This post is by Rebecca Allsopp and is a part of the Feminism & Education series jointly hosted by Equality 101 and Gender Across Borders. Archives of the Feminism & Education series are here.
In the early 1990s, when I was 11 years old, my family moved to the campus of an all-boys boarding school in rural Northwest Connecticut. My father had taken a job as teacher, coach, and dorm parent, and we left our single-family house in suburban New Hampshire to embark on a completely different sort of living experiment, making our home in a small apartment attached to a dormitory that was a part-time home to 20 or so adolescent males. As a child looking through an open door towards my own emerging adolescence, this was unsettling to say the least, and I struggled with the paradox of desiring the attention of these boys and being completely frightened by even the prospect of it. It was common practice for the teenage daughters of faculty members to be sent away to boarding school themselves, and I sensed a dual purpose: this was hostile territory for young women, and the young women themselves might upset the balance and prove to be the distraction that the single-sex environment was supposed to preclude.
This school was a holdout from the pre-1970s era of single-sex preparatory schools, and its reputation and prestige had been spiraling downwards since that time. It was not competitive with its co-educational peer schools, enrollment was on the decline, and it seemed to attract an overwhelming number of students whose parents saw it as reform school, a last chance for their boys who had been kicked out of other private schools or who were at risk of dropping out of their public schools. Not many were there by choice. There was rampant drug and alcohol abuse and an atmosphere of discontent that went far beyond typical adolescent angst.
For years, I believed that the failures of this particular school were a direct result of the antiquated notion that single-sex education, the elimination of that awful distraction of girls, could single-handedly lead wayward teenage boys back to educational attainment. It might be true that some young men who would not have otherwise finished high school or gone to college did because so of their time at this school. But that was not a fair trade-off for the extreme bullying, misogyny, and homophobia that I took to be a result of the toxic and unnatural absence of women. To be sure this school was not representative of all single-sex schools, or even every all-boys boarding school, but if there is more to school than classroom and curriculum, if diversity of viewpoints in the classroom matters, then men and women, boys and girls, have a lot to learn from each other. Single-sex education deprives students of those opportunities and subsequently provides a less rich educational experience.
This leads me to my big question: Was I wrong? After all, I formed the opinion that single-sex education was not only ineffectual but also downright detrimental, when I was all of 12 years old, based on personal experience and intuition. I’d thought my opinion more or less held with common wisdom, as single-sex education seemed by and large to be a thing of the past in the United States. I’ve therefore been surprised in recent years by the growing interest in and support for single-sex education, and not only in private education. Time to re-examine.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education, in response to provisions in No Child Left Behind, made it easier for public school districts to implement single-sex education, and many have jumped on board at both the elementary and secondary school levels. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), a single-sex education advocacy group, reports that as of January 2011 there are 524 public schools that offer single-sex classes, and 103 of those could be classified as single-sex schools, meaning that all of their activities are segregated by sex. This may not be a very large percentage of all public schools in the U.S., but it does represent significant growth since 2002, when only few dozen schools offered single-sex classes.
There are many claims for why single-sex education is beneficial. Here are a few of the big ones:
- boys and girls learn differently (essential gender differences make co-ed learning less effective)
- single-sex education can eliminate gender stereotypes (girls more likely to do well in science and math)
- single-sex education eliminates teacher preference (teachers call on boys more often in co-ed classrooms)
- single-sex education changes classroom behavior (boys are more rowdy in co-ed classrooms) and eliminates certain social pressures (i.e. sex and/or dating pressure)
Elizabeth Weil, in a 2008 New York Times Magazine article, divides supporters of single-sex education into two camps:
those who favor separating boys from girls because they are essentially different and those who favor separating boys from girls because they have different social experiences and social needs.
Those who focus on social experiences and social needs will tend to focus on the latter three of the above claims. My all-boys boarding school focused on the fourth claim, and long-time proponents of all-girls schools, such as the National Coalition for Girls Schools and Young Women’s Leadership Network, champion the middle two.
Recent growth and interest in single-sex public education, however, appears to be largely in response to research on essential biological difference, and this is something relatively new, at least as applied to education. The argument is that biological differences between boys and girls at a very young age, evidence for which comes from emerging brain-scan research, corresponds to differences in the way boys and girls learn. The conclusion taken from this research is that the most effective way to teach is to separate the boys from the girls and use the pedagogical methods that best suit each unique group, which, we are told, happens to split nicely along gender lines.
While not the only advocate of biological difference based single-sex education, Dr. Leonard Sax, a family physician, psychologist, writer, and the founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, has become one of the most widely known. While attracting media attention and the piquing the interest of a growing number of public school districts, the claims of Sax and other who assert that learning differences are result of biology are by no means representative of a scientific consensus. In fact, some neuroscientists, including those who conduct the research, warn against drawing these types of conclusions, saying, as National Institute of Mental Health scientist Jay Giedd does in the Times Magazine piece, that, “on both the brain imaging and the psychological testing, the biggest differences we see between boys and girls are about one standard deviation,” and that “there are just too many exceptions to the rule.”
Exactly. There are too many exceptions to the rule. It is simply too simplistic and fails to account for vast differences in learning styles across genders.
There is anecdotal evidence for the benefits of single-sex elementary school classrooms, but studies on the outcomes of single-sex classrooms have failed to show that they are significantly more effective than co-educational classrooms. Specific claims for learning differences based on biological difference have also not held up to scientific scrutiny. Furthermore, as Cordelia Fine shows in her book Delusions of Gender, claims for hardwired difference, claims made by both scientific and pseudoscientific writers, are too often misleading and/or based on flawed studies.
It is not the biological argument, but the social benefits arguments, especially for girls, that I have come to feel more conflicted it about. I can understand how all-women schools could be an antidote or escape from a traditionally patriarchal system, and a way around subtle or not-so-subtle gender stereotyping. The National Coalition of Girls Schools uses the following quote from in support of their mission.
..one of the key arguments supporting single-sex programs is that they create an institutional and classroom climate in which female students can express themselves freely and frequently, and develop higher order thinking skills.
My first instinct is to say that is fantastic. I want to work at a school like that. Someday I’ll send my daughters to a school like that. But in fact, research on the replication of stereotypes is inconclusive here as well.
And anyway, isn’t trying to get girls to excel at math and science by separating them from boys missing the point?
If we want to create a society where both men and women can express themselves freely and frequently and develop higher order thinking skills, why don’t we focus our efforts on the creation of an atmosphere in co-education schools, a truer microcosm of society, where this is possible?
If a study finds that teachers call on girls less, why is that used as an argument for single sex education? Shouldn’t it be a call to teachers in co-educational classrooms to become aware of their biases and preferences and to change?
This is easier said than done, I know. But it is necessary to confront discrimination in order to eliminate it. It is not enough to temporarily eliminate the context in which that discrimination might present itself. I’ll revise my 12 year-old-self’s opinion and accept that single-sex education might benefit some students, but as a long-term, wide-ranging solution to combat stereotypes, discrimination, and gender-based achievement gaps, we must focus on better ways. After all, academic knowledge is nothing really, if we can’t live it out in daily life, and that means learning to learn and work together.
Rebecca Allsopp spent her childhood in New Hampshire and Connecticut, her adolescence in New York and Maryland, and the first decade of her adulthood in Chicago and New York City. She started her career working in higher education administration. After earning her Master’s in Library and Information Science, she went on to work as a Reference and Instruction Librarian in the New York City metro area. She currently lives in Leipzig, Germany where she struggles to learn the German language and works as a freelance English teacher and writer.