Report Casts Doubt on the Value of Single-Sex Schooling

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At a time when single-sex education is gaining momentum both in public and private schools nationwide, a report says there is insufficient evidence that all-girls schools work.

The report issued last week is also noteworthy considering its source: the American Association of University Women, which has generated widespread interest in single-sex schools over the past several years.

The Washington-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 were underrepresented in history and science lessons, that teachers and tests favored boys, and that girls lagged behind boys in math and science.

Interest in single-sex schools has grown in recent years, and several states and districts have begun experiments with the idea.

The latest AAUW report concludes, however, 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.

Ms. Weinman denied that the report contradicted earlier assertions by the association, though in 1995 the AAUW supported experiments in separate schools. She said the report affirmed 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. "

Differing Views

Cornelius Riordan, a sociology professor at Providence College in Providence, R.I., who contributed to the association's report, disagreed with Ms. Weinman's conclusion. He noted that the report stemmed from a November discussion among 16 scholars who examined four papers. Two of the papers, including his own, support single-sex education. The other two raise questions about its effectiveness.

Ms. Weinman said the association's conclusion was based on more than 100 studies on the subject, including the four papers, and the November forum.

Mr. Riordan did praise the report overall. "I think the association has done a major service to the research and policy communities by sponsoring the debate between pro and con scholars," he said. "My slant is that there's a lot of positive effects from single-gender education."

The aauw has come under fire over the years from critics who say it overstates the prevalence of gender bias and downplays educational strides by girls and women in K-12 and higher education. ("Idea of 'Gender Gap' in Schools Under Attack," Sept. 28, 1994.)

Among the association's latest findings:

  • Some single-sex programs help some girls overcome their dislike for math and science. But their gains in achievement are not significant, and the long-term effect of single-sex schools is unknown.
  • Sexism is found in both single-sex and coed classrooms, and both types of programs sometimes reinforce stereotypes about men and women.

California Experiment

The report should interest policymakers and educators in California, which has taken the lead in bringing single-sex education to the public school realm. The state will spend $3 million on 12 single-gender schools during the 1997-98 school year, and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson wants to open another 12 next year. He also has proposed sponsoring an evaluation of the program, which would bring spending to $5.3 million in 1998-89.

"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."

Unlike the handful of single-sex public schools founded elsewhere in the past few years, California's have not faced discrimination lawsuits. The state has tried to avoid going to court by setting up identical all-girls and all-boys schools on the same campus. ("Calif. Opens Single-Sex Academies," Sept. 10, 1997.)

Lori Eibling, whose 7th grade daughter enrolled last year in an all-girls school in Lincoln, Calif., near Sacramento, said she wants the 13-year-old to continue there next fall.

"She's been happier in school this year," Ms. Eibling said last week. "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."

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