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Reconsidering Single-Gender Schools

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Fifty years ago, large schools were fashionable. It was part of a movement that established the comprehensive high school. Today, large schools are understood to be detrimental to effective schooling. Similarly, 50 years ago, ability grouping (tracking) was the accepted mode of organizing classrooms and schools for effective and efficient learning by students at all levels. Today, tracking is under serious criticism--the ideas of a core curriculum and cooperative learning are among current school reforms.

Coeducation, however, remains rock steady as the best way to organize schools and classrooms along gender lines. This is true despite the fact that there is hardly any research which supports the benefits of coeducation. In fact, the realities of coeducation are troubling. The salience of this problem was pointed up two years ago in "The A.A.U.W. Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls,'' commissioned by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. This study examined more than 1,000 publications about girls and education and concluded that bias against females remained widespread in schools, and was the cause of lasting damage to both educational achievement and self-development. These schools are coeducational schools.

Single-gender schools generally are more effective academically than coeducational schools. This is true at all levels of school, from elementary to higher education. Over the past decade, the data consistently and persistently confirm this hard-to-accept educational fact. There are some studies which have reported null effects--that is, no differences in educational outcomes--but there are very few studies (none in the United States) which demonstrate that coeducational schools are more effective, either academically or developmentally. Moreover, just about everyone knows this is true, despite the fact that most people have attended coeducational schools and continue to send their children to coeducational schools. A cursory sample of interviews will reveal that most people view single-sex schools as academically tougher, more rigorous, and more productive, though perhaps less enjoyable, than coeducational schools. And as the historian Richard Hofstadter noted long ago, in America, anti-intellectualism rules.

But the matter is unfortunately more complicated than the recalcitrance of a society that continues to give priority to sports, recreation, and entertainment over the arts, science, and literature. At issue is whether separate schools for males and females can provide an equal educational opportunity. Many people see single-gender education as inescapably reactionary. Some feminists may see any form of "separatism'' as negatively affecting women's equal access in other areas of society. Thus, discussions of single- and mixed-gender schooling must address these misgivings. One way to alleviate some of the reservations is to lay bare the typical reality of most coeducational classrooms and schools. Another way is to demonstrate the effectiveness of single-gender schools.

Single-gender schools work. They work for girls and boys, women and men, whites and nonwhites. Research has demonstrated that the effects of single-gender schools are greatest among students who have been disadvantaged historically--females and racial/ethnic/religious minorities (both males and females). Single-gender schools provide more successful same-sex teacher and student role models, more leadership opportunities, greater order and discipline, and fewer social distractions to academic matters. The choice of a single-gender school is a pro-academic choice (females also gain advantagesbecause of significant reductions in gender bias in both teaching and peer interaction, and via access to the entire curriculum).

Yet, white males also obtain an educational advantage from single-gender schools relative to their male counterparts who attend coeducational schools. Although research has reported null effects for white males, I maintain that this is due to countervailing forces. White males gain an educational advantage in single-gender schools due the same organizational opportunities that provide an advantage for females. It is the case, however, that white males also gain an educational advantage in coeducational schools due to the continued existence of gender stratification. The latter was fully and sadly documented in the A.A.U.W. report.

These positive effects, however, are not universal. In a cross-national study of four countries (Belgium, New Zealand, Thailand, and Japan), David Baker, Maryellen Schaub, and I have shown that single-gender schools do not have uniform and consistent effects. The effects appear to be limited to those national educational systems in which single-gender schools are relatively rare. In systems such as Belgium's and New Zealand's, two countries where single-sex schooling is "normative'' (68 percent of the schools in Belgium and 48 percent in New Zealand), we obtained null effects using data from the Second International Study of Mathematics. We argue that the rarity of a school type may enhance single-sex effects under certain conditions. When single-gender schools are rare in a country, the pro-academic choice-making by parents and students will result in a more selective student body who will bring with them a heightened degree of academic demands. In turn, we believe that rare school types are better able to supply the quality of schooling demanded by these more selective students. Being less "the norm,'' these schools are likely to possess greater autonomy.

This enhancing condition of scarcity, however, may have a lower limit. When the number of single-sex schools falls below a certain point (due to the closing of these schools and the movement of students into coeducational schools), the capacity of single-sex schools to provide better resources and to select better students may decline. Once this decline is set in motion, the schools are less attractive to more highly motivated and talented students, who now will choose coeducational schools. Facing declining enrollments, single-sex schools are then forced to admit less talented students who attend because the slots are there and because of the schools' prior reputation. Under this scenario, some of the micro-structures and processes which were applied to single-sex schools may no longer be in operation.

Over the past several years, this controversy has focused on the Virginia Military Institute. In 1990, the U.S. Justice Department brought a suit against V.M.I. for refusing to admit women to the school, and hence, failing to comply with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. In 1991, a federal district court ruled in favor of V.M.I., agreeing with the school's argument that single-gender schooling was a form of diversity in education and that admitting women would destroy its educational methods. This decision, however, was overturned in 1992 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which found that V.M.I. was indeed not in compliance with the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment. However, the court did not order that women be admitted to V.M.I. if alternatives were available and if these alternatives satisfied the equal-protection clause. In fact, the court gave V.M.I. and the commonwealth of Virginia (a co-defendant in the case) three options which would satisfy legal compliance with the 14th amendment: (1) decide to admit women to V.M.I. and adjust the program to implement that choice; (2) establish parallel institutions or parallel programs; or (3) abandon state support of V.M.I., leaving it the option of pursuing its own policies as a private institution. V.M.I. appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was denied in 1993 pending final adjudication in the lower courts; that is, the Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction until V.M.I. responded to the Fourth Circuit's alternatives.

Now we learn that V.M.I. has arranged to fully comply with the second recommendation of the Fourth Circuit. Specifically, the institution has proposed that it be allowed to continue to admit only men, and that it will assist Mary Baldwin College (a nearby women's college) to establish a "leadership'' program for women that would approximate V.M.I.'s program for males. Women in this program would live in separate dormitories, participate in leadership programs, and enroll in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps program at Mary Baldwin. For each Virginia student admitted to the program, Mary Baldwin would receive an amount of money from the state equal to that received by V.M.I. for each Virginia student. In addition, the college would receive $6.9 million from the V.M.I. Foundation to endow the program at the outset. All of this has direct ramifications for a similar case that will be heard this year regarding The Citadel in South Carolina, and there are likely implications for experimental single-gender public schools (or single-gender classrooms) that are currently operating in Baltimore; Camden, N.J.; Detroit; Ventura, Calif.; and the Savannah-Chatham district in Georgia.

This proposal by V.M.I., though perhaps falling short of providing equal protection, is a plausible initial response to the directives contained in the ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Unquestionably, as per the judgment of the appellate court, the exclusion of females from V.M.I. without some single-gender alternative was a violation of the 14th Amendment. One has to wonder why it took V.M.I. so long to figure this out.

However, the solution now seems close at hand. A major flaw of V.M.I.'s proposed plan is the absence of an engineering program at Mary Baldwin College. Such a program does exist at V.M.I. Of course, access to and success in engineering remain as barriers to the advancement of women throughout the country. In response to this problem, Barbara Lazarus, the associate provost for academic projects at Carnegie Mellon University, called in 1991 for the creation of a Women's Institute of Engineering. Here is a golden opportunity for acrimonious parties to negotiate. Conceivably, V.M.I. could be persuaded to greatly increase its endowment offer and provide Mary Baldwin with the opportunity to build the first Women's Institute of Engineering. Quite likely, other adjustments to the proposal would also be necessary.

In a context of exclusion from schooling altogether, the opportunity to attend coeducational schools (former boys' and men's schools) was a necessary step toward gender equality. Within a context of inclusion--that is, a climate in which females are no longer excluded from virtually any school--single-gender schools represent a choice, an alternative to the problems existing in coeducational schools. More importantly, they seem to provide a better education for some students. Within this context of inclusion, rather than exclusion, we should look carefully at decisions which will further reduce the possibilities of a choice of a single-sex education for either males or females.

It was within a context of exclusion that secondary schools for girls and women's colleges were established. And within this context, the underlying assumption, widely held both then and now, was that women's colleges were a temporary, short-term solution on the road to the eventual achievement of coeducation. Retrospectively, it is easy to understand how this view gained currency. Men's colleges, being inaccessible and dominant, were defined as superior. Women's colleges were defined as second-rate, patronized institutions. Thus, continued exclusion from men's colleges was viewed as continued exclusion from equal opportunity to a college education. And in this convoluted process, the relative value of men's and women's colleges, and of coeducation, was never seriously examined.

The time has come for all sides to reconsider this issue. It is time for the Justice Department and the National Organization for Women to pause and re-examine the research and their views. It is time for women's colleges to come forward and state their positions clearly. It is time for all interested parties to consider the benefits of single-gender education alongside the goal of demonstrable gender equality in coeducational schools. One might reasonably expect that the burden of proof should shift to coeducational schools to demonstrate first that they are free of gender bias, second, that they do indeed provide equality of educational opportunity, and third, that they are at least as effective as single-gender schools in terms of achievement. This would replace the current practice, which requires single-sex schools to show greater effectiveness.

It is likely that there is no one "best way'' to organize the gender context of schools. Single-sex schools are certainly not for everyone, nor are they likely to be beneficial to anyone over the entire course of an educational career. But they should exist for a small number of students who might select them. Hence, they should be viewed as alternatives to mainstream coeducational schools, and students and parents, especially African-American and Hispanic students and parents, should be given the choice to select them forthwith.

Cornelius Riordan is a professor of sociology at Providence College. He is the author of Girls and Boys in School: Together or Separate? (Teachers College Press, 1990).

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