For Girls, Schools of Their Own

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It is ironic that in our headlong search to open up educational opportunities for girls we have virtually closed down a powerful traditional option--the single-sex school. Coeducation has been elevated in recent times to the status of "natural" or "normal." Except in the private sector, girls' schools have become virtually extinct. The best public high schools for girls, like the most eminent black coeducational high schools, have fallen victim to the overgeneralizations of social scientists and the myopia of the courts.

But by implying that schools that select their students on the basis of sex are inherently inequitable, we have done some girls a gross educational disservice; we have neglected important economic and moral needs in the country; and we have ignored both research evidence on developmental differences between boys and girls and common-sense evidence about significant variations among girls. Coeducation does not guarantee equity for all girls.

Two central problems lie at the heart of education for American female adolescents. The first is that the culture of too many high schools does not sufficiently support maintaining the intellectual zest that girls often display in the earlier grades. With alarming consistency, girls learn as they grow up that their role requires giving over to boys leadership positions, the study of certain subjects such as mathematics and the sciences, and certain important attitudes towards learning--such as questioning, challenging, and risk-taking.

To be sure, the pressures to conform to conventional role expectations can be and are avoided by many girls, primarily by those who are especially bright. Clearly, the country's needs demand an effort by schools to encourage intellectual curiosity and competence among a far larger fraction of adolescent females.

The second problem is in many ways the reverse of the first. Many young women who feel "liberated" by their sudden access to the male world unthinkingly embrace that world and its values. Just as the male culture once forced women to see their "place" by exclusion, so male values still define women's "place" when they enter the male world. Consequently, we often see shrill competition, winning at all costs, and the "woman-in-the-grey-flannel-suit" image. For many young women, the end of de jure discrimination may create more problems than it solves.

Carol Gilligan, writing in In a Different Voice, suggests that women "by nature" are really different from men in ways that cause deep conflict when they enter a man's world and feel forced to mute or abandon some basic womanly qualities. If so, the proper education of women deals not only with completing the revolution of access to opportunity, but also with preserving particular womanly qualities--such as nurturing and defining self in terms of relations with others. The key issue is balance and the support, especially the support of the educational experience itself, to develop and sustain that balance.

It is no accident that American adults and teen-agers regard coeducational high schools as natural, normal, and inevitable, for the agenda of adolescence itself has been quietly but profoundly recast to make positive social relationships between the two sexes nearly the primary developmental task for teen-agers to resolve. The absence of boys in high school is unthinkable to most people precisely because the presence of boys and girls together is what high school is increasingly all about. The growing affluence of teen-agers and the accompanying creation of a teen-ager "market," where sexuality--either as real behavior or as fantasy--is the main sales pitch, have certainly contributed to this notion.

But educators cannot conveniently blame "outside forces" for all their ills. They have too often failed to convey to students, and even to themselves, a clear and consistent commitment to some educational mission. Instead, they have become multi-purpose gathering places for teen-age socializing--"shopping malls" in the phrase of "A Study of High Schools," one of the ongoing national studies of secondary education.

Some girls can surmount the pressure to be sexy and social at the earliest possible age and at the same time develop sustained intellectual interests. They survive and prosper. Some of these may be "hurried children," as the developmental psychologist David Elkind has put it, or their childhood may have "disappeared," as Neil Postman, author of a recent book on the subject, has said.

Yet many other girls do not weather the high-school scene so easily. Social relations overwhelm their incipient intellectual interests, and they play the role that boys and traditional society expect of them. This sort of girl, if she is thoughtful and troubled by her situation, has remarkably few educational options. She has few options because Americans care very little about maximizing her individual development by supporting the kinds of school environments that can promote it.

For some girls, girls' schools are the best place to be. What then can these schools do for girls who, whatever their reasons, prefer to defer boy-girl social relations as the central agenda of adolescence? What does the absence of boys in school actually accomplish? (Of course, boys are not totally absent from the lives of most of these girls.) The answer is that for some girls, girls' schools often can be especially powerful environments to address both of the key problem of female adolescent development: developing an assertive, risk-taking, active, questing attitude toward learning, while at the same time enhancing supportive female qualities of nurturance and caring.

"Without boys," students in girls' school often say, "there are no distractions. We can concentrate on learning." Without boys, they have freedom to focus their intellectual energy and less competition with each other over particular boys. The best American study of the experience of adolescent girls in single-sex and coeducational school environments, completed in 1976 by the educational psychologists P.K. Trickett, C. Pendry, and E.J. Trickett, agrees that girls' schools seem particularly effective in promoting intellectual and leadership development. Their comparative study of single-sex and coeducational independent schools uncovered four significant advantages for girls in a single-sex environment.

First, such students were more academically oriented than their coeducational counterparts. The average classroom in a girls' school was "more highly structured, task-oriented, and competitive." Second, the older students--juniors and seniors--in girls' schools had significantly higher self-esteem than similar girls in coeducational schools. Third, the older students (and the older the students, the more differentiated the characteristics became) were more assertive, ambitious, and autonomous than their coeducational counterparts. Finally, girls in girls' schools were more involved in extracurricular activities and had a more active orientation toward life, leadership, and relationships.

The absence of boys also means that girls can work out a complex sense of self, defined not just in terms of "autonomy" but in terms of relations with others, especially with other girls. That sense of self, which includes both types of necessary qualities--risk-taking and caring--may be a proper precursor to the eventual development of both friendly and intimate relations with boys. Many girls in single-sex schools believe those schools provide a place apart for them to develop according to their own social, intellectual, and biological timetables, and to be judged on grounds other than how popular they are with boys. What popular American culture regards as "unnatural" may, in fact, be the most natural way for some girls to become themselves.

The many rituals of girls' schools, which often seem arcane and incomprehensible to outsiders, are powerful mechanisms that aid in developing deep and lasting friendships among girls. They foster qualities of caring and support that women must have for their crucial childrearing, family, and workplace responsibilities. These traditions go by different names in different girls' schools, and are usually the first things to be abandoned if the school becomes coeducational or merges with a boys' school. They are special annual events, often of very many years' standing, that combine mystery, apprehension, and then release in a way that reinforces mutual dependence and closeness.

Virginia Woolf called her 1929 search for a woman's voice A Room of One's Own. The idea of special places, places apart, nicely expresses the growing demand of Americans for more educational choices for their children, more possibilities to achieve a good match between student and school.

Single-sex environments should become part of the national discussion about what kinds of school environments should be made more widely available. At least in the independent-school world, there is evidence that interest in girls' schools is increasing. But since only a minority of students enroll in private schools, what is more interesting and provocative would be to develop a public "magnet" school organized, not around the usual themes of high technology, medical sciences, or the arts, but around gender itself as the magnet. The traditions and the curriculum such an institution would create could ironically be a true educational "innovation"--because it would rediscover and improve upon a good old idea.

At its best, such a magnet school for girls would send its students in different ways a powerful message: Develop your mind and your skills, explore your interests and talents, discover your self-confidence and individuality. But, it would also tell them, when you are doing these things, understand your interdependence, work on your friendships, and celebrate the virtues of womanhood.

Vol. 02, Issue 36, Page 20-21

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