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Posted at 1:14 PM ET, 06/28/2010

Willingham: Newsweek story on single-sex ed research misses mark

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
What do the folks at Newsweek have against education research?

Science Editor Sharon Begley scorned it, and the crueler cut—disregard--comes from a recent piece by writer Jesse Ellison.

Ellison writes about single-sex classrooms as an approach to solving the “boy problem,” that is, that boys are performing poorly (compared to girls) on many academic measures.

To be clear, whether or not single-sex classrooms actually boost achievement for anyone is not her main concern. She is mostly interested in social curiosities of the issue. For example, what initially seems to be an equity issue might be solved by segregation. For example, some surprising political allegiances (Hillary Clinton and Kay Bailey Hutchison) have been formed over the issue.

Fair enough, that’s an interesting angle. But effectiveness is still relevant.

When Ellison does touch (briefly) on effectiveness, she retreats to what is all too often the journalistic safe zone.

She locates two experts with differing opinions and concludes “the issue is not settled.”

This is a complete mischaracterization. Most studies show no positive effects of single-sex classrooms. A few show mixed effects. The proper conclusion of the state of research is “Either single sex classrooms don’t boost achievement, or the way that single-sex classrooms have been implemented in the past doesn’t work and we’ll have to try something else.”

To be fair, how is a journalist supposed to referee opposing points of view from two experts?

One thing to do is to call one expert to ask his or her opinion on the other expert’s points. Suppose Ellison had called Pedro Noguero (the it-doesn’t-work expert) of New York University and said “Leonard Sax [the it-works expert] just told me about a study in which the boys classroom and the girls classroom did much better!”

Noguera would have pointed out that this is not a “compelling statistic” because two classrooms are not enough to merit being called a “study” in this case. It’s too easy for something idiosyncratic to have influenced the results.

Ellison also might have considered that Noguera, a researcher of towering reputation, doesn’t much care one way or another how the data come out. As the saying goes, he doesn’t have a dog in the fight.

Sax, in contrast, most definitely has a dog in the fight. Sax is the founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, and it must be difficult for him to review research findings dispassionately. Not that Sax would be consciously biased, but lots of research over the last 25 years has shown that people have a hard time disregarding their beliefs when interpreting evidence, a phenomenon called the confirmation bias.

In the end, an interesting angle for this story might have been, “Why does anyone favor single-sex classrooms to boost achievement, given that we don’t know how to make them work, if indeed they can be made to work?”

Come on, Newsweek. Your readers deserve better.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 28, 2010; 1:14 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Research, Science  | Tags:  dan willingham, daniel willingham, education research, newsweek, research and education, single-sex education, single-sex education and effectiveness.  
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Comments

Sharon Begley is the only person at Newsweek who really understands education.

Because of Newsweek's treatment of education I no longer listen to it anymore - except of course when Sharon Begley writes something. She talks education as it really is. If it wasn't for her I would just drop the magazine.

Posted by: aby1 | June 28, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

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