Single-sex education is gaining favor in some American schools, though the theories behind it remain intensely controversial and fraught with ideological and emotional baggage.
The numbers remain small but are growing: about 750 public schools offer at least one single-sex class, up from an estimated 122 in 2004, The New York Times reports.
Proponents point to the distinctive struggles of boys, who now “persistently lag behind girls in national tests of reading comprehension and are much more likely to face disciplinary problems and drop out of school,” the Times reports. But advocates also suggest that girls may do better in science when on their own, and that both sexes may benefit from fewer distractions.
“The theory is generally held in low regard by social scientists,” the Times reports, citing several experts who dismiss the approach out of hand. The article also quotes at length a spokesman from the American Civil Liberties Union.
But the article does concede that one school in Florida substantially improved its test performances after making the switch. And, in fact, there is good reason to believe that same-sex education may have more science behind it than some think.
A 2012 article published in the journal Demography, for example, looked at a powerful natural experiment in Seoul, Korea, where children are randomly assigned to either mixed-gender or single-gender schools. The study found that both boy and girls in single-gender schools were significantly more likely to attend college and to achieve higher college entrance exam scores, even controlling for all demographic variables.
The Seoul study was not referenced by The New York Times, and while the website of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education gets passing reference, the writer apparently did not attempt to contact the organization for comment.
Weighing the pros and cons, the New York-based Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability pointed to the 1996 Supreme Court decision U.S. v. Virginia, a 7-1 decision striking down the all-male status of the Virginia Military Institute, a state-sponsored college.
FERA notes that in that decision all the justices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority decision, agreed that the evidence shows that single-sex education can offer pedagogical benefits.
“Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in his concurrence, explained that “considerable evidence shows that a single-sex education is pedagogically beneficial for some students … and hence a State may have a valid interest in promoting that methodology.” In writing the majority opinion, Justice Ginsburg similarly noted the position that “single-sex education affords pedagogical benefits to at least some students” and concluded: “that reality is uncontested in this litigation.”
The timing of the 1996 decision is significant because it came hot on the heels of a strong push for single-sex education, centered on the perception that girls were lagging in the classroom.
Much of that push was generated by a 1992 report by the American Association of University Women, which argued that girls in K-12 classrooms were often shouted down by more aggressive boys and overlooked by teachers.
In 1995, the AAUW issued a report, Growing Smart: What’s Working for Girls in School, which argued that “Single-sex programs deserve consideration as a vehicle to address specific needs or remedy existing inequities.”
But that was back when there was a perceived “girls crisis.” But now, the narrative has flipped, with the realization that girls have raced ahead of boys in most measures of academic achievement, including test scores, high school graduation and college attendance.
In 2011 AAUW issued a very strong statement condemning single-sex education, and protesting 2006 Department of Education rules that made it easier for states to experiment with single-sex classrooms. That statement also strongly rejected the notion that there is a “boys crisis” in schools.