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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
Guest
Kdblya

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… Read more »

SuburbanCorrespondent
Guest

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… Read more »

Brooke
Guest

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… Read more »

Claudia
Guest
Claudia

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… Read more »

confiance
Guest

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… Read more »

Cassandra
Guest
Cassandra

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… Read more »

May
Guest
May

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
Guest
Kate

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
Guest

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… Read more »

kym b
Guest

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
Guest
Twinmomma

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… Read more »

Brooke
Guest

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… Read more »

CJ
Guest
CJ

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.

lizneust
Guest
lizneust

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… Read more »

kym b
Guest

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… Read more »

BlackOrchid
Guest

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… Read more »

Maggie
Guest
Maggie

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… Read more »

Anne
Guest

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.

Rosie
Guest

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… Read more »

Lisalisa
Guest
Lisalisa

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… Read more »

lolismum
Guest
lolismum

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… Read more »

Sylvia
Guest
Sylvia

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… Read more »

Heather Sanders
Member

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… Read more »