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Room for debate: Can single-sex education be better for girls?

<This is a guest post by Katie Rogers, a feminist writer and production editor for reports, books, and web materials grounded in education research.> 

Lately, two main philosophies are leading the conversation about single-sex education. Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education (NASSPE), represents the first. He says there are “hard-wired differences in the ways girls and boys learn”—differences based in the brain—and that teachers must leverage these differences to reach their kids. “When it comes to learning geometry,” writes Sax, “the brain of the average 12-year-old girl resembles the brain of the average 8-year-old boy. When it comes to writing poetry, the brain of the average 12-year-old boy resembles the brain of the average 8-year-old girl.” Boys require lots of movement and noise in school, because supposedly, it is in their nature to learn this way. Girls-only classrooms, on the other hand, must be silent, nurturing, and still, because “most girls learn best in a quiet classroom, free of distractions.”

Dubious assertions like these have provoked skepticism and outrage. They prompted the ACLU to petition against single-sex education and feminists to label the practice “very 1800’s” and “scary.” Science Magazine adds that the NASSPE’s claims are based on “obscure” and “isolated” findings that have long been debunked by neuroscientists.

But while these outrageous, essentialist arguments for single-sex education probably garner more clicks for news outlets and serve as easy-to-discredit fodder for neuroscientists, they may not deserve the microphone they are given. They don’t represent the best that single-sex education has to offer, and they certainly don’t reflect the merits of the 2006 amendment to Title IX, which allowed single-sex classrooms in public schools.

Not all single-sex schools are founded on this Men Are From Mars premise. Single-sex education can truly benefit students, not for neurological reasons, but for social ones: Boys and girls face different social experiences and therefore, have different social needs.

Indeed, social scripts that dictate what it means to be feminine still hinder women’s success. Women do earn about 60 percent of college degrees today, but most are in traditionally “feminine” disciplines, such as education and English, as opposed to fields like engineering, which are still dominated by men. These “female-oriented” jobs systematically pay less than “male” jobs. Since 1985, the number of degrees earned by women in the computer and information sciences has actually fallen from 37 to 18 percent, and research from Yale shows that bias against women in science is not yet a thing of the past.

Similar issues abound in K–12 education. A large body of research shows that schools “shortchange” girls—“teachers give more classroom attention and more esteem-building encouragement to boys.” In Failing at Fairness, Myra and David Sadker show that teachers more often allow boys to shout out answers in class, but admonish girls for exhibiting the same behaviors.

Enter single-sex education advocate Elizabeth Wolfson, Head of School for Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS), Denver’s first all-girls public school. GALS serves students in grades 6–8, and its focus on health, wellness, and athletics combats myths about girls learning in quiet, stationary environments. GALS girls exercise rigorously every day. They run miles, compete in the annual “Galympics,” and take brain breaks in the middle of lessons to perform short workout routines. Teachers are required to incorporate movement into lessons, and the dress code is tennis shoes and workout clothes—every day.

GALS also promotes a culture of empowerment. Students learn to speak out as they critique the gender inequality at play in their world.  They unpack the damaging body restrictions that society disproportionately places on women and push themselves to succeed through the school’s focus on individual growth. Take running, for instance. Rather than set every student’s bar for success at a ten-minute mile, GALS teachers celebrate improvement. Progressing from a fourteen-minute mile to a twelve is just as impressive as progressing from a nine-minute mile to an eight. As Wolfson said at last year’s TEDxMileHigh conference, “If you have a body, then you are an athlete.”

Liz Wolfson, Founder of GALS, at TEDxMileHigh

This growth mindset has translated to academic success. In the 2012–2013 academic year, results from the TCAP state assessment revealed that GALS students had the 10th highest overall academic growth in Denver Public Schools, which is projected to be the largest district in the state. They also had the 7th highest growth scores in math, a subject area traditionally dominated by male students. And herein lies the beauty of a school like this: In a GALS classroom, the highest scorer on a math test will always be a girl. The top athletes and the best debaters and the best artists are always girls.

Certainly, single-sex education is not a panacea for education reform. Research consistently shows aside from good teaching, no silver bullet exists. But girls of all backgrounds deserve a learning environment where they feel safe and confident enough to challenge norms about what women can and cannot do. They deserve a feminist mantra like the one GALS offers—“I know who I am, I know that I matter, and I know what matters to me”—and they deserve it in public schools, where it can be available to all. Our daughters and sisters may not biologically require single-sex schooling, but they deserve an opportunity, at least, to choose it.

For that matter, so do boys: Sociologists have shown that culturally-constructed constructs of masculinity and femininity oppress boys, too. Once again, single-sex education has shown meaningful benefits. For instance, boys in same-sex schools are twice as likely to pursue art, music, drama, and foreign language studies.

From birth, American children are doused in the narrative that gender traits and roles are biologically-ordained, that men are callous and women insensitive, that men should be active and women inert, that boys will be boys and girls are better seen than heard.

What do you think: are single-sex schools like GALS part of the education solution?

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