The Never-Ending Controversy Over All-Girls Education

It's extremely tricky to prove scientifically whether or not single-sex schooling is effective.
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Pippa Biddle always said she would never attend an all-girls school. She reluctantly agreed to visit Miss Porter’s, an all-girls boarding school in Farmington, Connecticut, as a favor to her mom. But after spending one night at her mom’s former high school, she decided to apply. “Until you experience a single-sex classroom, it is hard to understand how beneficial it is,” Biddle, who’s 21 now, tells me. “I could wake up five minutes before class, pull on clothes, and feel just as beautiful as I would have with full hair and makeup. The value was put on who we were, not what we look like.”

Despite personal testimony from young people like Biddle, opponents of single-sex education argue that separating children by gender is not only sexist, it also leads to harmful gender stereotyping. They also state that the existing science does not show that same-sex education has tangible benefits and that public funding should not be used to support segregating students by gender. These opponents of separate-sex education have a new study to back up their claims: Last month a meta-analysis of 184 studies covering 1.6 million students from 21 countries indicated that any purported benefits to single-sex education over coeducation, when looking at well-designed, controlled studies, are nonexistent to minimal.

Yet interest in the potential promise of single-sex schooling continues to grow. More than 500 American public schools in the 2011-2012 academic year offered their students single-sex opportunities ranging from separate classes for physical education to entire school days with all activities being either all-boy or all-girl. They include schools like Girls Preparatory Academy at Ferrell Middle Magnet School and its counterpart, Boys Preparatory Academy at Franklin Middle Magnet School, in Tampa, Florida, and G. James Gholson Middle School, near Washington, D.C., which offers single-gender classes in courses such as math and science.

Single-sex schooling is being championed to combat the high dropout rates among urban black and Latino boys. There is a long list of parents waiting to enroll their children in the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy in Dallas, a publicly funded school which opened in 2011 after its principal spent a year researching the best practices of schools, including boys’ schools, around the country. For girls, the alleged benefits of single-sex education are that they would be learning in an environment in which they are encouraged to participate more in class and not overshadowed by confident, outspoken boys. They are arguably more willing to avidly pursue subjects such as advanced math and science that they might otherwise consider masculine, possibly helping to close a persistent STEM gender gap.

Why is there such disagreement over the benefits of single-sex education? Methodology is the key sticking point. A 2005 Education Department study, conducted through the American Institutes of Research looked at 2,200 studies and found that only 40 of those studies qualified as meeting the minimum requirements of sound methodology. The most recent meta-analysis, out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also focuses squarely on these concerns about methodology.

It is particularly difficult to conduct research on single-sex education. The methodology is challenging. A randomized study would entail students’ having to be able to be assigned to single-sex or coed schools, something that is not only legally impossible but also unethical. Currently, participation in single-sex schools must be completely voluntary. Parental involvement in the choice would immediately raise the possibility that the groups of students would be different. Some often-cited studies, Janet Hyde, coauthor of the 2014 study told me, might compare a private single-sex school in a privileged community to a public coeducational school with a less affluent population, resulting in differences that certainly derive from more than just the contrast between single-sex and co-education. Hyde pointed out that parental education and income are the best predictors of their children’s school success – not whether a school is educating boys and girls separately.  In other words, the reason kids at single-sex schools often seem to do so well is because they would have thrived, regardless of the environment they were in. And when single-sex schooling is hailed as a magic bullet, it diverts attention – and financial resources – away from other strategies worthy of consideration, such as a longer school year or universal pre-K. “Parents are making this choice in the absence of scientific data,” says Hyde. “And if it’s a principle of choice, what are the limits of choice if that’s your argument?”

***

Separate-sex education has a long history in this country, since the 1700s. It used to be thought immoral for boys and girls to be together unsupervised, and formal education was considered the province of males only. Girls, when they were educated at all, were often taught at home. Women’s colleges arose because of the fact that many elite colleges, such as the Ivy League schools, admitted men only. Over time, boys and girls began to be educated together, a phenomenon which gained steam when education reformers such as Horace Mann sought to make elementary education free and available to all children, a goal that was mostly accomplished by the end of the 19th century.

These coeducational schools, however, often had gender-specific curricula: boys were routinely taught woodshop, for instance, while girls were taught home economics or childcare.

In 1972, in the wake of the civil rights and feminist movements, Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender in educational programs that would be receiving federal funding. The intention was to prohibit discrimination towards boys or girls in coeducational settings based on gender-based stereotypical assumptions about what each should be learning. The number of public as well as private single-sex schools decreased dramatically over the next decade.

In the 1990s, books sounding the alarm for girls, such as Reviving Ophelia, were followed by a flurry of books calling our attention to the plight of boys, such as Raising Cain. Following on their heels was Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax, a pediatrician and psychologist who argued that in our zeal to create a gender-neutral society, we had shortchanged both boys and girls, especially in educational settings. Sax wrote that the science shows that boys and girls learn differently; boys are often labeled as ADHD when they really just need teachers to speak louder, girls are more cooperative and interpret assertive talk as yelling.

In 2001 senators Hilary Clinton, Barbara Mikulsky, Susan Collins, and Kay Bailey Hutchinson joined forces in a bipartisan effort to amend the No Child Left Behind Act and allow for single-sex education in public schools. In 2006 Title IX was rewritten to allow for single-sex classes, schools, and extracurricular activities at the primary and secondary level, as long as they also provided a coeducational option. Whether schools offer entire school days or just one class as separate, to be true to the law, these classes must be “substantially related” to an important governmental or educational objective (such as providing a girls-only computer science class in a school in which very few girls have historically shown interest in the class). Because of persistent doubts over whether there are real educational benefits to single-sex education, the ACLU has stepped in, sending cease and desist letters to public schools that educate boys and girls separately, often pressuring them to choose between costly lawsuits or shutting down their programs.

Opponents say the science doesn’t prove there are any benefits to separating children for their education. In fact, some see it as harmful. Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and author of the 2009 book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, doesn’t deny that there are some innate differences between boys and girls. A mother of a daughter and two sons herself, she notes in her book that, for instance, studies show that many boys are better at certain types of spatial reasoning. The problem comes when such differences are seen as absolute. There are many girls who like active, hands-on learning; many boys who thrive in cooperative settings. And Eliot, who specializes in the field of neuroplasticity, contends that infant brains are malleable and that such differences become amplified and immutable as children grow and their parents, teachers, and society reinforce gender stereotypes. In 2011 eight scholars who oppose single-sex education, including Eliot, as well as Diane Halpern, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College, Hyde, and others, all of whom are founders and board members of an advocacy group, the American Council for CoEducational Schooling, published an article in Science calling out what they say is the false promise of single-sex education.

“Although SS outcomes may at first appear promising, apparent advantages dissolve when outcomes are corrected for pre-existing differences,” they wrote in the article. They noted that students entering those schools are often academically advanced to begin with, and pointing out that underperforming students often transfer out of those schools early on, which inflates overall performance.  They also cited the influence of novelty. “A new curriculum, like a new drug or factory production method, often yields a short-term gain because people are motivated by novelty and belief in the innovation.”  Another related phenomenon, called the Hawthorne effect, can occur when a formerly coeducational school becomes single-sex (or single-sex classes are provided within the school): the feeling of being “chosen” or “singled out” can lead to higher student performance. These scientists worry  that, like racial segregation, separation of the sexes will lead to entrenched gender stereotyping and sexism. The authors were subsequently criticized for their failure to cite any studies that did demonstrate that single-sex schools foster sexism, a point which they conceded.

The STEM gender career gap is one reason advocates call for educating girls separately. They argue that girls would do better in math and science and be more likely to pursue those fields of study in college or graduate school. But Hyde points out that the STEM gap has been closing “dramatically” and that if you really look at the numbers, women have closed the gap in some areas, such as biology. One study suggests that ironically, “sex segregation by field of study is on average more pronounced in advanced industrial societies.” In countries where there has been less of a STEM gender gap, such as in some eastern and central European countries and South Korea (despite the dearth of single-sex education options), choice is portrayed very differently. The main goal is to get a stable job that pays well, not necessarily one that allows young people to realize their interests and follow their passions.  Kids aren’t exhorted to “do what you love.” Their goal is just to do what will bring home a respectable paycheck—and STEM careers are among the most lucrative. In other words, the societal message about what it is acceptable and desirable for boys and girls to academically pursue may be notably different.

Christina Hoff Sommers, who has written about the controversy for The Atlantic, is puzzled by the zeal with which single-sex education’s detractors such as Hyde pursue the issue. She says that “even if there were decisive evidence that gender-specific education improved student performance, both the ACLU and the Science authors would still be opposed.” For them, according to Hoff Sommers, this is a moral crusade, akin to the civil rights movement. Although they insist on the connection between race and sex, Hoff Sommers writes, “Race and sex are different, as the Supreme Court has emphasized and as most everyone recognizes. Mandatory racial separatism demeans human beings and forecloses life prospects.” But single-sex education, she contends, opens up prospects: It is “freely chosen, and has helped millions of pupils flourish intellectually and socially. It’s preposterous to think of Wellesley College, the Girl Scouts, or the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy as oppressive institutions comparable to segregated schools in the Jim Crow South.”

***

Burch Ford, who has served as an administrator, counselor, or teacher at a number of independent schools, most recently serving as the head of Miss Porter’s School, spoke to me about her experience at this famed girls’ school, the same one that Pippa Biddle attended. She was most surprised by the high energy level she encountered when she first came to the school, her first experience at a girls’ school. She speculated that the energy level was there because the students weren’t having their energy diverted by having to be presentable/available for the other sex. “The currency of adolescence is being cool,” says Ford, “and that sort of restraint requires a phenomenal amount of energy.” It’s about wearing the right things, saying the right things, laughing the right way at the right jokes.  She has observed that when adolescents are doing that, it “absolutely dominates their daily experience” and siphons energy off of other pursuits.

“Equal exposure doesn’t mean equal experience,” says Ford emphatically. The media and wider culture puts so much pressure on both boys and girls that she sees the education that girls get in single-gender environments as a way not to perpetuate stereotypes, but as a way to equalize the playing field for them. “The function of a girl’s school is not protection, it’s freedom.” She sees girls whose energy is going into their own development and not being drained off daily by the social pressures they’d encounter in a coeducational school.  

Stereotypes work both ways. Culture reinforces stereotypes and can winnow children towards certain restrictions of behavior (think a young girl who absorbs early on the idea that she must always be interested in playing with dolls, or a boy who feels uncertain and worried about his budding interest in princesses). But the wider culture is endemic with gender stereotypes that single-sex schools aim to free children of, at least during their school hours and formative years. As Hoff Sommers writes, “As to the claim that gender-specific schools increase stereotyping and sexism, there is ample evidence to the contrary. After all, in such schools, girls cannot leave it to boys to dissect the frog, and boys cannot leave it to girls to edit the school newspaper.” Biddle agrees. At her school, all subjects were “girl subjects.” When she went to college, she recalls, “I was baffled by how few girls were willing to speak in class, and how those who did often apologized for their thoughts/opinions and/or used passive language. Speaking up at Porter's wasn't just encouraged, it was mandatory.”

Judy Bolton-Fasman, of Newton, MA, has a son and a daughter. The son, now 16 years old, began studying at an independent boys’ school in the Boston area when he was a seventh grader. Although they were attracted to the school for its small class size and rigorous curriculum, not the single-sex aspect, they have been sold on benefits they see as emanating from the single-sex atmosphere. “One of the things that my son gained from being at a single-sex school is confidence,” she says, noting that the close bonds he had formed at this school, and the feeling of being cared for and able to be himself gave him the confidence to come out when he was in 11th grade. “The philosophy of a school like this is, give us your boy and we’ll give you back a scholar and a gentleman. I feel that they’ve really delivered in this promise.”

Science has not come down definitively proving that single-sex education is better. But it has not proven that it is harmful either, which makes it all the more intriguing that the controversy continues to rage.  The truth is that studies may never be able to prove that there are either clear benefits or disadvantages. The real question is this: Does the fact that researchers can’t ethically conduct such studies mean students shouldn't experience the possible benefits of them?  Parents with means to enroll children in independent schools have always had this option.  The growth of public schools offering this option is an attempt to expand that sort of choice to public school families as well. 

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Christine Gross-Loh is the author of Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us (Avery, 2013)

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