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Boys on this side,girls on the other: is single-sex public education a good idea?

By Alice Bradley

The New York Times magazine this week covered the single-sex public education movement. Of course single-sex education is nothing new—just ask parochial and private school students. But as stories crop up of how our school system fails boys and girls, the idea of segregating students in public schools by sex is gaining credibility.

In the story, Weil describes single-sex education advocates as falling into two camps: those who think boys and girls have different social needs, and those who believe boys and girls’ brains develop differently. Into the latter category she places Leonard Sax, head of NASSPE, the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education. Sax has posted an interesting rebuttal of Weil’s article, in which he argues that the “two camps” idea is simplistic and not representative of his beliefs. According to Sax, the NYT story is rife with this sort of mischaracterization, He has compelling enough arguments that I hesitate to provide Weil’s version of his movement. Her story doesn’t seem to provide a balanced view of his research. On the other hand, I can’t be sure that a truly impartial account would award Sax any more credit.

Weil clearly favors the social arguments for single-sex education, and I can see the appeal. By removing the opposite sex, these schools create a haven from the increasing pressure to be sexual at a younger and younger age. This pressure is even more intense on low-income minority students, who, not surprisingly, are often the targets of single-sex public education. The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem is one such school, and it boasts impressive statistics: 97% of their students graduate, and 100% of their graduates are accepted to college. One teacher from the school is quoted as saying, “It’s my subversive mission to create all these strong girls who will then go out into the world and be astonished when people try to oppress them.” Who wouldn’t want to cheer for that?

The danger with this new movement is that failing schools sometimes grab on to the single-sex concept without considering the other reasons such schools might work. In Georgia, Greene County will soon change all their schools to single-sex classrooms—a move borne of desperation, as test scores plummet and dropout and pregnancy rates soar. This seems to be missing the point: just separating the boys from the girls doesn’t go far enough. After all, the single-sex schools that flourish do so not just because boys and girls have been separated, but because their students are held to exceptionally high standards.

In concluding her story, Weil argues that single-sex environments deprive students of the whole point of public education: “commonality, tolerance, and what it means to be American.” What do you think? Is the co-ed experience so valuable for girls and boys? Personal experiences as well as opinions are welcome, so comment away!

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • Kdblya

    March 7, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    I read this article, leaped on it, in fact, because my son is 3.5 and I can’t imagine him sitting in a traditional classroom in a couple of years. He’s creative and inquisitive and completely opposed to anything with a whiff of classroom learning about it (like being quizzed on his letters or numbers). So I feel like traditional classrooms will not serve him well, will make him bored and obnoxious, uncooperative, unwilling. Of course, he’s my first, so I don’t know, maybe I’m not giving him enough credit.
    The idea that a classroom could be more catered to the way my particular boy likes to learn is appealing, but the article left me ambivalent. I know boys who will thrive in traditional classrooms. Are there more differences between individual boys or girls than there are between “boys” and “girls”?

  • SuburbanCorrespondent

    March 7, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    I don’t need my kids to be part of a grand social experiment. Thanks. If I felt that their academic performance would be better in a single-sex school, that is where they would be. I hardly think being in an all-girls’ school promotes intolerance of men. I also think that our children can be well-educated in Civics, even without members of the opposite sex in the classroom with them. Is the whole point of public education really tolerance, commonality (and what the hell does that mean?), and Americanization? Really? I must have missed that memo. Silly me, I thought the point was to educate our children to become productive adults who can read, write, and be reasonably adept at mathematics.
    Personally? Easy – I would have given anything to be educated with only girls during junior high and high school. Anything at all. Am I the only one who remembers having to walk down the halls hunched over so some guy wouldn’t push his friend into your chest? (And I went to one of the better public high schools in Northern New Jersey, thanks) Am I the only one who felt tortured by having to take gym with the boys because of that equality act passed in the 70’s? The argument goes that girls won’t feel comfortable around boys if they don’t go to school with them. I have never seen this borne out anecdotally. In fact, the girls who went to single sex schools seemed better able to handle the “opposite-sex thing” in college, probably because they had a lot more confidence in themselves.
    Single sex, all the way –

  • Brooke

    March 7, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    I wouldn’t put my daughter in a same-sex school. I think it’s important for her to be socialized with boys, to be comfortable with them.
    I would have lost. my. mind in a same-sex junior/high school. As a grade schooler and junior high student, I found the company of boys (as friends) way more appealing that that of girls whose interests included only makeup, hair tips, and clothing styles.
    I also don’t know that not having an opportunity to meet up with dateable boys at school and vet them there would have been good. My opportunities for dating would have been massively reduced without seeing boys at school because there is no where in my town where kids hang out, and my folks would not have let me go there if there were. The guys I knew in high school, boyfriends and otherwise, helped me develop the self-esteem, relationship skills, and body confidence I have today. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

  • Claudia

    March 7, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    No answers here, but found the social vs. science aspects of this argument the most provocative. Do we accept that there are intrinsic differences in the brain activities of boys and girls? Do they truly hear and see differently? If we do accept that, is that difference sufficient to keep children segregated? Are boys all about action, and girls all about feelings? Does our society value some skill sets more than others? Certainly as a nation, we spend more money on war than on libraries, but what is the most effective method of teaching children? Can we keep things separate and equal, or will single gender classrooms set us up for a return to a tiered society where some group (let’s face it, girls) are second class citizens?
    I have a 5 year old boy in kindergarten and a 1.5 year old girl. They’re definitely different, but I don’t know if the cause is nature or nurture. I’d be willing to try single gender, but I’d first have to figure out which camp I’m in.

  • confiance

    March 7, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    As a soon-to-be college graduate, I can’t imagine having gone to a single-sex school. I have always been friends with more boys than girls. On the other hand, I was really lucky and had a great group of friends with a mostly equal ratio of boys and girls.
    I was annoyed to have boys in gym class, but only because the girls weren’t put into the same groups as the girls for football. And when we were for hockey, the boys never trusted the girls to help the team win. I got pissed off more than once for being WIDE OPEN and all the boys glancing my way and then ignoring me.
    I think single-sex schools are a valuable option, but should remain just that – an option. I probably would have hated it, but I have friends who totally loved it. To each their own, I suppose.

  • Cassandra

    March 7, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    This is the first year that my son’s school is trying it out on the grade 7’s. The school’s reasoning is that boys and girls learn differently and should be taught with a different teaching style. My son is only in grade 4, but I really don’t like the idea of it and hope they change it before he gets to that grade.
    My son is quiet, well-mannered and has never been a rambunctious sort – I don’t really accept the whole boys are different than girls thing. I think every child is unique and should be treated as such – not grouped together and taught dependent upon their sex.

  • May

    March 7, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Just to throw something new into the mix, the Toronto District School Board recently voted in favour of a public alternative Afro-centric school, using many of the same arguments often touted for public education. Not offering an opinion here, just an interesting corollary.

  • Kate

    March 8, 2008 at 3:36 am

    While there has been some data to suggest that single sex environments can be generally beneficial to the students, the ugly truth of the matter is American education needs reform we’re not ready for. Public education needs smaller classes, more tailored education to the individual student, less standardized testing and higher pass/fail requirements. Also, we need to re-examine what it means to “educate” today as opposed to what it did a decade ago. As with most issues facing Americans today, as a public we’re asking the wrong questions.

  • RLJ

    March 8, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    European bigot speaks: I think Alice is pretty much on when she points out that the problems with the US public school system run a lot deeper than mixed classrooms.
    Surely there is a middle ground? I think boys can do better, be less intimidated, in a single sex English class; it is HARD to be surrounded by all those articulate girls when you can hardly get a grunt out. Likewise, girls are often silenced in maths and science – not least by sexist teachers who assume they can’t do it, or at a minimum assume that the ones who struggle, struggle because it doesn’t come “naturally” whereas they interpret the difficulties of boys’ as coming from lack of support. It’s long established that girls in mixed classroom’s get proportionately less attention; and if the teacher makes a special effort to divide time 50/50, the boys consider themselves neglected and the girls favoured.
    Sport would have been, for me, at least less miserable in single sex groups. We had to do rugby, for heaven’s sake, and with my December birthday and even now small frame, it was a torture.
    That said, boys and girls have to learn to get along together and not consider each other alien species. And I don’t think Golding was so far off in his depiction of Lord of the Flies, when boys are left alone with no female influence whatsoever. Boys DO behave differently – and not for the better – in the absence of female influence.
    On the other hand, I think even single sex classes in certain subjects, geared for purported difference would make it even harder for kids who didn’t fit into their gender-norm.
    So, basically, after all that, not really sure…

  • kym b

    March 9, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    I attended co-ed schools for elementary and middle school and all-girls for high school. Given the choice, I would send my kids to same-sex schools for sure.
    If you haven’t tried both, don’t judge.

  • Twinmomma

    March 10, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    I think it’s a great idea personally. It would take so much pressure off of both sexes and let the kids focus on learning. We’re all colored by our own experiences in jr. high and high school but I had a good highschool experience (for the most part) and still feel like I could have done so much better if the male/female pressure was gone. I truly hope to be able to afford to send both of my children to same sex private schools. It’s the difference (to me) of becoming a worker bee or a CEO, at least in our area.
    Will it solve all of the problems? No, of course not. But I think it’s a step in the right direction.
    Also, I’m not trying to start anything (I swear!) but this statement by Brooke really bothered me.
    “I would have lost. my. mind in a same-sex junior/high school. As a grade schooler and junior high student, I found the company of boys (as friends) way more appealing that that of girls whose interests included only makeup, hair tips, and clothing styles.”
    I think it’s incredibly sad that you think all highschool girls care about is make up, hair tips, and clothing styles and that boys are somehow much deeper and more interesting. Frankly, all highschoolers are a combination of completely shallow and very deep and to generalize like that is so unfair. Personally, I think maybe you would have benefitted from an all girls environment because then you would have been forced to find girls that you connect with and maybe today you wouldn’t have such a low opinion of female friendship.

  • CJ

    March 10, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    It totally depends on the child, the environment, and the school itself. Some kids do better in a same-sex school, others in a co-ed school with some separation between the sexes, others in a traditional mixed co-ed school. Anyone who tries to lump them all as bad or good loses me immediately. I have read Leonard Sax’s book “Boys Adrift” and found it very thought-provoking. I read part of the NYT article and put it down in disgust.

  • Brooke

    March 10, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    I don’t at all have a low opinion of female friendship; my 3 best friends are girls (women), and I’ve known them for 20 years. I just also appreciate the friendship of boys, because it’s a whole different perspective. I think it would have been a loss to miss that on a daily basis.
    My junior high class was comprised of 6 girls and 2 boys. I don’t need to generalize; that’s how they were. I didn’t keep in touch with any of them after graduation. I got new friends in high school and I still talk to all those people, boys and girls.
    I kinda feel that if *I’d* gone to a same-sex school (and I didn’t, so this is my opinion), the opportunities to hang out with boys wouldn’t have existed except in high-pressure situations like socials or dances. I don’t do well in high-pressure situations; I’m a wallflower. So it was nice to be able to talk about homework or teachers or mutual friends in a less-threatening environment like a hallway or cafeteria.
    Don’t generalize about me either; some women, like some men, are not worth knowing. There is no inherent value to female-ness. There is value in the individual.
    That’s all.

  • lizneust

    March 11, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with Kym B (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) AND with CJ (it depends on the child).
    I grew up in Baltimore, which has a ridiculous number of private schools in a WIDE range of price points. Lots of them were single sex, but there were plenty of co-ed schools too. I was the oldest and only girl, with two younger brothers. I went single-sex from junior through high school – and I gotta say that although there were things about it I did not love, I seriously doubt I would have graduated high school in a coed environment. My middle brother also went single sex. I think he probably would have done just as well in a co-ed environment, but he liked where he went. My youngest brother started at a single sex school (different from first brother) and nearly flunked out he was so miserable. He finished up in a co-ed high school and went from Ds to As in a VERY short period of time.
    We are really close in age (only 3 years between oldest and youngest), so I think we are proof positive that it really really really depends on the kid. Same household, same parents, same tendency to procrastinate – but radically different needs in the classroom.
    I will caveat this personal endorsement of single sex ed, however – you HAVE to ensure a means of social interactions with members of the opposite sex. In my case, it was theater – we’d cooperate with the local boys school to put on musicals and plays. I’m not sure I would have been nearly as happy and content without that element. But I do know that going to an all girls school is the reason I’m making a bit more than minimum wage….

  • kym b

    March 11, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    I might add that even though I went to an all-girls school; make-up, hair tips and clothing styles were a non-issue. We wore uniforms after all. I must say the best thing about high school besides the great education (totally serious there) was rolling out of bed, brushing my teeth, putting my hair in a pony-tail, tossing on a skirt and polo and heading to school without ever having to worry if I looked cute enough for some boy to put a note in my locker. Even the thought of it makes me shudder.
    Also, most of my best friends from that time (and the people I am still in contact with 20 years later) were guys from our brother school. I don’t recall ever having a lack of socialization with boys. In fact, I probably had more than my parents would have liked. So that is also a non-issue in single-sex education.
    In school, it is all about the school. After school, it is just like the life of any other high school kid. The beauty of it is you aren’t tied to just socializing with the guys that go to your school. Since we didn’t have any, the world was our oyster. I went to 6 proms and a dozen homecomings in 4 years. All my girlfriends from my school were like that, but my friends who went to co-ed schools just went to their own school functions.

  • BlackOrchid

    March 12, 2008 at 11:30 am

    I just want to echo everything kym b just said. That was certainly my experience when I was at an all-girls’ school. And growing up, I went to both single-sex and coed schools, and personally did far, far better when I was all-girls.
    And always had plenty of interaction and friendship and dating etc with boys!
    I’ve given it a lot of thought and am sending my daughter to an all-girls private Catholic elementary next year. I really think it’s helpful for girls. I don’t know that it matters quite as much for boys, so hopefully my son will do fine in our parish school instead. The equivalent boys’ school is really far, but if necessary I will get him over there too.
    When you’re a shy girl in an all-girls’ setting, you are forced to stand up, come out of your shell, and do things for yourself. There are no boys to hide behind. Also, if you’re a nerdy shy girl, there is a wider pool of girls (with a range of social skills) to find friends you can relate to from. That was my experience anyway. Plus, without guys in the mix, the girls are more free to form friendships without the “underlying competition for male attention” aspect.
    And of course – pulling your hair in a ponytail, putting on a uniform, and just going in and focusing on your schoolwork. That’s huge!

  • Maggie

    March 14, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    I went to co-ed public school through 7th grade then went to an all-girls school for 8-12 grades. For me, it was a good fit. Starting in 7th grade I started to become very concerned about what boys thought – particularly, I didn’t want to raise my hand too often or be seen as “the smart girl.” 25 years later it makes me sad to know that’s how I felt, but it was. My grades suffered and I was really distracted. All of that distraction was removed when I went to a single-sex school. Was it perfect? No, but for me it was the right choice. My son is five and will start kindergarten in September and frankly I’m worried about it with all of the discussion about how our educational system is now problematic for boys because they don’t have enough recess or gym or physical activity and I can see that being a problem with my son. If I had a choice I’d send him to a single-sex school, but there aren’t any all-boys schools where we live, so co-ed it will be. I’m hoping it works out for him.

  • Rosie

    March 17, 2008 at 10:36 am

    I was enrolled in public school until high school where I attended an all girls parochial. It was the right move for me. There was much less making out in the hallway ;).
    People worry about their children not learning to socialize with the other sex, but that was not an issue for me and my peers. We had dances, we rode the same buses with the boys from the local boys high school, there were ample opportunities to mix and mingle. We fought over boyfriends. That stuff didn’t disappear, but it didn’t FILL our academic day because they weren’t in our space.
    Looking back I realize that my friends didn’t hesitate to hold back in typically male dominated classes. It might have been our nuns forcing us to succeed, but my guess is that it also had a lot to do with not being intimidated. So many of our graduates eventually ended up in scientific and mathematical fields and that trend continues.
    Many people worry that keeping the sexes apart means that they will be ill-equipped to handle the social challenges of college. I do not share that worry. Obviously I can only speak from personal experience, but I did not turn into a fire crotch because I wasn’t used to all this sudden male attention. Nor did I clutch my high neck gown to my throat and run screaming. I knew who I was, I knew that I was more than just a girl who needed a boyfriend to help establish her identity. Yeah, I made mistakes (boyfriends 1 and 2) but they are mistakes I would rather have made in college than high school.

  • Anne

    March 17, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    Liz, did you go to Western? 🙂
    I grew up in Baltimore as well, and I attended one of the last (before this resurgence) public all-girls high schools in the country. It was phenomenal and an experience I wouldn’t change for the world. I think *especially* for high school, at that very difficult self-esteem, self-conscious time, single-sex schooling was a blessing. Many girls need to be reminded that they are smart and capable and have valid worthy opinions.

  • Lisalisa

    March 17, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    I went to a women’s college and I agree with what Rosie and RLJ said about the class participation. The difference wasn’t about boyfriends, makeup, sexualization. The difference was that in high school, in a co-ed school, I didn’t bother to speak up in most of my classes because the boys seemed so eager to participate. And they had that joshing rapport with the teachers so eager to call on them. I didn’t start speaking up in class or taking on leadership positions until I was in my women’s college. And that’s what the studies show: girls participate more in speaking/leadership roles when the boys aren’t around. There was a study of women’s colleges that went co-ed, and within a year or two all the leadership roles in campus student orgs went to the male students. Wha?
    You can’t find individual people who say, “boy, if only i’d been to a women’s school, maybe I would’ve been the student body president!” because the whole social dynamic is different. But the result of the social dynamic is that women are more likely to pursue leadership positions if they’ve had the experience of a single-sex education at some point. Check out the resumes of the women in Congress.

  • lolismum

    March 25, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Went to a coed private middle and high school, loved both the environment and the intellectual stimulation from both sexes.
    Went to Wellesley College for college, hated the artificial single sex environment, the desperateness of the woment to meet men despite claims to the contrary, felt intellectually pigeon-holed by emphasis on “women”.
    Went to Stanford University for masters and PhD.,loved it for the same reason I loved middle and high school.
    Yes, sometimes, in certain settings, both for nature and nurture reasons, women and men learn differently. And that is the silliest argument for a single sex education. We should strive for better resources, better education, diversity of opinions, approaches all around, segregation never works in the long run.
    I have two girls. I would never ever send them to a single sex school.

  • Sylvia

    March 27, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    Comments here seem to have focused on the social aspect for individuals, in and out of the classroom, rather than actual teaching differences that might be possible in same-sex classrooms.
    The reality is, no matter how many studies point out that boys talk more or are called on more often, our education system is set up for a typical female learner–someone who can sit quietly and work diligently and neatly at an early age, following an agenda set by someone else. (Not that all girls necessarily like this, but they tend to be much better at pretending and getting by than boys are, and have higher grades to show for it.)
    For the most part, boys and girls have different challenges in school, different processing methods, and different behavioral preferences. As a teacher, I see these differences every day and they are very real. In a same-sex classroom, the teacher might be able to more closely accommodate the learning styles of her/his students. Of course, there would still be students-like me-who tend to process in ways typical of the other gender or in ways that otherwise don’t fit the constructed stereotype. All generalizations are imperfect, and there’s really no way around this one without smaller class sizes.
    And, to respond to earlier comments, public schools in this country *were* founded in the 1800’s to socialize children and to make them homogeneously “American.” Whether that should still be their goal is another debate, but I think I would have a poorer understanding of men (not to mention people of different income levels and races who are underrepresented in private schools) if I hadn’t had a chance to interact with them during our mutual adolescence, after the cootie stage and before I started dating women. Which brings up the question of queer children, which nobody has yet mentioned in all this talk of teenage romance…

  • Heather Sanders

    July 1, 2013 at 10:51 am

    Weil’s argument that single-sex environments deprive students of what it means to be an American is a riot.  Seriously?  All one has to do is BE in the midst of boys and girls in our homeschooling cooperative to see how differently they take-in and process information – as well as how they work.  A small snapshot of a classroom environment involves boys standing, sitting while leaning their chairs back, sitting on the back of their chairs or jumping around waving their hands to get attention when asked a question.  All this time the girls are sitting closely together in a group (segregated by their own choice), rolling their eyes at the boys, and whispering their answers before one girl will address the teacher.

    That’s ON THEIR OWN.  And it is just a snapshot.

    If I couldn’t homeschool I would support this type of education, not BECAUSE of gender, but BECAUSE of differences in how boys and girls typically learn.  Why not give them information in the manner in which they prefer to learn and see how it improves their interest and attention span?