By NEHA BHARDWAJ
Single-sex schools, once an institution reserved almost exclusively for private or religious establishments, have recently becoming a rising force in the public education sector in the United States. According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, “between 2002 and 2012, the number of single-sex public schools in the United States grew from only about a dozen to an estimated 500.” The New York Times even reported about 850 schools with single-sex programs nationwide.
The debate over single-sex education was long tabled by the assurance that only private Catholic schools would endeavor to limit schools to a single gender. However, in light of this recent and rapid rise in secular public schools, the debate has re-surged, bringing a whole host of competing opinions. Some argue that co-ed schools shortchange girls, while others argue that they disadvantage boys. Some are concerned about sexist implications, while others point to data comparisons of student achievement. However, despite the interminable contentions made by proponents of single-sex education, ultimately both data and logic point overwhelmingly to the virtues of co-ed schools.
A common argument in favor of single-sex schools is that adolescents are often distracted by the opposite sex, detracting from their educational experience and preventing them from fully focusing in school. However, this is widely conceded as the weakest point in a pro-single-sex argument. It has become increasingly apparent that schools should not shield girls and boys from interactions with one another during the formative years of their life, considering the fact that they will inevitably have to work and coexist with the opposite gender for the rest of their lives post-graduation.
A sturdier argument in favor of single-sex education points to differences in boys and girls’ learning. Some say that when boys and girls are in a classroom together, harmful gender stereotypes become more deeply entrenched. For instance, a co-ed school setting is believed, by some, to perpetuate ideas that boys are bad at the humanities and girls are bad at the sciences. Such pre-conceptions that have led to such staggering disparities in which genders fill which careers. According to The Guardian, “in 2016, 76% of psychology and 73% of English A-level entries came from girls. On the flip side, more than nine in 10 young people taking computing A-level are boys.” Same-sex schools claim to somewhat mitigate these detrimental pre-conceptions. Proponents also point to differences in psychology, such as girls being shyer and better at problem-solving and boys being more daring and competitive.
However, this reasoning in and of itself is fallacious and outdated, and it has been debunked by innumerable psychologists and researchers. First of all, a same-sex educational system operates under the wildly untrue assumption that all boys are the same and all girls are the same, while a co-ed school makes no such implications and instead tries to cater to multiple types of students. Moreover, psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin has developed a gender similarities hypothesis, finding that, “gender differences had either no or a very small effect on most of the psychological variables examined” (American Psychological Association). Moreover, the idea that girls and boys are inherently different – an idea perpetuated heavily by same-sex schools – has led to stereotyped thinking, such as, “the widespread belief that boys are better than girls in math.” Thus, the sexism and gender disparities that same-sex proponents have tried to pin on co-ed education are, in truth, fostered by the former and not the latter.
The gender disparity myth perpetuated by same-sex education has some very real consequences. The aforementioned Professor Hyde stated, “The claims [of gender difference] can hurt women’s opportunities in the workplace, dissuade couples from trying to resolve conflict and communication problems and cause unnecessary obstacles that hurt children and adolescents’ self-esteem.”
There is another major concern being brought up against single-sex education, one that is relatively new in the history of this debate. While concerns of sexism have long been present, critics are now considering racist implications of all-girl and all-boy schools. Part of the underlying basis of this connection is the idea that sex-segregated schools are analogous to the racial segregation of schools in pre-Brown v. Board of Education America. The “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, historically associated with racial disparity and Jim Crow laws, does seem rather fitting for this situation of separating boys and girls’ schools. Another integral part of this line of reasoning is the history surrounding the initial development of single-sex schools in the United States. As summarized by Juliet A. Williams, a professor of gender studies and associate dean of the Division of Social Sciences at UCLA, “After the Civil War, several of the nation’s increasingly diverse, urban school districts moved to create single-sex public high schools to appease xenophobic parents… amidst racist panic about the inevitability of young white women and young black men forming social bonds across racial lines” (The Atlantic).
Ultimately, regardless of which argument you buy the most – the concerns over sexism, the racist implications, or merely the fact that a single-sex education does not prepare students for life in a diverse workforce and world – the conclusion that we must come to is that co-ed education is better than its alternative.