She never states what “other claims” Mr. Sawicki is “quietly refuting.”  

Addendum March 3, 2008:  Mr. Sawicki was kind enough to call me, on his own initiative, today (March 3, 2008).  He said that Ms. Weil was constantly trying to get him to say how he disagreed with me.  He was very uncomfortable with her line of questioning, because (as he told me on the phone), he really believes, as I do, that we are trying to accomplish the same thing:  namely, to expand educational opportunities using the single-gender format.  Finally, Ms. Weil said to him “Dr. Sax thinks that five-year-old boys should never be taught to read and write.  Don’t you teach your five-year-old boys to read and write?”  Mr. Sawicki said that of course they do, that’s part of the state requirements.  So Ms. Weil concluded that he was “quietly refuting” my position.  But of course the notion that “five-year-old boys should never be taught to read and write” is not my position; that is Ms. Weil’s invention.  If Ms. Weil had attended any of my workshops for teachers, or if she had read either my first book Why Gender Matters or my second book Boys Adrift, she would know that my position on this point is that asking five-year-old boys to SIT STILL and BE QUIET while trying to teach them to read and write is, for many boys, developmentally inappropriate – just as it would be developmentally inappropriate to ask 3½ -year-old girls to sit still and be quiet.  Mr. Sawicki told me that his teachers understand this point completely, and that his school allows 5-year-old boys to stand, move around, etc. while they are learning.  The only thing being refuted at Mr. Sawicki’s school is Ms. Weil’s lack of understanding of what NASSPE training is about.

 

Weil’s true feelings about single-sex education come out in her closing paragraph, when she writes the following:

. . .with Sax’s model comes a lesson that our gender differences are primary, and this message is at odds with one of the most foundational principles of America’s public schools. . . Public schools were intended not only to instruct children in reading and math but also to teach them commonality, tolerance and what it means to be American.  “When you segregate by any means, you lose some of that,” says Richard Kahlenberg. . .”Even if one could prove that sending a kid off to his or her own school based on religion or race or ethnicity or gender did a little bit better job of raising the academic skills for workers in the economy, there’s also the issue of trying to create tolerant citizens in a democracy.” 

And that’s the end of the article!  In other words, advocates of single-sex education are portrayed as the intellectual cousins of the advocates of Jim Crow segregation, putting White kids in one school and Black kids in another.  Is Ms. Weil aware that Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Madeleine Albright, Dr. Sally Ride, Dr. Bernadine Healy, and Drew Gilpin Faust are all graduates of K-12 single-sex schools?  Would she assert that these people are not “tolerant citizens”?  Does she have any evidence whatsoever that graduates of single-sex schools are LESS tolerant than graduates of coed schools?  The answers to these questions are surely no, no, and no.  But this article is not about evidence.  This article is about insinuation, misrepresentation, and political correctness.

One final point:  Ms. Weil asserts that I have a “thick shag of side-parted brown hair.”  My hair is not, and never has been, brown.  It used to be black.  Now it’s grey.

 

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD – March 2, 2008 (with addenda March 3, 2008)