Monday, June 05, 2006

Schools Experimenting with Segregated Classes

Schools around Wisconsin are beginning to separate students by race in an attempt to better test scores and discipline.

Studies have shown that students do best when they are in a comfortable setting, which led to the use of single-race classrooms that administrators feel improve the focus and participation of the students involved.

One single-race class participant wrote a letter asking to stay in his single-race classroom the following year. In the letter, he argued that students of another race talk a lot, they can get in the way on group projects, and he gets nervous when helping them out. When he's in his single-race classroom, however, he doesn't need to worry about those things.

Actually, this isn't competely accurate. There is a push to segregate classrooms in Wisconsin -- but the separation is by sex, not race.

The reasons for initiating single-sex classrooms are the same as the fake reasons for using single-race classrooms that I outlined above. In the Journal-Sentinel article on the use of single-sex classrooms that appears on the front page today, however, it's clear people aren't thinking about them as segregated classes.

But why not? The issues for classes divided by race and sex are essentially the same.

I'm sure a strong case could be made that certain students find it easier to learn around students of their own race. And if our goal is to increase test scores, which is virtually the singular aim of the No Child Left Behind legislation, then why not do it?

It boils down to the idea of making the classroom as comfortable as possible for students so that they can perform as well as possible on the standardized examinations that are in store for them at the end of the term.

But is that life? Can we assure students that the situations in which they are expected to perform at a high level only will be situations in which they are comfortable?

While I understand the arguments in favor of single-sex classrooms, I can't help but think by initiating them we're side-stepping a larger issue. If boys and girls feel uncomfortable around each other in school, that's something that needs to be handled head-on, not avoided in the hopes of increasing test scores.

Isn't learning to work with others who are different from you -- and perhaps even make you uncomfortable -- an important lesson, too? I would argue, in fact, it's an even more important lesson than whatever questions appear on a standardized test.

It's also important to note that single-sex classrooms don't appear to be an issue in early childhood education. At my daughter's daycare, for instance, she just as willingly interacts with boys as she does with girls. There's no discomfort to speak of when it comes to sex (or race, disability, religion, etc., for that matter) at that age.

So when and why does the discomfort set in? To address that question is to address the larger issue at hand.

To simply separate students based on their comfort levels is to avoid, and subsequently reify, that larger issue.

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