Thursday, November 10, 2011

Single-sex education: separate but better?

In my last post, I commented on gender-segregated youth programs. I believe that such programs empower girls at a time they need it most: their adolescence. However, I do not believe that gender-segregation should extend to the classroom. Like some of the commenters of my post, when I first asked whether we should encourage single-sex classrooms, I lacked an answer. But, I came to my current stance on the issue after listening to a conversation on National Public Radio about a recent report in the journal Science.

The report concludes that there is a lack of scientific support that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance. Diane F. Halpern, et al., The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling, 333 SCIENCE 1706 (2011). Any seeming benefits single-sex education offers are removed after adjusting for pre-existing academic development among incoming students and for premature transferring of underperforming students. Additionally, research has yet to show that any neurological differences between boys and girls relate to learning. Dr. Diane Halpern, the lead author of the report, concedes that there are some differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, but “that in no way means that there are differences in how they learn or they should have different kinds of learning experiences.” Interview by Kerry Klein with Diane Halpern, Professor, Claremont McKenna College (Sept. 23, 2011).

Not only are there no real benefits to single-sex education, the report discusses how it can actually be harmful. Evidence shows that single-sex education “increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.” Halpern, supra, at 1706. Single-sex education limits opportunities for boys and girls to work together. Consequently, “[b]oys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive” and have a “greater risk for behavior problems.” Id. at 1707. Simultaneously, “girls who spend more time with other girls become more sex-typed.” Id.

Single-sex education has increased in popularity since the mid-1990s. At the time, there were only two single-sex public schools. Now, there are more than 500 public schools across forty states that offer at least some single-sex academic classes. Tamar Lewin, Single-Sex Education Is Assailed in Report, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 23, 2011, at A19.

In the early 1990s, new research depicted a lost generation of adolescent girls. First, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) published a report revealing that girls received a lower quality education than boys. See generally AM. ASS’N OF UNIV. WOMEN EDUC. FOUND., HOW SCHOOLS SHORTCHANGE GIRLS (1992). Educators were treating girls differently in the classroom. Consequently, girls left school with less confidence and self-esteem than boys. Additionally, significantly fewer girls pursued science, math, or engineering in college or as careers. Second, Mary Pipher, a therapist and academic, published Reviving Ophelia. In the book, Pipher’s therapy patients, adolescent girls, tell their stories while Pipher examines how society poisons girls when they are most vulnerable. Pipher awakened society to the “social and developmental Bermuda Triangle” that was trapping young girls. MARY PIPHER, REVIVING OPHELIA 19 (1994). Both the AAUW’s report and Reviving Ophelia contributed to society’s increased use of sex-segregated education to save adolescent girls. Lewin, supra, at A19.

While single-sex education seems well-meaning on the surface, I think it is a lazy response to a larger problem. American youth receive a declining quality education. Additionally, there exists a discrepancy in education between the sexes. It would be easier simply to say boys and girls learn differently. However, as Latifa Lyles of the National Organization for Women notes, small class sizes, a rigorous and diverse curriculum, and resources funneled for success are what make a school successful.

Furthermore, single-sex education does not properly solve the adverse learning environment girls encounter. We recognize the problem. Yet, instead of addressing how the media, society, and culture create the hostile learning environment, we try to use single-sex education to escape the issue altogether. We think that if we remove the boys, then gender bias is no longer present. At first sight, single-sex education does seem to make the problem vanish. We hear success stories and feel-good anecdotes. However, the solution is illusory because in reality, single-sex education perpetuates gender stereotypes, recreating the problem it attempts to solve.

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