Single-Sex Ed

May 14, 2008 3 min read
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Single-sex schooling, where students attend classes or schools segregated by gender, has traditionally been the province of private and parochial schools. Yet over the past few years the arrangement has been gaining popularity in some public school districts. Nationwide, roughly 50 public schools are completely single-sex and over 350 offer some single-sex classes. While single-sex schools were once banned under Title IX, the Department of Education lessened these restrictions in 2006. Today school districts can offer single-sex schools as long as they also provide “geographically accessible” coed classes.

The reasoning behind single-sex schooling generally falls into two philosophies. The first is that separating boys and girls provides a more comfortable social environment that allows students to explore and take more risks. The second comes from recent neurological research that boys and girls have distinct biological differences that affect how each learns. For instance, boys tend to learn better when they have more opportunities to stand up and move around the classroom, while girls tend to learn better in quieter, more group-centered environments. Advocates feel single-sex schools can be especially helpful in low-income schools and schools with gender achievement gaps.

Many groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), oppose the trend, stating that segregated schools violate Title IX and ultimately harm children socially and educationally. A recent study from Tel Aviv University found that children learn best in coed environments, especially when girls slightly outnumber boys. Furthermore, many researchers contest the supposed differences in learning behavior between genders, claiming that any conclusions about how boys and girls learn are based on wide generalizations and cannot be applied to most individuals.

Single-Sex Schools in Practice

Single-sex schools have met with varied success across the country. Early attempts to create 12 single-sex “academies” in California failed. All but one of the schools closed. Yet recent movements in South Carolina to provide single-sex options in over 30 public schools have been praised by teachers, parents, and students. Responding to a survey conducted by the South Carolina Department of Education, three out of four students in these single-sex schools said the new environment was helping them perform better.

In February 2008, the Green County, Georgia, School Board announced that it would implement single-sex education in all of its schools beginning in the fall of 2008. Parents staunchly opposed the plan, however, saying they should be able to choose whether or not to send their students to single-sex schools. The plan even drew criticism from single-sex education supporters, who stressed that single-sex schools should never be mandatory. In early April, the county school board dropped the plan.

What People are Saying

Leonard Sax, a family physician and one of the most prominent researchers in learning differences between genders, believes single-sex schools can be liberating for children:

I think in coed schools, the focus is on how you look; at the single sex school, the focus is more on who you are. And a very good case can be made that single-sex education is actually better preparation for the real world. Because in the real world being cute won’t get you very far, it won’t get you the kind of jobs you want. The focus on who you are is going to be a much more advantageous focus all around.

Rosemary Salomone, a legal scholar at St. John’s University School of Law who worked with the Department of Education to lessen restrictions on single-sex schools, doubts the claims of inherent neurological differences in how boys and girls learn, saying:

What kind of message does it give when you tell a group of kids that boys and girls need to be separated because they don’t even see or hear alike? Every time I hear of school officials selling single-sex programs to parents based on brain research, my heart sinks.

James Hearn, a 5th grade teacher at Beech Hill Elementary School in S.C, feels single-sex classrooms also help teachers target instruction:

Girls are easy. They’re more traditional. They’re really into family relationships, so I try to make class more personal. Boys are harder. They’re always wanting to move around. But they’re into sports, so I try to bring in news articles to make class more interesting.

Sara Mead of Early Ed Watch questions whether the successes of single-sex schools are due to their gender policies, saying:

[Some single-sex schools] do seem to be having a positive impact for the predominantly low-income, minority students they serve. But that impact has at least as much to do with their rigorous academic approach, commitment to high-quality teaching, and shared culture of excellence as it has to do with the fact that they're single sex.

Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation disagrees with any segregating of students by gender:

Policies that are going to purposely segregate students by race or gender or income or religion is antithetical to what American public education is supposed to be about, which is to bring children of different backgrounds together.

What do you think?

Can single-sex classrooms and schools create safer learning environments? Is segregating students by gender a step backward in education policy? Should it be an option in school districts?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Echo Chamber blog.


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