The Resurgence of Single-Sex Education

The benefits and limitations of schools that segregate based on gender

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

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?

Juliet A. Williams: Some people believe in single-sex education because they had a great personal experience. To other people, single-sex education seems like plain old common sense: They see differences between boys and girls, and they like the idea of creating schools that reflect these differences. Still others look at the failure of U.S. public-school systems and think, “we’ve got to do something; let’s give it a try.” Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence of interest in single-sex education in public schools serving students in grades K-12. My book takes a look at the arguments driving interest in single-sex public education, as well as the results. What I have found is that single-sex public-school initiatives have been created with the best of intentions, but that they are not delivering the results. At the same time, they are producing some unintended consequences in terms of reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes.

Anderson: Your freshman year at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, an all-girls public magnet for academically gifted students, is compared to “serving time in prison,” a characterization I found peculiar as a graduate of Girls’ High. With the exception of your brief stint in an all-girls school, The Separation Solution? lacks input from current students or alumni of K-12 single-sex schools. Could their perspectives have expanded your analysis of single-sex education?

Williams: I’m pretty sure I would have experienced some measure of adolescent angst no matter where I went to school, and looking back, I think it would be a real mistake to conclude that it was because I happened to attend an all-girls [high school] as opposed to a coed one. By the same token, I suspect that many people who flourished in single-sex environments would have had an equally rewarding experience at a coed school. That’s the problem with relying on personal experience to assess what works in education, and what doesn’t. Think of it this way: If I were to write a book about new treatments for cancer, [I wouldn’t] go out and ask people whether they enjoyed their treatment. I would want to know about results. Our kids deserve to grow up in a society that takes their education every bit as seriously as we take our commitment to good medicine.  

Anderson: The creation of single-sex academies in the 1950s throughout the South by anti-integrationists aiming to thwart Brown v. Board of Education and keep black boys from being in classrooms with white girls is an interesting tidbit. Today, K-12 single-sex programs are still mostly concentrated in southern states. Can you talk more about this historical footnote?

Williams: Mention single-sex education to most people today, and you are likely to conjure images of elite institutions in bucolic settings, where emphasis is placed not only on rigorously training young minds, but also on building character and developing self-confidence. As I discovered, however, behind the image of single-sex education’s rosy past lies the story of its disturbingly checkered history. After the Civil War, several of the nation’s increasingly diverse, urban school districts moved to create single-sex public high schools to appease xenophobic parents worried about the prospect of students from different ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds rubbing shoulders throughout the school day. In the years following the landmark Supreme Court ruling, the prejudice driving the retreat from coeducational public schools was even more flagrant … amidst racist panic about the inevitability of young white women and young black men forming social bonds across racial lines.

This history is important [yet] I don’t think there are any easy analogies to be drawn between racially segregated schools in the past, and single-sex schools in the present. Many single-sex programs have been initiated specifically to address the unmet needs of underserved students, particularly black and Latino young men, and there is no question that some of the very best single-sex public schools today are ones created to serve low-income students of color. What is a question [though] is whether these schools are great because they are single-sex. So far, there isn’t evidence to show that they are. Instead, the research shows that successful schools, whether single-sex or coed, tend to have certain things in common, like creating strong mentoring relationships and keeping class sizes to a manageable level. When this happens, students benefit—whether or not boys and girls [are separated].

Anderson: The claim that boys and girls are “hard wired” differently, namely the neuroscience of sex-based learning differences, has been refuted by scientific researchers. Still, a belief in its efficacy persists as an education-policy approach and in teacher professional development. How can this be more effectively countered?

Williams: While researching this book I learned about a fascinating phenomenon called “the selective allure of neuroscientific information.” In a series of ingenious experiments, a team of Yale researchers found that even the citation of irrelevant neuroscience information can make certain claims seem more credible than they otherwise would be. What this means in practice is that we can be all too easily drawn into accepting even the most poorly substantiated claims about the differences between men and women, provided those claims come dressed up in the commanding rhetoric of “hard-wiring.” What I found is that many of today’s “gender-sensitive” pedagogies are sold to teachers and parents in a deceptively appealing pseudo-scientific jargon of sex difference. That’s not to say that there aren’t real differences between girls and boys. But it is to say that we should be very skeptical of anyone who claims that we can extrapolate from what currently is known. Despite the fact that much of the popular science of sex difference has been debunked, the past decade has seen a proliferation of public-school programs modeled on bogus teachings.

Anderson: The prospect of transgender students recalibrating the single-sex education debate is presented in the book, with the mission and practice of single-sex schooling upended “in new and important directions.” What do you see as the future of single-sex education as growing numbers of students no longer identify with a gender binary?

Williams: It will be interesting to see how single-sex schools address the issue of gender diversity moving forward. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has been clear that transgender and gender nonconforming students are entitled to protection from sex-based discrimination under Title IX. [All public and private elementary and secondary schools, school districts, colleges, and universities receiving any federal financial assistance must comply with Title IX] Further, all students are entitled to participate in school programs based on their gender identity.

One place single-sex public schools may wish to look for guidance moving forward is to the nation’s private women’s colleges. In recent years, several of the most prestigious historically all-women’s colleges have revised their admissions statements to explicitly welcome applications from transgender and gender nonconforming students. In doing so, these colleges are taking important steps to ensure that their commitment to single-sex education doesn’t inadvertently perpetuate bias and intolerance.

Anderson: A provision in No Child Left Behind in 2001 helped accelerate the growth of single-sex education—you describe a “surge of single-sex experiments” in public-school classrooms across the country. A co-sponsor of the provision allowing school districts to use grants for same-sex schools and classrooms was former New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who cast single-sex education as furthering public-school choice. Now a candidate for U.S. president, how do you think same-sex education might fare in a Hillary Clinton administration?

Williams: Many officials, including then Senator Hillary Clinton, saw single-sex public education as a promising reform strategy. At the time, federal money was set aside to encourage “experimentation” with single-sex approaches. Since then, hundreds of single-sex public-schooling initiatives have been launched. What have we learned? Predictably, fans of single-sex education loudly proclaim these experiments to be a success —and they have a few carefully chosen examples to prove it. But the real story lies in the overwhelming number of single-sex initiatives that have failed to produce positive results. In 2014, an exhaustive review found no significant proven advantages of single-sex schooling over coeducation, either for boys or for girls. With so many proven approaches to education reform out there, let’s invest in those. Our kids’ lives are too precious to experiment with.