In Defense of Single-Sex Schools
Science magazine recently published an article titled “The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling,” by Diane Halpern and seven of her social-scientist colleagues who, together, founded the American Council for Co-Educational Schooling. We take exception to many of the conclusions drawn in this report.
In single-gender schools, gender roles don’t define participation in a particular club, sport, or hobby and, they don’t limit or reinforce engagement in academic pursuits. Instead, boys and girls are more likely to choose programs based on their intrinsic appeal and not on adolescent cultural imperatives.
The Science article’s claim that “there is no well-designed research showing that single-gender education improves students’ academic performance,” is simply false.
The authors reference a 2005 review of single-sex versus coeducational classrooms commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, and offer an out-of-context quote calling the results “equivocal.” Actually, this report states there is “support for the premise that single-sex schooling can be helpful, especially for certain outcomes related to academic achievement and more positive academic aspirations” and cites 15 research studies that indicate measurable academic advantages for children at single-sex schools.
This same report also examined personal and social development at single-sex and coeducational schools and found that the results were almost evenly divided between those favoring single-sex education and those finding no major differences. Specifically, some of the studies cited concluded that girls are more likely to develop higher self-images in single-gender classrooms and be more positive about their own abilities.
The notion of excluding these firsthand experiences offered by teachers and students is recklessly dismissive. Such accounts are invaluable and have formed the basis for many of the advances we’ve witnessed as the art and science of teaching has evolved with time.
In fact, the conclusions in the book Powerful Leaders Tell Us How to Combine Work and Family, written by the Science article’s lead author, Diane Halpern, are drawn from interviews with 62 women. Why, then, would she be so quick to disqualify results drawn by similar means — such as those touting the effectiveness of teaching practices tailored to the learning needs of boys as chronicled in the recently published book, Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys, by Rick Hawley and Michael Reichert? Their conclusions, based on narratives supplied by some 2,500 teachers and students at 18 boys’ schools from eight different countries, indicate that boys are not just surviving, but are thriving in single-gender classrooms.
In another of Halpern’s writings, she stresses the importance of role models in helping girls to excel in areas that aren’t traditionally “girl” subjects. In these areas, Halpern argues, girls need to be able to say, “Someone like me can do this.” Where better for a girl to learn this lesson than in an environment where every team captain is a girl, every student council president is a girl and her robotics adviser is a woman Ph.D.? A single-gender environment provides exactly the solution that Halpern so insightfully recommends.
Finally, the Science article’s conclusion that all gender-grouping scenarios lead to negative stereotyping is entirely objectionable. The “evidence” cited is based on a paper written by a graduate student who observed a group of preschoolers at her mother’s day care center over a two-week period. Generalizing from this narrow study that intergroup bias “has been shown explicitly for gender within coeducational classes” is contemptible.
Authentic scholarly research findings point to a much different conclusion. The Economic and Social Research Institute published a report in 2010 based on a review of nearly 100 scholarly works on single-sex and coeducation, concluding that “attitudes to subject areas may become more gender-stereotyped in a coeducational setting.” That’s no surprise since single-gender classrooms are intentionally designed to break down gender stereotypes. We are not arguing that single-gender education is the right choice for every child. But we know that this type of schooling affords a better educational experience for many girls and boys.
Chris Brueningsen is headmaster of The Kiski School (Pennsylvania), a boys’ school, and Randie Benedict is head of school at The Ellis School (Pennsylvania), a girls’ school.