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Separation Anxiety

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The group that first called attention to gender bias in the classroom is now questioning the effectiveness of all-girls schools.

The American Association of University Women, which has generated widespread interest in single-sex schools over the past several years, issued a report in March concluding that single-sex education is not necessarily better than coeducation. What matters, the report says, is small classes and schools, unbiased teaching, and a focused curriculum. "We need to look at the conditions of a good education, rather than whether students are separated by sex," said Janice Weinman, the association's executive director.

The report comes at a time when single-sex education is gaining popularity in public and private schools nationwide—popularity generated in large part through the work of the AAUW. The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group first made headlines in the K-12 field in 1991, when it released a study tying what it described as gender bias in schools to low self-esteem among adolescent girls. The next year, the association released a report concluding that women's contributions were underrepresented in history and science lessons, that teachers and tests favored boys, and that girls lagged behind boys in math and science.

The AAUW has come under fire over the years from critics who say it overstates the prevalence of gender bias and downplays gains made by girls and women in K-12 schools and higher education.

Though the association in 1995 supported experimental single-sex programs, Weinman denied that the new report contradicted earlier assertions by the group. She said its findings affirm the association's long-held belief that educators must create conditions under which girls and boys can compete academically. "We continue to be extremely committed to gender equity," she said. "While single-sex schools may be good for some, we feel it's not the solution."

According to the report, girls in single-sex programs may overcome their dislike for math and science, but their gains in achievement are not significant. The report also concluded that sexism exists in single-sex classrooms as well as coeducational programs and sometimes reinforces stereotypes about men and women.

Cornelius Riordan, a sociology professor at Providence College in Rhode Island and a contributor to the association's report, disagreed with the AAUW's negative reviews of single-sex classrooms. "My slant is that there's a lot of positive effects from single-gender education," he said.

State and education leaders in California have established the nation's most aggressive, publicly funded experiment in single-sex education. The state will spend $3 million on 12 single-gender schools during the 1997-98 school year, and Republican Governor Pete Wilson wants to open 12 more next year.

"Anecdotally, the program appears to be having a positive effect, but it hasn't had a chance to prove itself yet," said Karen Humphrey, who is coordinating the state's single-sex academies. "A lot of other school districts in California are looking very hard at this."

Lori Eibling, whose 7th grade daughter enrolled last year in an all-girls school in Lincoln, California, said she wants the 13-year-old to continue there next fall. "She's been happier in school this year," Eibling said. "There seems to be a real camaraderie between the kids, and they seem to be more focused. She's in a coed after-school math and science club, and she still complains about the boys making fun of the girls."

—Beth Reinhard

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