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New Report Gives Single-Sex Schooling the Ax for Fostering Sexism: What’s the Evidence?

Education pundits collide in single-sex debate: Do separated classrooms breed or root out stereotypes?

A gaggle of social scientists has no doubt about single-sex schooling: It reinforces gender stereotypes, legitimizes institutional sexism, and evidence of its supposed academic achievements is weak, cherry-picked or misconstrued. A new report published in Science Magazine launches an attack on sex-segregated classrooms, which critics say undermine a core value of public education by reducing “boys' and girls' opportunities to work together in a supervised, purposeful environment.”

"The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling" lands as single-sex classrooms are mushrooming in public schools across the nation. The report claims “ teachers make children's sex salient” through segregation, which “exaggerates sex-typed behaviors and attitudes,” while disputing that “ single-sex classrooms CAN break down gender stereotypes,” as National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE) argues. NASSPE claims that because single-sex education dissolves narrow cultural assumptions about what is appropriate for boys and girls, students flourish academically in the segregated classroom.

The report is likely to spark another round of debate bringing opponents and advocates back on the barricades in a battle that has raised heart rates for years.

After decades of decline, single-sex schooling has recently experienced revival. In 2006 the U.S. Educational Department reinterpreted Title IX of the U.S. Educational Amendment, which since 1972 had outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex from federal funded educational programs, and an estimated 509 public schools opened their doors to sex-segregated classrooms this summer, compared to only a dozen in 2002. NASSPE predicts many more in the pipeline.

To the eight authors of the report, professors in social sciences and founders of the nonprofit American Council for CoEducational Schooling, the development is alarming: “Beyond fostering academic skills, public education has many goals, including preparing children for mixed-sex workplaces, families, and citizenry.” Sex-segregated classrooms cripple such abilities, they say; a point that, according to the report, is driven home by a UK study showing that men in their early 40s are more likely to be divorced if they attended single-sex schooling.

Thus, the report issues a warning: “The choice to fight sexism by changing coeducational practices or segregating by gender has parallels to the fight against racism.” Research shows that when environments segregate along characteristics like gender or eye color, children infer that the groups differ in important ways and develop biases. “The preponderance of social science data indicates that racially segregated schools promote racial prejudice and inequality,” even if it eliminates daily racial discrimination, argues the report, depicting single-sex education as a band-aid covering the wound of sexism while bacteria thrives beneath.

In the other camp, NASSPE maintains that sexist culture prevails in coed classrooms, pushing boys and girls into blue and pink cubbyholes. The association pulls out another UK study, showing that boys in coed schools prefer gender typical subjects such as math and science, whereas boys at single-sex schools were just as interested in drama, biology and languages. With students open to exploring different fields, the academic environment in single-sex schools is fertile and the yield is higher test scores, argues the association.

The new report does not buy into that argument. “Novelty-based enthusiasm, sample bias, and anecdotes account for much of the glowing characterization of SS [single-sex] education in the media,” and apparent advantages dissolve when outcomes are corrected for preexisting differences.” The report concludes that “there is no empirical evidence that their success stems from their SS organization, as opposed to the quality of the student body, demanding curricula, and many other features also known to promote achievement at coeducational schools.“

It looks as if this protracted debate is entering another phase, advocates and opponents throwing "scientific evidence" at each other, while accusations of discriminations roar from either side. Meanwhile, the camp of separationists is split down the middle; one faction believing that education should match gender specific experimental differences in a sexist world, another playing the brain card, arguing that boys and girls learn differently because of hard-wired neurological differences. The new report launches an attack on both “cultural” and “natural” arguments.

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