Why do we still segregate kids by sex?

The downsides of single-sex education outweigh its more exceptional virtues

February 18, 2014 8:00AM ET
Angela Miller, Shaina Pack and Kayla Parsons in a history class at East Bank Middle School in West Virginia.
Bob Wojcieszak/Daily Mail/AP

The promise of single-sex education is a lofty one: Girls who are empowered and unafraid to speak up. Boys who are focused and enthusiastic about learning. Young women entering the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in larger numbers. Fewer instances of bullying. Academic excellence. Many students of single-sex education sing its praises, crediting their education with building confidence and creating safe spaces for them to learn and question. Professional proponents claim gender-segregated education caters to children’s natural learning styles, keeping them engaged and producing well-rounded adults. But according to a new study (PDF), single-sex education offers no benefits when it comes to academic interest or achievement. So is there still any reason to keep kids segregated by sex?

Despite its supposed virtues, I would say no. There are only 116 single-sex public schools in the United States but more than 500 schools that offer single-sex classrooms — still a drop in the bucket when cast against the more than 98,000 public schools in the country. This latest study, by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison is a meta-analysis of all available research from the past seven years on single-sex education. They looked at 184 studies from 21 countries, touching on the education of 1.2 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade. According to study co-author Janet Hyde, the differences in girls’ STEM achievement after single-sex schooling was negligible. “What you see is that there’s one nondifference after another,” she said in an interview with Al Jazeera America. In fact, single-sex education did not give students any tangible advantages over students educated in a mixed-gender setting. The data add quantifiable value to an existing argument: The demerits of single-sex education outweigh the anecdotal virtues.  

Individual successes

There is no doubt that many individuals feel single-sex education served them well. That seems to be particularly true among young women, who are often intimidated by speaking out in front of boys and who may see male peers monopolizing teachers’ time, especially in math and science.

Dior Vargas, now a 26-year-old media production manager living in New York City, attended a private Catholic all-girls high school. It was hardly a feminist dream; one of the events it sponsored was billed as feminist but centered on anti-abortion activism. Nonetheless, in part because of the nonthreatening space the school created, she credits it with awakening her burgeoning interest in women’s rights.

Vargas, who is Latina, also found comfort in learning in an environment where most of the students were girls of color. “I was with women who shared my experiences not just of being a woman but of being a woman of color and of being lower class,” she said.

It is also the reason she went to Smith, an all-female college. In our conversation, Vargas repeatedly used the words “safe” and “confident” to describe how she felt in college. It was an astute point: While white middle- and upper-class heterosexual men can feel safe on most campuses and see themselves reflected in the materials they study, that is a luxury for young women of color. Vargas pointed out that Smith did not deal perfectly with race, but she said she felt that her existence on campus was validated. She left Smith, she said, “more open-minded and more respectful of other people.”

Chloe Angyal, a 26-year-old writer who attended an all-girls private high school in Australia, says that a female-only environment often means girls can be more open, with teachers and with one another.

“We were able to have conversations about the experience of being girls that we would not have been able to have if there had been guys in the room,” she said. “I definitely felt like a weirdo outsider saying I was a feminist, but I don’t think I would have said it at all if there had been guys around. It was definitely still weird, but at least I had the space to say it.”

Angyal says her positive experience with single-sex education led her to follow studies and academic literature on the subject, but she also realizes her experience is far from universal. And just as important, neither are the settings for such experiences.

Different molds

We cannot discuss the virtues and downsides of single-sex education — or pass wholesale judgment on its existence — without also weighing the different types of single-sex schooling that exist.

Because not all single-sex classrooms are created equal. Some schools were built from a feminist mold, espousing a “You go, girl!” ethos that prioritizes success, nontraditional careers and a critique of patriarchal power structures.

But others, many of them private and religious or public but in conservative school districts, reinforce those structures, cordoning off girls from boys under the theory that our brains naturally operate differently, feeding into traditional gender roles and underscoring the idea that we are fundamentally different. For girls, that means an emphasis on quiet learning and subservient behavior.  

A boy who has never been beaten by a girl on an algebra test could have some major problems having a female supervisor.

Kim Gandy

Former president, National Organization for Women

For boys, it means underscoring their supposedly natural leadership and desire for physical activity. (All-boys schools are much less likely than all-girls institutions to focus on gender equality.) In a paper for the White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth, Judith Kleinfeld, director of the Boys Project, a nonprofit aimed at decreasing the so-called gender gap in educational achievement, argues that conventional co-educational classes “shut boys down” and that, in contrast, single-sex classrooms allow for “boy-friendly teaching strategies” — from removing desks and encouraging boys to mill around to instilling the value of “manly virtues.” The fundamental problem, in her view, is that we are too quick to label “the rough and tumble play characteristic of all juvenile male primates ‘violence and aggression’ … (and) immature attempts at romance ‘sexual harassment.’”

There are surely benefits to focusing on areas where male students lag. But I would argue that an educational philosophy that emphasizes gender difference (to the point of putting “sexual harassment” in scare quotes) does not prepare young men for real-world interactions with their female peers.

According to organizations that oppose same-sex education, including the American Civil Liberties Union, this latter type of classroom can do more harm than good. In two complaints filed in 2012, the organization paints a picture of sex-segregated public schooling that looks downright Victorian (and directly reflective of Kleinfeld’s ideal classroom): Male students sit on bouncy balls or move around the room, teachers instruct boys on “being a man,” and local business leaders are brought in as career examples. In female-only classrooms, girls are told to sit quietly at their desks and punished if they speak out of turn, the teacher talks in soft soothing tones, and no role models are brought in.

Sex segregation also raises issues of inclusion for students who may be in the early stages of developing a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender identity. The idea that single-sex education keeps students from being distracted by the opposite sex is premised on the assumption that the students are heterosexual. And a transgender kid may wind up in a single-sex classroom that does not match his or her developing needs, putting a child who identifies as female in a boys’ classroom or vice-versa. Single-sex education assumes there are significant, unbridgeable differences between boys and girls; it seeks to harness and cater to those differences in the classroom. This can make an already-vulnerable child who feels she is not actually the gender she was assigned at birth feel even more out of place.  

The real world

Opponents of single-sex education often argue that it doesn’t equip students for the real world, where they will have to interact with people of the opposite sex. Of course, an educational environment is by design divorced from the real world. And, as Angyal says, “Just because there aren’t boys in the room doesn’t mean boys aren’t in the room.” That is, while girls may be more opinionated and outspoken without male classmates around, the same dynamics of competing for male attention and sniping about body size and physical attractiveness remain in play.

In the university setting, segregation of the sexes has a different set of implications. Prep schools and elite colleges are where lifelong connections are forged and, often, the foundations of professional networks built. Just look at this list of successful entrepreneurs and where they met their business partners: The co-founders of Google, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, DropBox, Yahoo and YouTube all met at elite institutions of higher learning (and they are almost all male).

So, while women certainly make connections among themselves and build their own networks, it is hard to deny that there are lost opportunities when you do not have access to a full range of students who will someday be your professional peers. Perhaps there are also lessons to be learned when you share a dorm floor or classroom with the kind of lucky young men who assume they have a right to be there — or anywhere.

There are lessons for boys too. Kim Gandy, a former president of the National Organization for Women, points out that “a boy who has never been beaten by a girl on an algebra test could have some major problems having a female supervisor.” A boy who learns at school that inappropriate sexual behavior is all in good fun will have bigger problems than that. And while the so-called girl-power feminism of progressive all-girls schools and the inclusion of women’s histories in the curriculum at Smith College may serve girls and young women well, shouldn’t boys and young men be learning about women and gender too — and not simply that they are fundamentally different?

There are certainly some individual psychological and emotional benefits to single-sex education. Girls and women cite increased confidence, stronger female friendships and a more dynamic intellectual environment. But as this latest study demonstrates, these seeming benefits do not actually translate into tangible differences between students educated in single-sex environments and those in mixed classrooms. The potential downsides — identities excluded, connections missed, opportunities lost, varied behaviors observed — cannot be captured by either science or anecdote. So despite the heartening and compelling stories, perhaps it is time to shutter the doors of the No Girls Allowed classrooms and Boy-Free zones and teach all our kids together.  

Jill Filipovic is a lawyer and writer. She blogs at Feministe and is a weekly columnist at The Guardian. She was the recipient of a 2013 United Nations Foundation reporting fellowship in Malawi. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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