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?”

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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.

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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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