Defenders of same-sex schools hold fast to the belief that girls and boys benefit from separate academic instruction. Proponents often point to school experiences documented in landmark reports like The American Association of University Women’s “How Schools Shortchange Girls” as evidence of widespread inequities faced by girls in mixed classrooms. Same-sex educational settings are also offered as a way to improve lagging achievement for low-income students of color—mainly boys—in urban public schools. Conversely, opponents claim single-sex education perpetuates traditional gender roles and “legitimizes institutional sexism,” while neuroscientists refute the merits of gender differences between girl and boy brains. And rather than creating more equitable schools for nonwhite students, some critics compare separating boys and girls to racially segregated schooling.
The disputes pitting ardent supporters against fervent detractors have done little to dampen popularity, however. The prevalence of single-sex public schools has risen and fallen over the years, yet the last decade has seen a major revival. According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, only 34 single-sex public schools were in operation in 2004. That number jumped 25-fold in 10 years: The New York Times reported in 2014 that 850 schools nationwide had single-sex programs. With participation apparently on the upswing, the Department of Education’s civil-rights division offered guidelines on single-sex classes to K-12 public schools last year.
Against this backdrop of renewed interest in single-sex schools and classes, the author Juliet A. Williams, a professor of gender studies and associate dean of the Division of Social Sciences at UCLA, takes a deep dive into the social aspects and framing of this hotly debated issue in a new book, The Separation Solution? Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality. She recently shared some thoughts with me on the subject. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Melinda D. Anderson: A major thread running through the book is that so many people—educators, parents, activists, and politicians—strongly believe in the potential of single-sex education to unleash academic excellence, while the evidence supporting this claim is sparse and insufficient. What would you say is the primary driving force behind its well-entrenched support?