George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Gender Matters: Dividing Boys and Girls

Educators battle over single-sex schools.

January 24, 2007
Photo credit: Olivier Laude
Birds of a Feather: Students at the 49ers Academy, a rare single-sex public school in East Palo Alto, California, have rejected the option to go coed.

At the 49ers Academy, in East Palo Alto, California, it was the students who gave the thumbs down to going coed.

"They say they feel more comfortable in sex-segregated classrooms," says Heather Turoczi, the school's program director. "The boys don't feel like they need to put on a big show for the girls, and the girls feel like they can strive academically without having to dumb down their abilities."

The 49ers Academy is somewhat of a rarity, both in California and nationwide: a single-sex public school. Incorporated in 1996, the school caters primarily to low-income students, many who could be classified as high risk. The goal, says the school's Web site, "is to keep these kids in school."

Middle school boys and girls here share a campus. Clad in their 49ers uniforms of white T-shirts and khaki pants, they squeeze in a few minutes of sarcasm and flirting as they cross paths on the quad but spend most of the day in single-sex classrooms, sharing the school's facilities on a staggered schedule.

17 boys standing in a group on the playground
Photo credit: Olivier Laude

Fifty-one completely single-sex public schools exist in America, and nearly five times as many offer some single-sex classrooms, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Those numbers may soon rise. In November, the U.S. Department of Education delivered guidelines that will, in effect, show how school districts can offer single-sex classrooms without violating Title IX, the landmark 1972 federal legislation that mandated gender equality in all aspects of government-funded education.

Supporters of single-sex education welcome the new rules, but many others are wary of the change. In education as well as anywhere else, they argue, separate is not equal, and single-sex schools can undermine years of progress toward gender equality. Under the new legislation, however, it's less a matter of if than of how: How far must schools go to ensure that boys' and girls' educations mirror each other exactly? How do you preserve fairness in segregation?

The 49ers Academy dates to an older experiment. In 1997, then California governor Pete Wilson introduced legislation to create twelve single-sex academies in six districts. The state would grant $500,000 to each district to help fund the schools, with the requirement that the money be divided equally between boys and girls. The academies would operate as magnet schools within the districts, alternatives to -- but not replacements for -- coed programs.

Ultimately, only six schools took part. Immediately after the two-year trial period, four of them reverted to a coed curriculum, and a fifth did so one year later. Some found the double classrooms a hassle to coordinate, says Elisabeth Woody, one of the researchers hired to evaluate the program, some felt they weren't seeing an improvement in overall education, and some simply lost their incentive once the money ran out.

Woody and the other researchers concluded that the single-sex public academies were "not sustainable under California's policy framework." In 1998, the American Association of University Women Education Foundation released its own report, declaring that there is "no evidence that single-sex education is better than coeducation." The verdict on single-sex public education, it seemed, was in.

Fast-forward to 2002, when President Bush signed the federal No Child Left Behind Act into law. Along with other major changes to state-funded education, the new legislation gave public schools more flexibility in offering single-sex programs. Unfortunately, the measure failed to explain how they could do so without violating Title IX. Last August, the American Civil Liberties Union won the latest in a series of lawsuits against single-sex public schools in a district where, it argued, children were given no other choice.

Whitney Ransome, coexecutive director of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, says it is difficult to assess the value of single-sex schools. "We know from decades and decades -- some of these girls' schools are a hundred or more years old -- that girls' schools expect the best from their students, expect them to achieve, and expect them to be participants in the nontraditional subjects," she says. "The generations of accomplished women who attend those schools are the best evidence that single-sex education can be a powerful and life-changing experience."

Ransome points to well-known public, diverse, all-girls success stories such as Baltimore's Western High School, founded in 1844, which boasted a 100 percent college placement last year, and the Philadelphia High School for Girls, established nearly 200 years ago, which counts among its graduates a federal judge, an opera singer, the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church, and the first female head of the Black Panthers.

Ransome emphasizes that single-sex education isn't for everybody but says that, for those who choose it, single-sex classrooms allow girls to "hold onto their childhoods a little longer" and attain a level of confidence not commonly seen in girl graduates of coed programs.

Girls working at their desks in class
Photo credit: Olivier Laude
Gender Divide: 49ers Academy math and science teacher Joya Deutsch teaches boys and girls in separate classes.

Ilana DeBare, cofounder of the private Julia Morgan School for Girls, in Oakland, California, and the author of Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall, and Surprising Revival of Girls' Schools, says that though girls can thrive in coed classrooms at younger ages, once puberty sets in they quickly begin to lose their confidence.

"In middle school, that's when the girls suffer," says DeBare. "It's like, 'OK, you used to be this great student, and now you have to be Britney Spears. You have to be smart, but not too smart. You have to be sexy, but you also have to be smart.' That's when they really start to fall behind."

Until recently, the movement advocating public single-sex education consisted mainly of people such as Ransome and DeBar -- girls' advocates steeped in books like Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls and Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls, by researchers Myra and David Sadker. But the last decade has seen the rise of a new voice, perhaps best embodied by doctor and psychologist Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. Sax is the leading -- or at least most popularized -- voice to promote the idea that girls' and boys' brains work differently and should thus be catered to in distinct ways in the classroom.

Boys don't hear as well as girls, says Sax, which causes them to act out, especially from the back of the class, where it's hardest to hear the teacher. Girls are hardwired to articulate emotion more easily, he adds, while boys are quicker to understand spatial relations. Books like Hear Our Cry: Boys in Crisis and The War Against Boys, sounding uncannily like the girl-empowerment treatises of a decade ago, argue that coed schools actually discourage boys from self-confidence and success, and that problems such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) are often the result of a classroom that refuses to let boys be boys.

There's a certain, unmistakable irony here: Women, who for so long argued that single-sex education is the best way to downplay gender roles, find themselves sharing the stage with men and women who say it's exactly those gender roles that justify single-sex education.

For single-sex-education opponents, books like Why Gender Matters are Exhibit A in the case against the movement. Sax's science, they maintain, is nascent at best, and hardly a foundation for school reform. Moreover, to them, any program founded on set ideas of masculinity and femininity is both a violation of Title IX and a threat to students' long-term success.

Elisabeth Woody, the California researcher, says that the single-sex classrooms she observed often failed to give equal educations to boys and girls and, at least as worryingly, gave broad license to districts and teachers to decide what, exactly, a boy's or girl's education should look like.

"While girls were taught they had broad choices in life, they were also applauded for being feminine and being concerned about their appearance," said Woody and her team in a report released at the end of the two-year pilot project. "Boys were told they should be able to cry but, conversely, were told to be strong men and take care of their wives. In most cases, traditional gender role stereotypes were reinforced, and gender was portrayed in an essentialist manner."

Boys working at their desks in class
Photo credit: Olivier Laude

Emily Martin, deputy director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, says that though single-sex education may be just the ticket for some kids, the risks far outweigh the benefits. "When you segregate groups of people based on a characteristic, you give enhanced importance to that characteristic," says Martin. "And the very act of putting boys in one class and girls in another encourages students to rely on differences in gender, to inflate the gender difference in their minds."

It's here that the critics of single-sex education begin to sound like opponents of another kind of separation: the racial and economic segregation in American public schools documented by Savage Inequalities author Jonathan Kozol and others. The de facto segregation Kozol describes has created tangible -- and tragic -- inequalities between white and minority students, and between poor students and affluent ones. By comparison, the debate over single-sex education can't help but seem a bit less grave. Still, the arguments draw from each other and, to a great extent, account for the position the ACLU takes on the subject. Any kind of segregation, Martin argues, undermines diversity and the ability of diverse groups to work together.

"Given that we are preparing boys and girls to be men and women who work together, it's even more important for boys and girls to learn from each other, to be allowed to complement each other in the classroom," she adds.

What's more, critics say, single-sex schools such as the 49ers Academy and the Philadelphia High School for Girls might owe their success to any number of factors: smaller class sizes, specialized teachers, and a higher public profile, which often brings extra revenue. The 49ers Academy allows only twenty students per class. Baltimore's Western High School, says Martin, "has been around for 150 years and has a great reputation in the city. You have to apply to get in. I don't argue for a second that that isn't a great, successful school and that it is churning out empowered young women, but that's a very hard school to replicate in districts across the country."

It remains to be seen whether the federal government has successfully shown public schools how to institute single-sex programs without violating Title IX, at least in spirit. But for some of those on the ground, like girls'-school founder Ilana DeBare, if a school works, we should learn from it.

Recognizing gender differences in learning styles, DeBare says, can help schools implement a kind of affirmative action, giving boys and girls special encouragement in areas they typically lag in. "There are genuine differences between men and women, but that doesn't mean the differences are deterministic of everything," she adds. "I think the similarities far outweigh the differences. But there are times when we can also use those differences to help everyone."

Amy Standen is a former contributing editor to Edutopia. She reports on science and the environment for KQED-FM, in San Francisco.

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