Do boys and girls perform better in school when separated by gender?

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 school’s performance.

After one year, that plan was in doubt.

That “D” grade was a gut check, but it wasn’t 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 Tampa’s 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 différence

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.

“That’s 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 can’t 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 doesn’t disappear until about the time of puberty.

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