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A School of Their Own

Educator, activist, author, and mother of two girls, Diana Meehan explains why she believes in single-sex schooling.

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Should girls be separated from boys in schools? Yes, says author Diana Meehan, whose book, Learning Like a Girl: Educating Our Daughters in Schools of Their Own, was released in May. The book details her research on how girls learn differently and her growing concern for the lack of girls’ voices in the classroom, both of which led Meehan to co-found the Archer School for Girls in 1995 in Los Angeles. Meehan’s work has been supported by the likes of Tom Hanks, Brooke Shields, and Arianna Huffington, but questioned by many who say single-sex education is outdated and anti-democratic. Meehan, who is also the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Women and Men at the University of Southern California, recently corresponded with Teacher Magazine, by e-mail, about gender and education.

Diana Meehan
Diana Meehan

What inspired you to open the Archer School for Girls?

Two other mothers, Vicky Shorr and Megan Callaway, and I had read much of the research, which by 1994 was pretty definitive: It said our culture devalues girls, undermines their abilities, achievements and independence; in our schools female students are “shortchanged,” ignored, and patronized. The exception seemed to be in single-sex schools, where girls were encouraged to be active, assertive, and academic, where they led in every endeavor.

Unfortunately, the trend for some time had been away from single-sex schooling, and in 1994 it was an option available to only 9 percent of the population. The three of us had five daughters among us, we had our own experiences of single-sex schools—which, like most alumnae, we remembered fondly—and we were clueless about how daunting the task, so we set out to start a school for girls that would reflect the research about how girls best learn.

In your opinion and from the research you’ve conducted, what are the benefits of single-sex schooling?

The thing about girls’ schools is that they are totally and exclusively dedicated to girls. They are places girls can “own,” which only occurs in single-sex space; the pedagogy honors their values and ways of knowing. In a girls’ school, the students can be passionately themselves while learning how to be the best selves they can be.

In the ideal single-sex school, girls make many of the rules. In all of them, they play all of the roles: girls are the clowns, the chemists, the classical scholars; girls play varsity sports (and they’re not the Lady Eagles or the girls’ team – they’re the team); girls have the leads in the drama productions and hold all of the leadership positions in every endeavor.

Are there disadvantages or challenges to same-sex schooling?

For the book, I looked at single-sex schools that were recommended by friends and colleagues. I investigated seven new girls’ schools, (including Archer), three of them public institutions; I visited six established single-sex schools.

I can find no disadvantages for any students who attend any of these thirteen schools.

The challenges for the leaders of single-sex schools, as for any schools, are finding, training, and retaining excellent faculty and giving teachers the resources and support to do their best teaching. I would argue that it may be somewhat easier to overcome these challenges in single-sex versus coeducational schools because the mission and purpose are that much more focused. Teachers say it’s easier to teach in a single-sex setting than in a mixed class and a relief to have a break from the male-female sexual sparks of adolescence while they’re trying to discuss Athens and Sparta or Victorian novels.

You talked about the adversity you faced in starting the school. Why do you think people are against all-girls schools?

We were shocked to discover that we had adversaries. Who could be against girls’ learning? After an expensive, extensive four-year battle with those who opposed us, we’ve concluded some were mistaken, some were misinformed, some were misogynists. Today we count as friends most of the first two categories of former opponents.

How do you respond to opponents who say that single-gender schooling has no measurable impact or is sexist?

I suggest they read Rosemary Salomone’s excellent publication Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling (Yale, 2003), which presents a comprehensive, critical analysis of single-sex education. It is more thoughtful, fair, and objective than I could be.

You said in your book that boys and girls learn differently. Can you give examples?

Although there are dissenters, most researchers on sex differences conclude that biological, social, and experiential factors contribute to learning differences between males and females. Female brains develop more quickly, use more regions of the brain in problem solving, mature earlier than male brains. Girls generally have better language and reading skills, social control, attention spans. Boys have better spatial performance (which helps in mathematics and some science tasks); they have higher basal metabolism rates, which may be why they have trouble sitting still at younger ages and why their play is typically more physical than that of girls.

What I saw at Allen-Stevenson School for Boys in New York is that faculty can adopt their teaching styles to boys’ natural learning styles. “Their rhythms are honored,” said one of the A-S teachers about his students. Boys have higher energy levels and great physicality, both of which are accommodated by the exuberant activities encouraged in the classrooms. Young boys do not hear as well as girls, so when the class activity raises the noise level, that only makes it feel more natural for them.

In the girls’ schools I visited I sometimes saw extraordinary results: girls from impoverished backgrounds, for example, achieving in language and science and math, moving up several grade levels in one year, mastering a college prep curriculum, graduating, and going on to college. This is what is happening at Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago, in what this public school calls “a culture of success.” Because the students, chosen by lottery, arrive at YWLCS with no experience, never having done science experiments, having no idea how to explain an answer in algebra, the teachers find themselves teaching reading and writing at some pretty basic levels before they can get to the curriculum. They get to the advanced work by using girls’ natural strength—communication.

Can you explain what you describe as “the girl pause?”

In coed classrooms, like my UCLA class on political communication, male students were pitching, coaxing, laughing, joking, dominating the discussion; female students were largely quiet, polite, taking notes, then surprising me with top scores on the first test of the material.

The caution or courtesy typical of girls is sometimes called the girl pause. In an effort not to be aggressive or rude, they may miss the opportunity to participate. Teachers can counter their reserve, but it has to be a conscious effort.

How can coeducational teachers engage both their male and female students?

Teachers are the most important factor in educational success in any kind of classroom. To achieve success, faculty work long hours, take special training, toil together challenging themselves to bridge disciplines, theory, learning styles, for which efforts they are, by their students if not the outside world, respected, applauded, and sometimes loved. Dedicated, committed teachers develop techniques to reach both male and female students, if provided the circumstances, the resources, and the encouragement to do so.

What do you see as the future of single-sex schooling?

Single-sex schools “dare to rethink and redefine” the scholarly discourse, in Rosemary Salomone’s words. The emerging schools, like those I visited and write about in Learning Like a Girl, are laboratories of learning and opportunity. I think they are just beginning to dare to redefine the discourse.

-Amanda Jones

Vol. 06

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