In defense of single-sex schools

They tend to break down gender stereotypes, which helps many students thrive

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Science magazine recently published an article titled "The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling" by Diane Halpern and seven of her social-scientist colleagues who together founded the American Council for CoEducational Schooling. It's received a lot of attention.

We take exception to many of the conclusions drawn in this report based on our 40 years of combined experience as teachers and administrators working in single-gender independent schools.

Many educators -- ourselves included -- do not subscribe to theories of gender-based brain differences as an argument in favor of single-sex classrooms. We don't contend that all girls learn one way and that all boys learn another. Instead, we celebrate and encourage diversity among our students.

Lise Eliot, co-author of the Science article, wrote a book titled "Pink Brain Blue Brain" in which she concludes that boy brains and girl brains are fundamentally the same. The "plasticity" of the organ, she argues, accounts for most gender differences: As children grow up, they play to their strengths within the stereotypical comfort zones of ball-throwing and doll-cuddling -- behavior that is unconsciously reinforced by parents, teachers and peers.

Ironically, Dr. Eliot's conclusions make a strong case in favor of single-sex learning.

In single-gender schools, gender roles don't define participation in a particular club, sport or hobby and, most importantly, they don't limit or reinforce engagement in academic pursuits. Instead, boys and girls are more likely to choose programs based on their intrinsic appeal. This naturally leads to the development of a full range of styles, interests and abilities that are not driven by adolescent cultural imperatives.

The Science article's claim that "there is no well-designed research showing that single-gender education improves students' academic performance" is simply false.

The authors reference a 2005 review of single-sex versus coeducational classrooms commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and offer an out-of-context quote calling the results "equivocal." Actually, this report states there is "support for the premise that single-sex schooling can be helpful, especially for certain outcomes related to academic achievement and more positive academic aspirations" and cites 15 research studies which indicate measurable academic advantages for children at single-sex schools.

This same report also examined personal and social development at single-sex and co-ed schools and found that the results were almost evenly divided between those favoring single-sex education and those finding no major differences. Specifically, some of the studies cited concluded that girls are more likely to develop higher self-images in single-gender classrooms and be more positive about their own abilities.

The Science article's authors attribute the "glowing characterization" of single-sex education in the media to "novelty-based enthusiasm ... and anecdotes."

It's tough to reckon with single-gender education as a "novelty" given that it was the predominant schooling model in the United States from the founding of Roxbury Latin School in 1645 -- still an all-boys' school today -- until the mid-1950s, and that it's still going strong at schools here in Western Pennsylvania with The Ellis School celebrating its centennial in 2016 and The Kiski School on the brink of 125 years.

It's true that single-sex education has experienced a boom in recent years. The fundamental reason for this shift has little to do with brain research or meta-studies, though. It's because students, parents and teachers at these schools have first-hand experiential evidence that it works.

The notion of excluding these first-hand experiences offered by teachers and students is recklessly dismissive. Such accounts and interviews are invaluable and have formed the basis for many of the advances we've witnessed as the art and science of teaching has evolved with time.

In fact, the conclusions in the book "Powerful Leaders Tell Us How to Combine Work and Family," written by the Science article's lead author, Diane Halpern, are drawn from interviews with 62 women. Why, then, would she be so quick to disqualify results drawn by similar means -- such as those touting the effectiveness of teaching practices tailored to the learning needs of boys as chronicled in the recently published book "Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys" by Rick Hawley and Michael Reichert. Their conclusions, based on narratives supplied by some 2,500 teachers and students at 18 boys' schools from eight different countries, indicate that boys are not just surviving -- but thriving -- in single-gender classrooms.

In another of Ms. Halpern's writings, she stresses the importance of role models in helping girls to excel in areas that aren't traditionally "girl" subjects. In these areas, Ms. Halpern argues, girls need to be able to say, "Someone like me can do this." Where better for a girl to learn this lesson than in an environment where every team captain is a girl, every student council president is a girl and every strong math and science student is a girl? Where her robotics adviser is a woman Ph.D. and her advanced placement calculus course is taught by a woman who has dedicated her life to the education of young girls. A single-gender environment provides exactly the solution which Ms. Halpern so insightfully recommends.

Finally, the Science article's conclusion that all gender-grouping scenarios lead to negative stereotyping is entirely objectionable. The "evidence" cited is based on a paper written by a graduate student who observed a group of preschoolers at her mother's day care center over a two-week period. Generalizing from this narrow study that intergroup bias "has been shown explicitly for gender within coeducational classes" is contemptible.

Authentic scholarly research findings point to a much different conclusion. The Economic and Social Research Institute published a report in 2010 based on a review of nearly 100 scholarly works on single-sex and coeducation which concluded that "attitudes to subject areas may become more gender-stereotyped in a coeducational setting." That's no surprise since single-gender classrooms are intentionally designed to break down gender stereotypes. Talk to our students and our graduates and they'll tell you about the value of learning in an environment where competitive and collaborative spirits are unleashed in the absence of gender-based expectations.

We are not arguing that single-gender education is the right choice for every child. But we know that this type of schooling affords a better educational experience for many girls and boys.


Chris Brueningsen is headmaster of The Kiski School, a boys school in Saltsburg ( www.kiski.org ). Randie Benedict is head of school at The Ellis School, a girls school in Shadyside ( www.theellisschool.org ).


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