The concept of single-sex schools is simple enough on the surface. Boys learn with boys and girls learn with girls and the two don’t meet, at least not during school hours. The idea is gaining some momentum in the millennium. About 400 public schools were single-sex institutions in 2016, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Schools.
But not everyone is pleased by this trend. It has its opponents, while others soundly applaud it. Some arguments on both sides have merit.
Boys and Girls Learn Differently
It’s long been established that boys and girls learn differently, so the question becomes how to best approach that difference. Proponents of single-sex education feel that teachers can gear delivery of their lessons to the gender they’re teaching, but opponents wonder how many teachers have the skill or training to do that.
Regardless of teaching techniques, there may be some other advantages to segregating genders. Some studies indicate that boys learn better in cooler classrooms, while girls stay more focused in warmer environments. Absent other factors, if you set the thermostat somewhere between the two extremes, is either gender likely to thrive?
Boys and girls also develop intellectually at different rates, and those who support single-sex classrooms say it’s unlikely that both genders will always be on the same learning page in a coed curriculum. A pace that’s comfortable for girls might leave many boys behind.
All Those Distractions
One of the most significant arguments for same-sex education focuses on the distraction that the opposite sex can cause, especially as students enter their teen years. Some say kids focus better and learn more readily when that attraction and distraction is taken out of the equation. Others argue that school is supposed to prepare our children for life, and it’s not likely they’ll grow up to go into fields where their coworkers are all their same gender.
Supporters of single-sex schools say that girls are less distracted by feelings of self-consciousness when they’re among same-sex peers and that they’ll pay more attention to their lessons if they’re not stealing peeks at that cute boy three aisles over. They may feel freer to speak up and participate when they’re not inhibited by the presence of boys, and boys will pay more attention to lessons when they’re not flexing their muscles to impress.
But experts point out that girls can be just plain mean to each other, particularly adolescents. Wouldn’t an unpopular girl be just as likely to remain mum and inhibited in a room full of prom queens as she would in a coed classroom with boys?
Arguments That Focus on Gender Stereotypes
Arguments both for and against single-sex education seem to promote gender stereotypes, often the same stereotypes they say they’re trying to avoid. Some proponents argue that girls shouldn’t have to compete with boys in the academic environment because they don’t tend to be math and science whizzes. Boys might not participate actively in a literature class because it’s considered sissified to like poetry.
But this argument is effectively based on stereotypes. Mary Rose McCarthy, assistant professor of education at Pace University in New York, says that single-sex classrooms are more likely to promote gender stereotypes by focusing girls on “girl things” and boys on “boy things.” Some girls want to grow up to be astronauts. Shakespeare was a male. Basing lesson plans and curricula on what boys and girls are supposed to like, dislike and excel at may actually limit many students.
The issue of single-sex education has its legal supporters and detractors as well. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings decided in 2006 that same-sex schools and curricula are just fine, provided that students and parents are given the option to attend or not to attend. In other words, the only school in a certain district can’t scissor itself in half, forcing all males to attend on one side and all females to sit at desks on the other side if no other school exists where they can elect to all learn together. Subject matter and courses must also be the same at boys’ schools and at girls’ schools.
On the other side, the ACLU filed a suit in federal court in 2008 against a Kentucky Middle School. The suit alleged that offering single-sex classrooms is a form of discrimination based on gender even if attendance isn’t mandatory.
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