School & District Management

Study Cites Flaws in Single-Sex Public Schools

By Debra Viadero — May 30, 2001 3 min read
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California’s precedent-setting experiment to set up separate public schools for girls and boys largely ended in failure, concludes a report released last week.

The state made national headlines in 1997 when lawmakers set aside $5 million to spur the creation of single-gender academies for middle and high school students. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s primary motivation in pushing for the new structures was to expand schooling options for parents. Policymakers, though, also hoped that the new academies would follow in the tradition of elite private schools in building self-esteem in girls and providing role models for boys.

For More Information

The study, “Single Gender Public Schooling as New Form of School Choice,” is available from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

But researchers Amanda L. Datnow and Lea A. Hubbard report that, in practice, the academies inadvertently reinforced gender stereotypes, squandered opportunities to address issues of gender inequity, and exposed students to teasing from peers in coeducational classes. Only one of the six districts that took part in the program still operates a sex-segregated academy today, the San Francisco 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto.

“Most districts were willing and ready to abandon the schools when the money went away,” said Ms. Hubbard, an assistant research scientist in the sociology department at the University of California, San Diego. “It was very much about power and politics—and about money.”

Paid for by the Ford Foundation and the Spencer Foundation, the three-year study draws on more than 300 interviews with educators, students, parents, and policymakers in all six districts. Under the terms of the program, districts had to use their $500,000 grants to create separate—but equivalent—academies for boys and girls.

The report contends that most districts, however, saw the program as an opportunity to reap needed resources for low-achieving students, rather than as a way to address inequalities between males and females.

“For most educators, gender equity wasn’t even on the radar screen,” said Ms. Datnow, an assistant professor of educational administration at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Amanda L. Datnow

Often using the same teachers traveling between the schools, the segregated arrangements, in some cases, even hardened gender stereotypes.

“It set up a situation where boys were seen as bad and girls were seen as good,” said Ms. Hubbard. “Teachers also said boys were rowdier and noisier and girls were cattier.”

To avoid running afoul of the federal Title IX law barring sex discrimination in schools receiving federal aid, schools were careful to provide the same curricula to both genders. But instructional techniques were often modified. The boys’ schools tended to include more physical activity and to be stricter and more competitive. The girls’ schools, in comparison, were characterized as “kinder and gentler.”

In one unit on settling the Western frontier, the boys’ lessons were enriched by an activity on survival skills. Girls, on the other hand, learned to quilt and sew.

Name-Calling Reported

Because most of the academies operated as schools-within-schools, students also complained that their coeducational schoolmates tagged them with such labels as “preppy,” “bad,” or “gay.”

The single-sex settings, however, were not without some educational benefits, the study found. In some cases, the environments enabled savvy teachers to impart candid social and moral guidance to students, the researchers said. A female teacher, for example, warned the girls in her class that too-early sexual involvements could lead to a life on welfare.

Girls, in particular, also told interviewers they were less distracted in class because there were no boys to copy off their papers, disrupt class, or harass them. “But these advantages were muted by the disadvantages,” said Ms. Hubbard.

William P. Duncan, the principal of the last remaining single-sex academy in Palo Alto, took issue, however, with some of the researchers’ characterizations. In his school, which operates with support from the San Francisco 49ers football team, the single-gender arrangement has helped create a rapport between teachers and students, he said.

Among the 132 girls and boys who attend the free-standing school, grades are up, suspensions are down, and the number of fights has dwindled. “We think we’ve managed to get a buy-in from students into what they need to stay in school and into the idea that we want to celebrate and respect differences,” added Mr. Duncan.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study Cites Flaws in Single-Sex Public Schools

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