Monday, March 23, 2009

SC: No girls here, no boys there

School's single-gender classes show promising early results

Berkeley Middle School sixth-grader Matthew Desmond said he loves learning in a single-gender program so much that he'd recommend to fifth-grade boys that they sign up next year. "You can throw balls in class and stuff, and you're with your friends all day," he said. Matthew thinks he's just having fun when he and his classmates toss a ball in class or do some other activity that gets them out of their seats. But he's really learning while moving, a technique single-gender advocates have said resonates with boys.

Berkeley Middle School joined a growing statewide trend when it began offering a single-gender program last fall. South Carolina leads the nation in the number of schools that offer single-gender classes, said David Chadwell, single-gender coordinator at the state Department of Education. About 500 schools across the country offer some all-boy or all-girl classes or programs, and 216 of them are in South Carolina, he said.

Berkeley Middle School Principal Lee Westberry said her school's program is unique because it is comprehensive. Students take all four of their core courses — English, math, science and social studies — in a single-gender setting, she said. And only students, parents and teachers who want to be in the program are taking part in it. About 140 middle-school students in sixth through eighth grades are enrolled this year, Westberry said.

Staff members spent the entire year last year developing the program, she said, and they regularly get training in how to teach in ways that work with boys and girls. The teacher's gender isn't important, she said. What matters is the teaching style.

Westberry, a strong supporter of single-gender education, said such programs are successful not because they separate boys and girls but because teachers use strategies that work with the gender they are teaching.

In a boys' class Tuesday, the teacher and students spoke loudly and everybody moved around. In a girls' class, students sat in small groups and talked to each other. Their teacher dimmed the lights and the slight smell of cinnamon wafted through the air.

Chadwell said the Berkeley Middle School program also is collecting data on how students are doing, which is very useful. According to the data, Westberry said, the program is working. After one semester:

• Sixth-grade girls' average grade-point average in all four classes is 4 points higher than their peers in mixed-gender classes.

• Sixth-grade boys' average is 4 points higher in math and social studies and the same in English and science.

• Seventh-grade boys' and girls' averages are 5 points higher in all core classes.

• Eighth-grade girls' average is 2 points higher in English and social studies, but their average in math and science is slightly below that of their peers in mixed-gender classes. Program leaders attribute that, at least in part, to more students enrolling after the start of the school year.

• There is no group for eighth-grade boys.

Overall, Westberry said, "they're performing better and they're happier." In the single-gender classes, discipline problems among the same students have dropped 72 percent from last year, and absences are down 50 percent, she said. Those are impressive early statistics for a school that didn't set out to start a single-gender program, she said.

Westberry started as principal at the school last year and learned immediately that "our girls outperformed our boys in every subject area and at every grade-level," she said. The idea for single-gender classes was born as a method to help boys succeed, she said. But it's worked well for girls, too.

Chadwell said many schools in the state offer single- gender options because they give public-school parents a choice about the learning environment in which they enroll their children. State Education Superintendent Jim Rex is pushing for more choices in public schools, he said.

Chadwell also said the programs are easy and inexpensive to implement and don't require that schools purchase a lot of new materials. "There's no boys' curriculum or girls' curriculum," he said.

All that's really required is teacher training, Westberry said. To help her teachers decide if they would be better at teaching boys or girls, Westberry tapped her pen loudly on her note pad throughout a meeting. At the end of the meeting, she asked teachers to raise their hands if they found it annoying. Those who did probably aren't well-suited to teach boys, who usually like to move and tend to fidget as they learn, she said. Boys also tend to respond well to a fast pace, loud voices and competition, while girls often do better working face-to-face in a quieter, more colorful environment.

"It's all about strategies," Westberry said. "The kids love it and they're thriving."


More than 100,000 children languish in 'coasting' British schools, figures show

More than 100,000 children are being taught in "coasting" schools which fail to stretch their most able students, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal. The schools, many of which are located in leafy suburbs and shire counties, have avoided scrutiny in the past because they achieved average or better than average exam results. But the statistics hid the fact that talented pupils failed to achieve their full potential.

Figures obtained by this paper from more than half of England's 150 education authorities suggest that at least 130 schools across the country can be classed as "coasting". The figures are an embarrassment for the Government which has poured millions of pounds into raising standards in secondary schools and improving provision for bright pupils.

Michael Gove, the shadow children's secretary, said: "It is worrying that so many schools are being identified as coasting. Parents have a right to expect that heads are continually striving for improvement. We need to shine the light of accountability on all schools to ensure that parents do not have to put up with a second class education for their children."

Schools are classed by the Government as "coasting" if they display one or more of a list of indicators. These include pupils starting school with good SATs results but going on to get poor GCSEs, "unimpressive" pupil progress, static exam results, disappointing Ofsted ratings, "complacent" leadership and lack of pupil tracking and early intervention.

The Sunday Telegraph asked education authorities if they had entered any of their schools into a new Government scheme, called Gaining Ground, which aims to tackling coasting secondary schools.

Of the 83 councils which responded, 34 said they have entered more than 76 schools between them. Some, such as Calderdale, Leicestershire, Bedfordshire, Herefordshire and Norfolk, have entered at least five coasting schools each.

If the responses were replicated across all 150 authorities in England, it would mean that more than 130 schools, with more than 130,000 pupils, would be affected.

The 40 million pound Gaining Ground scheme aimed at "kick starting" coasting schools will start next month. It will pay for consultants and training in the schools and for possible federations with successful secondaries. If schools fail to respond, local authorities have the power to intervene, by replacing governing bodies or head teachers.

Councils with schools in the scheme denied that they were "coasting" and said none were complacent. A number of shire counties also complained of years of low per pupil funding, with the lion's share of Government spending focused on inner cities.

Karen Charters, the head of school improvement at Gloucestershire County Council, which has five schools in the Gaining Ground scheme, said: "These schools are not seen as 'coasting' – they had already been addressing issues and measures are in place to support improvement. There should be no suggestion of complacency on the part of the authority or the schools."

Leicestershire County Council said: "The term 'coasting' is not a phrase the authority wishes to subscribe to. It is not clearly defined and for some implies negative characteristics, such as complacency, that cannot be fairly ascribed to the schools."

Norfolk County Council also objected to the term. It said the eight schools it had proposed for the scheme, which were yet to be signed off by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, were judged by Ofsted to be satisfactory but with the potential to improve.

Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University questioned how successful the Gaining Ground measures would be. "What is proposed smacks of bureaucratic intervention" he said. "Labour does not have a very good track record and has spent immense amounts of money on education in the last 12 years but we still have failing and coasting schools. Sending in consultants sounds like tinkering at the edges. "Research shows that what makes the greatest difference is the quality of teaching. The quality of teaching and shortages of specialist teachers in areas like maths, physics and foreign languages needs to be addressed."

Head teachers criticised the crudeness of the indicators used by the Government to categorise schools. John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Local authorities should not be forced to label schools as 'coasting' on the basis of only one indicator. Five of the indicators on the list do not qualify as good reasons on their own to judge a school."

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman said: "These schools are not 'failing' schools – they will have acceptable, or sometimes even good results, but may not be fulfilling the potential of their pupils. Sometimes they may not be stretching their most able pupils, or perhaps not meeting the needs of their pupils who face difficulties. "These schools may not have received focused attention to date, but will now qualify for additional funding and support to raise their ambition and improve pupils' progress."


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