The Shabbat alon Matzav Haruach published an article by Neemanei Torah ve-Avoda. The liberal Orthodox group connected with the religious kibbutz movement wants to return to mixed-gender classes in religious elementary schools. Actually article is not really the correct term, as it was more of a polemic, presenting the other side of the argument in order to knock it down.
The article claimed that separating children by gender handicaps children from understanding each other, leading to problems with dating and marriage. The gender separation also contributes to the “haredization” of the religious Zionist society. The educators quoted in the article continue to favor separation in high schools, although the debate about whether high school youth groups should be mixed-gender is still raging.
A sidebar provided ready (but not convincing) answers for parents against common objections to mixed-gender classes.
What are the issues?
The main reason Israeli religious schools separate by gender is so that the school will be perceived as more religious, and can attract the right kind of parents. It’s a social cue. Locally, the public religious schools compete with the “chardal” (charedi-national-religious) system, which separates boys and girls from first grade and even gan (kindergarten). The modern, local private school also separates from first grade.
According to Neemanei Torah ve-avodah, the main reason given for separate classes is chinuch le-tzniut, or “educating for modesty. ” I gather that the idea is to discourage mixing and familiarity from a young age. The article maintained that separation works against this “education,” by denying children the opportunity to interact in a mixed environment. Since adults in our community operate mainly in a mixed atmosphere, it’s artificial to separate children from each other. How can one learn to act with modesty around the other gender, when there is no interaction to begin with?
Social issues aside, I have two main concerns about separating children so young. Girls’ education tends to be less serious, particularly in Jewish studies. Girls are just as capable of learning Mishnah as boys, but once apart the girls almost always learn less. The only comfort is that it’s a relief for the girls to avoid the many hours of gemara that the boys learn from as early as third grade, before they have a handle on Tanach and Mishnah. Of course, some would argue that mixed classes mean that the boys won’t learn on a high enough level, since few parents are interested in their daughters learning so much gemara. Another option is to split for only some lessons.
The second concern is budgetary. Schools get a certain number of “weekly teaching hours” based on the number of students. Administrators choose how to distribute these hours. Schools with students from weak populations, including immigrants, get extra hours so that kids who need it can get more private or small group studies. Administrators who use their hours wisely can divide classes in two for subjects like computers or science. But when the classes are single-sex, there is often at least one more class than strictly required, and those teaching hours are out of the picture.
My second-grader is in a new class this year with 22 girls. Last year she was with 35 boys and girls. Most Israeli schoolchildren stay with the same group from first grade until sixth, and sometimes beyond. But when her school opened nine years ago, half the parents wanted separate classes and half didn’t. They compromised, splitting the boys and girls starting in third grade. The previous neighborhood school was separate from first grade.
I am pretty sure my daughter will miss having boys around. But one of the first-grade teachers stopped teaching in the middle of last year when her husband was in a severe car accident. That teacher’s class was divided among the remaining four classes. To avoid the large classes of last year, and having to rearrange the classes again in third grade (that would be the third time for children from the class that was split), the school decided to split them now into a whopping six classes.
Parents have opinions about whether or not children learn better in mixed classes, but not strong ones. The only issue raised by one of the parents was that the teachers of boys would have a harder time maintaining order. Most parents were in favor—not because they care so much about separation but because they didn’t want to split classes a third time. I voted to keep them together for another year or two despite the large class.
The school is growing, though, and this arrangement will allow new students to come in without having to rearrange classes in the future.
Ironically, my gentle, introverted 4th grader breathed a sigh of relief last year when he moved into a boys-only class. He doesn’t want anything to do with girls.
So what do you think? Is it time to push for mixed-gender classes in our elementary schools? Or is there value in keeping them apart from an early age?
You may also enjoy: