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Debating Single Sex Education Misses the Bigger Issues

By Sara Mead — March 07, 2012 3 min read

Last night, I spoke on a panel at the Sewall Belmont House here in D.C. about single sex schools and classrooms. This is a topic that’s mired in controversy but where people’s opinions don’t always fall out where you’d expect, generating strange alliances--such as then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison teaming up to support single sex public schools--and my co-panelist Christina Hoff Sommers and Susan McGee Bailey made it a very lively conversation.

My take on this is pretty simple: As we move towards increasing customization, choice, and diversity of delivery in public education, I see no reason not to allow single-sex to be among a growing number of options available to children and their parents. Yes, the body of evidence on single-sex schools is mixed and and the overall quality of existing evidence is not the best. But, while there’s not much evidence to argue that single sex education is better than co-educational, there’s also not really any evidence to argue that it’s so harmful to students it should be prohibited entirely. Given that, it seems best to leave the door open, but to hold schools and their founders accountable for the actual academic results they produce, as well as for upholding their responsibilities to protect both the public interest and students’ rights.

That said, there’s another phenomenon in play here that’s much more potentially problematic, and that’s the growing popularity--in both the small number of single sex public schools and much larger number of coed ones--of gender-based education, or different pedagogical approaches, and in some cases content, for boys and girls based on the idea that “boys and girls learn differently.” Proponents of gender-based educational approaches, such as Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian, are taking two reasonable truths: 1) That neuroscientists have documented some differences in the structure of male and female brains, and 2) that veteran teachers and parents recognize some differences in how boys and girls tend to behave on average--and mushed them together in an unholy combination to promote the notion that boys and girls have different learning styles that must be served using different pedagogical approaches. But, as a number of experts in neuroscience and cognition have explained, this combination, while seeming superficially reasonable and scientific, actually gets some critical stuff wrong. Knowing about differences in the structure of the brain doesn’t automatically translate into useful and applicable information for teachers. Many findings of differences are not educationally relevant. The variation in cognitive traits among men/boys or among women/girls is far greater than the average difference between sexes, making gender a far less precise tool for differentiating instruction than much other data teachers have available. Moreover, none of these “gender-based” learning interventions have been rigorously evaluated for their impact on student achievement. Daniel Willingham does a good job explaining the problems with the “boys and girls learn differently” case here. Given all that, gender-based learning seems like a dumb thing for schools to be putting effort and PD dollars into.

There are some real challenges facing boys and girls in education: Too many boys are failing to learn to read proficiently in the early years, and too many young men are failing to earn postsecondary credentials that they need for good employment. Women are faring better academically and in postsecondary attainment, but are not going into key STEM fields at the rate needed to meet demand for skilled workers--and are in some cases pursuing STEM careers at lower rates than in the past. But single-sex or gender-based education isn’t itself a solution to these problems, and if people think it is, they’re going to come in for a world of grief. If boys aren’t learning to read, that’s an instructional problem that has an instructional solution--teachers need to know how to teach reading effectively--and just putting a group of boys in a room with bright lights, beanbags, and basketballs isn’t going to do the trick.

Improving instruction is a lot larger and a lot less sexy than debating single-sex education or “gender-based” education theories--but ultimately it’s the only way we’re going to get the outcomes we want, for boys or girls.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.