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Girls and Boys Together?



Does a federal policy shift reestablishing the viability of single-sex education in the United States, represent an enlightened educational alternative or a relic of a less enlightened age?

Years (and years and years) ago, as a prospective mother of the feminist persuasion, I was convinced that nurture, and not nature, was the determining factor in the obvious social and psychological differences between boys and girls. Young boys, I believed, were encouraged -- by their parents and by society -- to be active and forceful and battle-ready, and growing girls were bred to be well behaved, socially adept, and emotionally sensitive.

My children, I vowed, would be raised differently. The boys would play with dolls and the girls would play with trucks and all my children would be equally battle-ready and emotionally available.

Then I actually had children. My young sons callously trampled their dolls and quickly settled disagreements with loud voices and flying fists. My daughter turned up her nose at a battalion of trucks and trains and wept copiously over minor spats with her equally devastated friends. How could this be, I agonized? I was a modern mother determined to raise all of her children as equals. How could my four children, born in the space of five short years, behave so differently? Was it possible, I wondered, that gender itself -- and not gender conditioning -- was the culprit?

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Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for nearly two decades. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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In the United States, decades of federal regulations forbid the use of federal education funds for single-sex schools unless school districts provided comparable educational opportunities for students of both sexes. Because "comparable educational opportunities" are difficult to define and expensive to implement, most school districts in this country opted to avoid the inherent hassles of maintaining single-sex schools.

Recentkly that policy changed. Public reaction has been heated.

Proponents of single-sex schools hail the change, claiming that studies have found that girls in single-sex schools demonstrate greater success in science and math, develop more self-confidence, are more likely to exhibit leadership qualities, and pursue advanced degrees at a higher rate than girls who attend coeducational schools. Boys in single-sex schools, they claimed, show an increased interest in art and literature and, undistracted by the presence of adolescent girls, are better able to focus on their schoolwork and less likely to show off. Single-sex schools, proponents said, are truly a conduit to gender equity.

Nonsense, opponents of single-sex education retort. Single-sex schools are primarily private and most often a choice made by more affluent and better-educated parents. Closer examination of the studies of such schools clearly show that the apparent academic advances are due to the presence of such factors as smaller class size, more resources, greater parental interest, and higher student ability and motivation -- not to the absence of the opposite sex.

Moreover, critics claimed, any minor advantages in gender equity that a single-sex education provides are negated by the disadvantages of a lack of fraternization and socialization with the opposite sex. Only in coeducational schools, the naysayers insisted, can boys and girls learn to respect one another's strengths and abilities. Only in coeducational classes, can boys and girls really get to know and understand one another.

Clearly, existing research on the advantages and disadvantages of single-sex schools is far from conclusive -- and hotly debated. Few parents, however, need incontrovertible research or gender-issue experts to tell them what they know through years of anecdotal evidence: Boys and girls are inherently different. They learn in different ways, and they mature at different rates. They have different interests and strengths, and they respond to stimuli in different ways. (And do they ever really learn to understand one another?)

Thirty years of firsthand experience has taught me, at least, that when it comes to educating boys and girls in middle and high school, equity is essential -- and separate makes the most sense.

Whether or not girls in single-sex schools are more likely to pursue science degrees or political careers, whether or not boys in single-sex schools are more likely to write poetry or pay attention in class, single-sex schools can allow educators to address the particular interests, strengths, learning styles, and developmental stages of a single sex while allowing boys and girls to concentrate on something other than the opposite sex -- at least for a few brief hours each day. For many kids, both boys and girls, a single-sex education can make the difference between personal success and academic failure.

Single-sex schools aren't the right choice for every student, but they should be available to every student. I, for one, vote yea on the question of single-sex public schools; they are an educational alternative whose time has come again.