Private Coed Schools Find Benefits in Single-Sex Classes
Amanda Xiques, a 7th grader at the Walker School in Marietta, Ga., goes through her first two periods of the school day without seeing a single boy in her classrooms.
But the makeup of her morning algebra and earth science classes is not a quirk of scheduling or a reflection of the school's overall enrollment; about half its 841 students are boys. Instead, it's an effort by the private pre-K-12 school to give girls a boost in mathematics and science.
Walker is one of many private coed schools that, prompted by reports that schools may unknowingly shortchange girls, have experimented with single-gender classes. The technique remains controversial, especially after last month's American Association of University Women report arguing that research doesn't show that separating the sexes, in and of itself, helps improve girls' performance. ("Report Casts Doubt on the Value Of Single-Sex Schooling," March 18, 1998.)
But educators at many schools like Walker say such news hasn't shaken their belief in the approach, particularly because of what they've gleaned from broadening their teaching methods to reach both boys and girls.
"We didn't do single-gender classes to increase our test scores," said Nancy Calhoun, the principal of Walker's middle school program. "It was their confidence. We didn't want girls shutting off future options."
Thirteen-year-old Amanda said she didn't lack confidence in math and science before taking all-girls classes, which she does enjoy. "Sometimes you do feel more comfortable, more inclined to ask questions," she said. "Your hand just seems to go up."
Interest in single-sex education began mounting several years ago following earlier AAUW studies contending that schools often disregard bias against female students, that girls lose self-esteem during adolescence, and that girls fare worse than boys in math and science as a result of discrimination.
The reports, whose conclusions have been hotly debated, helped fuel a resurgence of enrollments in all-girls private schools. But some coed schools responded by setting up girls-only sections of math and science.
Practitioners say boys and girls have some different learning styles: Boys tend to compete in class, quickly raising their hands or even blurting out answers; girls more often work well learning in small groups with other students.
"It's a no-brainer," said JoAnn Deak, an administrator at the all-girls Laurel School in Cleveland. "If you want to make quick, positive change with a subgroup that shows that they need it, why wouldn't you at least offer [separate classes] as an option?"
Ms. Deak recently wrote How Girls Thrive: An Essential Guide for Educators (and Parents), a book published by the National Association of Independent Schools, based in Washington. While public schools also have experimented with single-gender classes, Ms. Deak believes coed private schools have been quicker to try because they don't face the same legal challenges.
The Walker School first started separating boys and girls in its 8th grade algebra classes five years ago. Today, many of its middle-level math and science classes are offered only as single-sex sections.
School administrators acknowledge that girls' performance in the separate classes hasn't changed noticeably; yet, the number of girls signing up for upper-level math and science classes has jumped. While girls made up less than one-third of the students in such courses before they tried single-gender classes, now 45 percent to 55 percent of the students in advanced math and science classes are female.
Conceding that such anecdotal evidence doesn't prove the outcome will be similar elsewhere, Ms. Calhoun still believes the approach has improved girls' feelings toward the subjects at her school. "For whatever reason, it has made a difference," she said.
A Learning Experience
Even some schools that tried separate classes only for a few semesters claim the arrangement has had a long-term effect.
The Marin Academy, a private coed high school in San Rafael, Calif., established all-girls math and science classes in the 9th and 10th grades in 1992. It discontinued them five years later when the number of girls signing up dropped off, said Dan Babior, the acting academic dean. Still, the experience helped staff members see what worked better for girls and boys, and teachers have applied the lessons to their coed classes, he said. "I'd suggest doing all-girls classes as a way to learn how to improve the school's coeducational pedagogy," he said. "Not necessarily as a permanent aspect of your institution."
Administrators at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a state-run boarding senior high school in Aurora, found a similar change in their own teaching methods after trying a single-gender physics class for one semester in 1993.
"The experience of doing this made it almost impossible for me to do things the way I did before, where I was sort of the sage on the stage," science teacher David T. Workman said. "That just wouldn't feel comfortable anymore."
Despite such claims, the body of research that exists on single-sex education does not point to a conclusion that an all-girls education is inherently better, according to the latest AAUW report.
Janice Weinman, the AAUW's executive director, said she doesn't "recommend against single-sex" education, but is concerned that people are rushing to it without the research results to back it up. "People are using this as a silver bullet, and that is dangerous."
At the middle school campus of the coed Rippowam Ciqua School in Bedford, N.Y., administrators feel confident in their decision to continue using single-gender classes in math, a practice they started as an experiment four years ago.
"What you can't measure in a quantitative way is how these kids feel about themselves," said Eileen Lambert, the head of the private middle school. "It's enough knowing I have more girls saying, 'I love math.'"