Boys on this side,girls on the other: is single-sex public education a good idea?
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!Published March 7, 2008. Last updated April 30, 2017.