Fight proposed ban on single-sex schools

Article Highlights

  • Does public single-sex education have a future in the USA?

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  • Single-sex classes and schools now account for less than 1% of public grade and high school enrollment

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  • Single-sex education is freely chosen, and millions of pupils have flourished intellectually and socially within it

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Does public single-sex education have a future in the USA?

Eight activist academics have just published an article in Science arguing that it should be banned. Claiming that there is "no well-designed research" proving that single-sex schools improve academic performance, they have urged the Department of Education to "heed the evidence" and prohibit "sex-segregated classrooms" in public schools. Single-sex education, they say, "increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism."

Let's hope the Department of Education seeks a second opinion.

"Single-sex education is freely chosen, and millions of pupils have flourished intellectually and socially within it." --Christina Hoff SommersThe proposed ban would not affect the affluent. Wealthy families have always had the option of sending their children to all-male or all-female academies, but parents of lesser means have rarely had the choice. That changed in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act sanctioned innovative programs — including single-sex classes and academies — in public schools. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, a co-author of the provision, urged that the single-sex option be broadly expanded and not limited to a fortunate few: "There should not be any obstacle to providing single-sex choice within the public school system."

A ban would also destroy many excellent programs. There are now nearly 400 public schools that offer single-sex classes and about 110 public all-girl or all-boy academies. Many are in low-income, at-risk neighborhoods.

Dallas success story

The Irma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School in Dallas, opened in 2004 and enrolls 473 girls in grades 6 through 12. Its success has been dazzling. The school has scored at or near the top of all Dallas public schools on state tests for the past five years. Dallas has opened a comparable academy for young men and has been inundated with applications from hopeful parents.

What do the data say about the pros and cons of single-sex schools? When the Department of Education carried out a systematic review in 2005, it found a muddle of contradictory results. Like much education research (large schools vs. small, charters vs. public), advocates on either side can find vindication if they look hard enough. The Department of Education rightly deemed the research "equivocal" and called for more studies. But it drew no strong conclusions and advised that the matter might never be resolved by quantitative investigation because it involves issues "of philosophy and worldview."

What explains the intolerance of the Science authors? For them, gender segregation is analogous to racial separatism. As the lead author, Diane Halpern, told reporters, "Advocates for single-sex education don't like the parallel with racial segregation, but the parallels are there."

No, they are not. Mandatory racial separatism demeans human beings and forecloses on their life prospects. Single-sex education is freely chosen, and millions of pupils have flourished intellectually and socially within it. Boys and girls, taken as groups, have different interests, propensities and needs. No sensible person thinks of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts as a form of gender apartheid.

To prove the harm of single-sex schools, the Science authors cite a 2007 British study that showed an increase in divorce rates for men (but not women) who had attended single-sex schools, and they claim "boys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive." Their assertion about boys becoming aggressive is based on one study of 4-year-olds attending a coed kindergarten — co-written by two of the eight authors.

The 2007 British study compared life outcomes for thousands of middle-age graduates of single-sex and co-ed schools. On most measures, the two groups looked about the same: Both had the similar levels of marital satisfaction and similar views on gender roles. It did conclude that the males who attended single-sex schools were "somewhat" more likely to have divorced, but the report carried a lot of good news about single-sex education as well. To wit: "For girls … single-sex schooling was linked to higher wages." It was also linked to boys focusing their studies on languages and literature and girls on math and science.

"Gender stereotypes are exacerbated" in co-ed schools, say the British researchers, and "moderated" in single-sex schools. Such findings directly contradict the Science authors' central claim that single-sex schooling reinforces gender stereotypes.

Single-sex classes and schools now account for less than 1% of public grade and high school enrollment. Even this degree of choice is too much for Halpern and the other authors. They feel so strongly about the issue that all eight have founded an organization committed to abolishing single-sex education.

Seeking a 'cure'

A clue to their philosophy and worldview is found in one of the author's recent books. In Lise Eliot's Pink Brain, Blue Brain, she acknowledges it will be difficult to "cure children's desire for gender-appropriate toys." Still, she advises parents to urge their sons to "cuddle a doll." Why speak of children's natural preferences needing a "cure?"

News stories refer to the Science article as a "study." In fact, it is little more than a two-page summary of the eight authors' outré opinions. How it found its way into one of the nation's premier science journals is hard to fathom.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI. She is the author of several books, including The War Against Boys.

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