Teicher, Stacy A. "The case for single-sex education." The Christian Science Monitor. 1 July 2003.
The 1990s was a crossroads decade for single-sex education. Female
cadets marched their way into two previously all-male public colleges –
the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel in South Carolina. At
the same time, urban school districts from Detroit to New York tried to
provide the option of a single-sex environment.
Rosemary Salomone didn't know she was soon to become an expert on the
subject. The professor at St. John's University School of Law in New
York was called upon for legal advice by the founder of the Young
Women's Leadership School in Harlem. The public school, which
emphasizes math and science, opened in 1996 with 50 seventh-grade
girls. Surviving the threat of lawsuits, it gradually expanded through
12th grade and inspired the founding of an all-girls charter school in
Dr. Salomone's research took her far beyond Harlem – through Supreme
Court cases, ideological debates, and the intricacies of Title IX, the
law that bans sex discrimination in federally funded education. It took
her to high schools in Philadelphia and Baltimore that had retained
their long-standing all-girl status as the country went coed.
In her new book, "Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex
Education" (Yale University Press), she argues that there is a place
for single-sex education in the public realm. In 2002, Congress agreed,
adding a provision to the No Child Left Behind law permitting
single-sex programs. Clearer guidance on what districts need to do to
make sure such programs comply with Title IX is due this summer.
As she awaited the guidelines, Salomone spoke with the Monitor over the phone from her home in Rye, N.Y. Excerpts follow.
How did your experience in a single-sex school influence your views?
Every teacher was a woman – many of them were nuns. There wasn't the
traditional gender polarization that often happens in coed schools. Any
girl could be president of the student government or editor in chief of
the newspaper. We had a winning basketball team. And you went to school
not worried about how you looked. It gave you the sense of limitless
When I was visiting the all-girls schools, girls would say: "Yes, we
believe that the single-sex aspect of this school is what's important.
We're not distracted by boys. We can focus on the academics. We're all
like family here; we feel like sisters."
What underlay the opposition to single-sex schools in the 1990s?
There [was] misunderstanding about single-sex schools, a lot of it being a holdover of the finishing-school [image].
Some of the negative feelings were coming from the historical exclusion
of women from all-male schools. But with [the students at] these
schools [I visited], it was a matter of trying to give them the skills
and attitudes and knowledge [that would] lift them up – not just
academically, but socially.
I found a very clear division within the ranks of women who would
consider themselves feminists. Very often, women supporting these
schools had attended a single-sex college or high school. [Opponents]
had never stepped into a single-sex school. They seemed to be stymied
in a certain vision of gender equality based purely on equal treatment
and equal access and assimilation, which was very much a part of the
women's movement in the 1970s.
Civil rights groups, particularly the ACLU and the National
Organization for Women, have opposed single-sex schools. [Some
opponents draw] on the Supreme Court decision in 1954 on Brown v. Board
of Education. The court said separate is inherently unequal, that it
really imposes a badge of inferiority on black children to be told that
they cannot attend schools with white children. So the argument [by
some] is, well, separate is inherently unequal not only with regard to
race, but with any relevant criteria, including sex.
You can't compare these schools to what was going on in the South under
forced segregation. Students are volunteering to attend single-sex
How were historical single-sex schools different from the schools you visited recently?
Until the early 1970s in New York City, there was stunning sex
segregation in vocational schools. The programs in the girls' schools
were sewing and hairdressing, secretarial services, nursing – very
traditional women's jobs. The boys' schools focused on automotive
skills and aviation, jobs that were more lucrative. As a result of
Title IX, those programs became illegal. The schools became coed or
The only single-sex schools that have continued are Philadelphia High
School for Girls and Western High School in Baltimore. [These schools
will permit boys, but none have asked to attend.]
Why are some educators so eager to set up single-sex options?
We're going on four decades of compensatory programs for at-risk
students, particularly in the inner city. Even after allocating
significant dollars into changing their academic and social
circumstances, those programs have failed to stem this downward spiral.
We have scores of books and articles on how disadvantaged boys just
don't identify with academic achievement. They gain their self-esteem
from sports or from social popularity. And even disadvantaged minority
girls too often seek validation in early motherhood.
The whole school-choice [movement] has created certain healthy
expectations in poor parents, that they too have the right to choose
the education for their children.
When you talk to the parents of children in these single-sex [public]
schools, they feel certain that this is a right decision for their
Equal doesn't necessarily mean the same kinds of services have to be
provided. Sometimes ... to achieve equal educational opportunity, we
have to provide different kinds of opportunity to students.
What about the recent attention to boys falling behind girls academically?
[Some] see the issue as boys [being] disadvantaged or girls [being]
disadvantaged. When you look at the data, you'll see that boys and
girls are constrained in different ways. Perhaps many girls can benefit
from an all-girls school in the middle years. Perhaps some boys can
benefit in Kindergarten and grades 1 and 2.
I was so taken by a roomful of middle-school boys playing violin. You'd
be hard pressed to see that in a coed school. Boys [in single-sex
schools] have opportunities to take a leadership position in what would
be considered female activities.