This post is part of an ongoing series on Pass the Chalk called Point/Counterpoint, where two bloggers will argue opposite sides of a pressing issue in education. Yesterday, blogger Erin Teater argued for gender-segregated schools in "No Girls Allowed! The Case For Gender-Segregated Schools." Today, Marie Diamond rebuts.
While Erin can speak firsthand about the benefits of gender-segregated education at schools in low-income communities, I’m disturbed by the trend and its effects on students from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Does gender-segregated education really improve students’ learning, and in the long run, is it good for the welfare and social development of kids?
While the number of gender-segregated schools and classrooms remains small, they are growing fast. In 2002, only a dozen schools had single-sex classrooms, but today as many as 500 in 40 states do. Are these classrooms good for kids? The evidence suggests no. Last year Science magazine published a comprehensive review of existing research that concluded “there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance.” What’s more, separating boys and girls “reinforces stereotypes and sexism” because it “makes gender more salient.” Segregation, whether race-based or gender-based, “undermines rather than promotes equality,” the paper says. The New York Times, writing about the same study, points out that there’s even disagreement about the degree of success at Chicago’s Urban Prep, one of the schools that Erin mentions in her post.
We should all be bothered by the pseudo-scientific evidence that’s often invoked to justify single-sex schooling—antiquated ideas like “girls innately learn math and science differently than boys and so must be taught differently.” Margaret Talbot points out in the New Yorker that although there are differences in how men and women acquire knowledge, “those differences are relatively small [and] there is a great deal of variability among individuals.” All kids learn differently, and the approach that’s best for them can’t be predicted or assumed based on their sex.
Still, I’m compelled by Erin’s account that having all-boys or all-girls schools might make it easier to foster a culture that’s focused on learning and provide strong role models. I asked my friend Elissa, who attended an all-girls school in Boston, what it was like to have only female classmates. She said that it was a very empowering environment. The fraught gender dynamics of, say, math class melt away when all your peers are girls and mastering the subject matter is uncomplicated by a psychological minefield (“Will he like me less if I’m good at math?”). In fact, group-identification studies have found that female students need only be reminded that they are female to do worse on a math test.
The thing is, sparing students from having to deal with members of opposite sex in school doesn’t spare them from having to deal with them in life. And it might make it more awkward and complicated when they do. My friends who went to single-sex schools consistently said they felt like they had missed a critical life lesson in becoming comfortable interacting with the opposite sex. When they went on to the next steps in their lives—generally co-ed colleges or the workplace—gender was a stumbling block for them to navigate in a way it simply wasn’t for their peers for whom learning with boys and girls had long been the norm. No matter where we grow up, we all have to interact with members of the opposite sex throughout our adult lives. Isn’t it better if we start practicing early?
But the thing about separating boys and girls in school that makes me saddest is how it deprives kids of the chance to have more friendships with members of the opposite sex. It isn’t impossible to have friends outside of school, of course, but school friends are important. Many of my best buddies growing up were boys in my classes. My school experience would have been a lot bleaker without them.
Don't forget to check out counterpoint to this post: "No Girls Allowed! The Case For Gender-Segregated Schools."