School Choice & Charters Opinion

Single-Sex Programs for At-Risk Students

By Rosemary C. Salomone — September 10, 2003 11 min read
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Rosemary C. Salomone is the Kenneth Wang professor of law at the St. John’s University school of law in Jamaica, N.Y., a fellow of the Open Society Institute, and the author of Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling (Yale University Press, 2003).

More than a year has passed since the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights announced that it would re-examine long-standing policy prohibiting publicly supported single-sex programs. At the time, the OCR was responding directly to a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act authorizing federal funds for innovative approaches including single-sex programs. Even more significantly, both Congress and the agency were reacting to mounting pressure to revise a Title IX interpretation that not only defies reasonableness, but has become increasingly out of step with changed social realities and educational understandings on gender, race, and social class.

Despite these seemingly imperative forces, the OCR has yet to publish proposed regulations. Nonetheless, whatever has stymied the process in Washington apparently has not kept local school officials and charter school organizers from cautiously but resolutely moving forward in planning programs that separate students by sex for all or part of the school day. The underlying purposes are indeed compelling.

Over the past decade and a half, school systems from New York to California have looked to single-sex schooling to address the pressing academic and social problems confronting at- risk students. Detroit’s failed attempt in the early 1990s to establish all- male Afrocentric academies and the uproar it provoked have now become legendary. In more recent years, other cities such as Seattle, Washington, and Long Beach, Calif., have separated girls and boys within existing coeducational schools. Still others, like New York City, have opened a separate school for girls. The charter school concept, with its focus on flexibility, innovation, and parental choice, has added momentum to this movement. An all-girls school in Chicago, a dual academy in Albany, N.Y., and a planned all-boys school in New York City are noteworthy examples of charter initiatives. An additional seven programs are reported to be opening their doors this year.

It is now well known that race and social class mediate the schooling experience and influence how students perceive its importance to their future lives. The surrounding social pressures weigh somewhat differently on girls and boys and produce somewhat different results. For disadvantaged minority girls, the gender gap favoring boys in math, science, and technology, a serious and valid concern among women’s advocates, is merely one of the numerous challenges they face. Viewing life through the lens of few available options, females raised in poverty often see lying before them a hopeless future. Many consequently resort to early and repeat motherhood as a source of competence and significance. Despite the overall decline in teenage birthrates since 1990—down by 23 percent for African-Americans and 5 percent for Latinos—the raw numbers are still dramatically higher for them than for other groups.

The impact on these young women and their children is devastating. Only seven out of 10 teenage mothers complete high school. Meanwhile, their offspring are more likely to have low birth weight and other medical problems, and to be victims of abuse and neglect. Like their mothers, these children are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to have a child themselves in their teens, and one and a half times as likely to be out of work and school in their late teens and early 20s. And so the cycle continues.

The confluence of race and social class affects minority boys in ways that are even more alarming. The soaring rate of drug and alcohol abuse within this population is highly correlated with academic failure, delinquency, and accidental deaths. There are now more African-American men in prison than in college. Homicide is the leading cause of death among African- American males between the ages of 15 and 24. Suicide rates among this group are up by 100 percent over the past two decades.

The harmful effects associated with race and poverty reveal themselves most clearly in learning deficits even before children enter school. Among 3- to 5-year-olds, only 19 percent of poor children, compared with 45 percent of the nonpoor, show three or more signs of emerging literacy. Not surprisingly, significant differences between white and minority students in reading and math skills appear as early as kindergarten. By the middle school years, educational deficits typically reach a critical point. And as students progressively fall further behind in the classroom, they become far more likely to drop out of school. When compared with white students, the dropout rate for African-Americans is almost double, and for Latinos it is quadruple.

Three decades of national statistics on standardized-test scores confirm this troubling picture of academic downslide. Here the achievement gap between white and African-American students has been widening since the mid-1980s in nearly every age group and in every subject, reversing gains made in the previous decade and a half. Nearly two-thirds of African-American and Latino 4th graders are functionally illiterate. The deficits are especially striking at the top of the achievement ladder, as Advanced Placement and SAT scores reveal.

Researchers continue to debate the roots of academic failure. Sociologists place part of the blame on the public schools and their inability to develop and constantly reaffirm a sense of “academic identification"—the belief that school achievement is a promising basis for self-esteem. Adolescents growing up in poor communities often receive conflicting messages that make it difficult for them to establish a stable identity. Those who do not see themselves as academically competent are far less likely to have high educational and career aspirations. African-American boys in particular often fall victim to peer pressure, perceived social stigma, and low expectations at school. In the process, they increasingly identify with other aspects of self- concept, such as social popularity and athletics. And while many poor minority girls do, in fact, appreciate the value of education and express lofty goals, uncontrollable circumstances frequently derail their plans. Again, teenage motherhood and marginal employment too often become their foreseeable fate.

This downward spiral underscores the critical need to explore innovative educational approaches.

This downward spiral in which many of these students find themselves, despite four decades of compensatory programs, underscores the critical need to explore innovative educational approaches. The inevitable question is, “Why single-sex schooling?"—an idea born historically in sex stereotypes and inequalities, especially for women.

The truth is that the new wave of single-sex programs bears little resemblance to conventional views of the old model. School reformers are now dramatically recasting single-sex education in an updated mold, redefining the ends and means based on informed understandings of child and adolescent development, set against a 40-year backdrop of equity-based reforms. Some of the arguments underlying these current initiatives bear directly on the same-sex feature.

For teenagers in particular, there is no doubt that single-sex programs remove the social distraction of the other sex. They place the “intellectual” above the “social,” which is most important in communities where young people see little if any worth in scholarly achievement. These programs typically offer positive same-sex role models, especially missing in the everyday lives of disadvantaged boys. They also provide a socially secure setting where both sexes can develop academically oriented values and goals.

Children and society are different from what they were 31 years ago when Title IX was enacted. Today’s popular culture—from TV to films and music—contains a heavy sexual element. Teenagers and even preteens wear sexually suggestive clothing to school, talk to each other in sexually explicit ways, and more openly engage in physical intimacy than previous generations did. Single-sex programs offer both a “safe haven” from these damaging forces and the opportunity to channel energies into academic pursuits. For many girls, they provide a refuge from an environment that at best tolerates and at worst legitimizes unwanted sexual advances, whether verbal or physical.

We also now recognize that girls and boys tend to mature at different rates. Girls, as a group, enter school with better verbal and fine-motor skills, have longer attention spans, and show greater impulse control. These critical disparities put some young boys at a disadvantage in the lower grades. Coed schools expect boys to function at the same level as girls, while at times unwittingly holding girls back as they wait for the boys to play catch-up.

Many middle-class families now delay for an extra year enrolling their sons in kindergarten, an increasingly common practice called “academic redshirting.” Among the poor, the solution is frequently retention, creating a personal mind-set and an institutional record of failure at the very start. Many boys eventually do catch up, but in the process, some simply give up or are misidentified as learning-disabled. Some act out in frustration, ending up suspended or expelled. Many simply drop out. This situation reaches crisis proportions in poor communities.

Obviously, it remains to be seen if single-sex programs can definitively address these concerns more effectively than coeducation. Research findings are undeniably thin. It has to be remembered that beginning in the 1970s and until quite recently, the office for civil rights used the force of Title IX, the 1972 federal law against sex discrimination in education, to close down all but a few bold and persistent public single-sex programs.

The educational effect will depend in part on the willingness of educators to consciously stretch traditional bounds and shed outmoded views on gender and schooling.

Nevertheless, at least one large-scale study on Catholic schools in the 1980s, as well as anecdotal reports from scattered public school initiatives, present promising evidence on academic and other success factors, especially for disadvantaged minority students.

These programs note significant achievement gains, higher attendance rates, and decreased disciplinary problems. The phenomenal success of the Young Women’s Leadership School in New York over the past seven years proves the point: a 100 percent college-acceptance rate within the first three graduating classes, daily attendance above 92 percent, and a 100 percent pass rate on the New York State Regents exams in English, math, U.S. history, and biology. Large-scale studies from other English-speaking countries have yielded similar findings for both girls and boys across the economic spectrum.

It would prove useful to test these results not only in urban settings, but also among poor students, girls and boys, living in rural areas or on the fringes of cities, groups frequently forgotten in the discussion on academic failure.

Revisions in the Title IX regulations could legally sanction new opportunities for informed innovation, allowing local reformers the flexibility to explore a variety of permutations on the single-sex theme—elementary schools for boys, middle and secondary schools for girls, dual academies within the same facility, separate classes designed to break down the typical “gender polarization” of math and science for boys and English and foreign languages for girls.

Yet as we embark on this old venture turned new, trying fresh approaches where most others have failed, we must remain mindful that the educational effect, and indeed the legality of any program, will depend in part on the willingness of educators to consciously stretch traditional bounds and shed outmoded views on gender and schooling. The perspectives, values, and practices that constitute both the “overt” and the “hidden” curriculum of these programs are critical to their success.

To that end, the Department of Education’s office for civil rights must continue to play a significant but somewhat redefined role, no longer closing these programs down categorically, but rather assuring that they stay on course in promoting equal opportunity and fulfilling the educational and social potential of all students, regardless of gender, race, or class. In carrying out this charge, OCR officials must remain vigilant that single-sex programs do not regress into pre-Title IX stereotypes or unequal resources for girls. The purpose is to expand opportunities, not limit them. And above all, differences cannot be considered deficits.

Meanwhile, the department would be well advised to support this new strand of school reform, allocating funds for program planning, staff training, and curriculum development, along with carefully designed research studies examining short- and long-term outcomes that look beyond test scores. Dropout, suspension, and pregnancy rates, as well as enrollment in advanced levels of traditionally “gendered” subjects like math and English, are equally valid measures of success. At the same time, the federal government must remain committed to promoting equal opportunity for girls and boys throughout education, including coeducational schools which understandably will continue as the norm.

The federal government must remain committed to promoting equal opportunity for girls and boys throughout education.

That being said, single-sex schooling should remain purely voluntary on the part of students and discretionary on the part of school districts. Any regulatory changes must be unequivocal on these points. Nor should the approach be viewed as the ultimate solution to the complex problems facing public schools. Nonetheless, it merits serious consideration, at least for some students and for social and developmental reasons that we are just beginning to more fully comprehend. It is now time to shift the focus from debating the merits of the concept to exploring program planning and implementation—from the “whether” to the “how.”

All that is needed is a thoughtful, reasonable, and long-overdue response from Washington.

Rosemary C. Salomone is the Kenneth Wang professor of law at the St. John’s University school of law in Jamaica, N.Y., a fellow of the Open Society Institute, and the author of Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling (Yale University Press, 2003).

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