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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Separate Worlds

Separate Worlds

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Some studies of single-sex schools bode well for it. But many experts say no research has determined whether benefits stem from factors specific to the single-sex setting.

Much of the recent interest in single-sex education stems from a controversial and widely publicized 1992 study from the American Association of University Women. "How Schools Shortchange Girls" concluded that female students receive less attention from their teachers than boys do, are less apt to see girls and women reflected in their study materials, and are often not expected or encouraged to pursue higher-level mathematics and science.

But since its release, the report from the Washington-based organization has been challenged on several fronts. Judith Kleinfeld, a psychology professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks who recently wrote a study called "The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls," said the AAUW report failed to acknowledge the "different strengths and weaknesses" that girls and boys bring to school.

"I believed in the gender bias, until I actually took a look at the research," Kleinfeld says. "And the research shows that girls get higher grades in virtually every subject in school. On standardized tests of reading and writing skills, they're off the charts compared with boys, and boys do a bit better in science and math. Girls are now the majority in college and earn about half the professional degrees. Girls are soaring.

"Is there a systematic gender bias in schools? No."

Kleinfeld ticks off a number of problems that she says disproportionately affect boys: lower grades, higher rates of suspensions and dropouts, more trouble with the law, and higher rates of substance abuse.

Some studies of single-sex schools bode well for it. For example, some research--focused mainly on students at Roman Catholic and private schools--has concluded that single-sex schools foster higher self-esteem, better participation, and better, long-lasting academic achievement, especially among girls. And several studies have found that single-sex schooling has had particular benefits for disadvantaged minorities.

But many experts say no research has determined whether benefits stem from factors specific to the single-sex setting or from other factors, such as smaller classes, higher expectations, or parental involvement.

Other studies have found that single-sex settings for girls do not adequately address what some researchers have identified as a gender bias in classrooms. Another AAUW report, "Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls," released last spring, acknowledged that single-sex education works for "some students in some settings." But there is "no evidence that single-sex education in general works or is 'better' than coeducation," it concluded.

though there is a dearth of conclusive research, more and more public school systems are experimenting with the idea. Marsteller Middle School in Manassas, Va., for example, has offered single-sex classes to all of its students for the last three school years. In the northern Michigan town of Pellston, the middle school's 6th graders have for the past two years been given the option of attending their core classes in a single-sex setting. And this fall, an elementary school in Denver switched to a single-sex program for its 4th and 5th graders.

A 165-student girls' school in New York City's East Harlem called the Young Women's Leadership Academy has generated much scrutiny over the three years it's been open. The school is not open to boys, and the district offers no comparable public school for boys. And Detroit and Philadelphia have embarked on the idea with mixed results.

Geraldine Clifford, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says single-sex schools have a place in public education, but maybe only a small one. "Choice is kind of an American value, and now parents want choice in public schools," she says. "But I don't believe [these schools] will be a big movement."

Clifford sees California's single-sex academies as having grown out of a longing by some here to go back to the days when the state's schools were "a proud lighthouse, a model to the nation."

While adding that the state has "always bred experimental movements," Clifford points out that "single-sex academies are not all that novel. They're not new. They have their roots in European tradition and religious traditions," including the Catholic, German Lutheran, and Muslim faiths.

Single-sex public education also has a tradition of legal problems. The U.S. Supreme Court's only action on the issue dates to 1976, when the justices let stand an appeals court's ruling that Philadelphia's single-sex high schools did not violate the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment. At a lower level, a federal court in 1991 forced three all-male public schools in Detroit to admit girls, and girls now make up about half those schools' enrollments, district officials say.

In 1988, the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights cited racial and sex discrimination in killing a plan to hold separate classes for African-American boys in Miami. The office is now investigating whether the Young Women's Leadership Academy in New York violates Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in schools receiving federal aid, by discriminating against boys. Citing that law, New Jersey education officials closed down two small middle school programs this year.

Karen Humphrey, who oversees California's single-gender academies for the state education department, says the program was designed to withstand legal scrutiny by providing equal opportunities and equal funding to boys' and girls' programs. So far, she says, no one has challenged the schools in court.

Though California's is one of the largest experiments with the idea to date, it is unlikely to provide a clear answer to the question of whether single-sex public schooling works.

California's experience is unlikely to provide a clear answer to the question of whether single-sex public schooling works.

Researchers who are studying the program say that, since the academies are so unusual, with most of their 700 students moving in and out of coed settings, their research is not likely to provide any definitive answers. And they note that it will be difficult to isolate the influence of the academies on their students' achievement amid other forces that are reshaping California schools.

Amanda Datnow, a researcher with the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and Lea Hubbard, a researcher from the University of California, San Diego, have been studying the program since its inception. Datnow describes it as "a whole new thing" in single-sex schooling.

For their study, which began last January and will conclude in December 2000, the researchers are tracking the achievement of individual students and monitoring the attitudes and opinions of teachers, parents, and students. And while Datnow says she can't say anything conclusive so far, a few things are clear.

"Anecdotally, teachers have reported some positive effects," she says. "But they also say they've faced a lot of challenges," in administering the program. Teachers have told her that students have better feelings about school, for example, and are posting better grades. "And overall," Datnow says, "the main reason to separate boys and girls was to reduce distractions, and in fact teachers say they are are seeing some of that."

Just ask Arcelia Ramirez, a teacher at the San Francisco 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto, a tough, poor neighborhood that borders the region's booming high-tech belt. The 150-student school, a partnership between the Ravenswood school district and its sponsor, the San Francisco 49ers professional football team, was set up exclusively for at-risk middle school boys, but began a girls' program after being awarded one of the state's start-up grants last year.

"These girls are concrete-hard when we get them," Ramirez says, gesturing to her 16 8th graders, many of whom, with teased hair and plenty of makeup, appear much older than their 13 or 14 years. Like the boys at the school, most of the girls are at risk of dropping out, but, by enrolling at the academy, have expressed a commitment to turning their lives around.

"They've been exposed to so much at a young age; they never have a chance to just be," Ramirez says. "I try to keep it as real as possible in here. We focus a lot on feelings and friendship. And, because I'm a woman, I can serve as a counselor and a role model."

On this day, the girls are engaged in a frank how-to discussion of proper condom use and the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The class is part of a weeklong sex education program provided by a volunteer from the medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. This session would never have gone over in a coeducational class, Ramirez says. "It would have been a joke." The volunteer's lecture is followed by a question-and-answer session in which one student, who spent a portion of class staring into a compact mirror, plucking her eyebrows, remarked that sex with a condom "doesn't feel as good."

"AIDS doesn't feel good," answers the medical school staffer, health educator Sherry Felder, who adds later that she has heard much worse from students this young.

All in all, the single-sex program is helping the girls focus better on academics and, with no boys to compete for, "how to be a team player," Ramirez says. "Wild dogs don't make it at a tea party," she adds. "These girls are learning to be women."

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Pages 20-24

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