Why single-sex education is a bad idea

(thinkstock photos)(thinkstock photos)From the age of five until I turned 18, I attended an all-girls school. After my older sister's brief co-ed elementary school experience, my parents decided that a single-sex education would be a more diverse and productive learning environment for the both of us.

At my school, every team captain was a girl, so was every association president. We didn't have to fight for a girl's soccer team fight or compete with boys for classroom attention.

"There were just more opportunities for girls at your school," my mom explained today when I asked her about her decision, for the 150 millionth time. "The curriculum and activities weren't only based around boys interests...I hope you don't hate me for making that decision."

I don't. I love her for wanting the best for me and her reasoning makes great sense, but I always felt that same-sex education wasn't healthy, despite the statistics proving otherwise. Today, science is on my side.

A team of social scientists, led by psychology professor Diane F. Halpern, published a paper in the journal Science titled "The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling." Based on their research into past studies, they found no hard evidence that single sex education is actually beneficial for kids. In fact, their research suggests it causes more harm than good. Here's why:

1. It's unconstitutional. The paper's authors compare the segregation of sexes to the separation of race in education. "The choice to fight sexism by changing coeducational practices or segregating by gender has parallels to the fight against racism....The preponderance of social science data indicated that racially segregated schools promote racial prejudice and inequality."

We know that segregating by race was one of the worst mistakes of our cultural and educational history. With a growing number of publicly-funded single-sex classrooms and schools (more than 500 in 40 states), could we be repeating the mistakes of our past without knowing it? Since 1972, educational discrimination on the basis of sex has been outlawed under Title IX. The designation provided that no student could be banned from activities or classes on the basis of gender. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education added a clarification: public schools could segregate by sex as long as there was proof of educational benefits.

2. There's just no proof: After examining past research on the benefits of single-sex education, the researchers assert that there's "no scientific evidence for positive effects of single-sex schooling."

How is that possible? We've all seen the statistics. My own school's website offers a few for prospective students:

  • Girls who attend all girls' school outscore their co-ed counterparts on the SAT by an average of 28 to 43 points.
  • Nearly 100% of girls' school grads go on to college.
  • Three times as many alumnae of girls' schools plan to become engineers.
  • Girls' school students spend more hours a week doing homework, attending study groups, tutoring others, and working with their teachers than co-ed school students.

That all may be true, but not necessarily because of the gender division. Because most same-sex schools are private (including the one I went to) the numbers can be attributed to certain variables like admissions testing, smaller class sizes, emphasis on education in the home, financial advantages.

"There are case studies that have been done that show some benefit of single-sex, but like lots of other educational research, it's mixed," Russlynn H. Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, told the New York Times. "When you're talking about separating students, treating them differently, you want to do it in a way that's constitutional, and you want to make sure that there is adequate justification. We certainly want to safeguard against stereotyping."

The researchers also take aim at those long-time advocates of same-sex education, in particular, Dr. Leonard Sax, the executive director for the National Association of Single Sex Public Education. His highly influential teachings suggest that boys and girls respond differently to certain educational methods. For example boys learn better with direct questioning while girls respond to a gentler approach.

In Chapter 5 of his book, Why Gender Matters, he writes: "If you are teaching equations in multiple variables, the typical 7th-grade boy will do better if you begin by asking "If x + 2y = 60, and 2x + y = 90, how do we solve for x and y?" But the typical 7th-grade girl will be more engaged if you begin by asking "If a sweater and two blouses cost $60, and two sweaters and a blouse cost $90, how much does each blouse and each sweater cost?"

(I'm not even going to touch that.)

According to Halpern and her team, his assessment of the way boys and girls learn is based on sweeping generalizations. "A loud, cold classroom where you toss balls around, like Dr. Sax thinks boys should have, might be great for some boys, and for some girls, but for some boys, it would be living hell," Dr. Halpern said in an interview with the Times. "Advocates for single-sex education don't like the parallel with racial segregation, but the parallels are there. We used to believe that the races learned differently, too."

3. It fosters sexism: Because kids don't get as much exposure to the opposite sex, they're more likely to base their understanding on sexist stereotypes. In Liben's own 2010 study examining gender-divided pre-school classes, she found that students were more likely to make assumptions about the opposite sex, from the toys they played with to the interests that divided them. As a result, those boys and girls were less likely to want to play together, even after only two weeks of learning separately.

The Science article takes it a step further and suggests that dividing genders reinforces those stereotypes. "Boys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive," the article said. "Similarly, girls who spend more time with other girls become more sex-typed."

4. It hinders socialization: Test scores aside, a large part of functioning in society is working well with others. In the real world, men and women work together, study together, eat lunch together and generally intermingle in everyday settings. Single sex education may provide more specialized attention to both genders, but it doesn't set the foundation for some basic human skills.

"Kids' own occupational aspirations are going to be limited," said Liben, "and there could be long-term consequences where, for example, girls are used to being in roles only among other girls, then they have to face the real world where that's not the case."

Each child is different. Even two kids who had the exact same background, like me and my sister. She loved our same-sex school. I found myself grossly underprepared for life. Things I didn't know how to do upon graduation include: eating lunch with boys, learning around boys, working in teams with boys, and generally not making a big deal about being in the presence of boys. And that's just the point, according to this new research: you can't assume all girls are going to benefit from the same education, just because they're girls.

To be fair, privately-funded schools like the one I attended are not the focus of the Science article, nor are they at the center of the debate. My experience isn't exactly representative of what public school students in same sex classrooms might contend with. But if someone were to ask me whether it's worthwhile, or even culturally responsible, to divide classes along gender lines, I'd muster up the confidence I'd supposedly gained from my all-girls education and say this: NO.

Related:

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Why women's colleges are still relevant

The new segregation: boys vs. girls

Why don't boys perform better in single sex schools?