Are Girls’ Schools Based on Pseudoscience?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 31 2011 12:39 PM

The Feminist Case Against Single-Sex Schools

No, the studies don’t show that girls’ schools are better for girls. But they’re sure great at perpetuating sexist attitudes.

School girls.
An overwhelming body of research shows that coeducation is better for girls and boys.

Photograph by Ableimages/Thinkstock.

Feminists tend to be of two minds about single-sex schooling. One group thinks single-sex classes are wonderful (for girls) because they provide a protected environment in which girls can learn without playing dumb to attract boys, focusing on their appearance, being distracted by (hetero)sexual attraction to classmates, dealing with male classmates’ sexist behavior, or competing with males for leadership opportunities. (This camp tends to be more ambivalent about single-sex schooling for boys, given that elite all-male academies were formerly bastions of privilege.) Such advocates rattle off an impressive list of female leaders, including Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, who attended all-female high schools or colleges.

Another group of feminists views single-sex environments as harmful because they provide an artificial world in which gender differences are reified as legitimate bases for disparate treatment, and males and females are both left unprepared to negotiate egalitarian relationships. This group points to the impressive educational gains made by women since the 1972 passage of Title IX, which outlawed sex discrimination in federally funded schools. As proof of coeducational schooling’s merits, they note that women have since advanced to the point where they now make up 57 percent of college students, 44 percent of college math majors, and 47 percent of medical students, among many other accomplishments.

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Together with six co-authors, we recently published a peer-reviewed article in the journal Science,The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Education,” in which we align ourselves with the latter group of feminists. It’s a provocative title, but our paper supported it with three lines of evidence. Now, our challenge is to persuade the first group of feminists that the very existence of segregated academies reinforces cultural attitudes about gender differences and abilities. But before we get to that part of the case, let’s look at the three lines of research we reviewed for Science.

First, decades of research on academic outcomes from around the world has failed to demonstrate an advantage to single-sex schooling, in spite of popular belief to the contrary. Of course, there are some terrific single-sex schools out there. However, research finds that their success is not explained by gender composition, but by the characteristics of the entering students (such as economic background), by selection effects (for example, low performing students are not admitted, or are asked to leave), and by the substantial extra resources and mentoring these programs provide. When researchers control for these factors, the advantages of single-sex schooling disappear. (And in the case of boys, the research looks even more favorable for coeducation—interesting, given how much the current surge of interest in single-sex programs is directed at them.)

The second line of evidence stems from neuroscience. It has become common lore among parents and teachers that gender differences in brain function mean “boys and girls learn differently.” However, the bulk of scientific evidence demonstrates nothing of the sort. Thousands of studies comparing brain and behavioral function between adult men and women have found small to insignificant differences, and even smaller differences between boys and girls.

This is important, because much of the new single-gender K-12 pedagogy is based precisely on the idea that girls and boys need different—and often highly gender-stereotypic—learning environments to thrive. News reports describe girls’ classrooms in which the lights are low, the temperature is elevated, students are seated in small, collaborative clusters, and teachers are trained to speak gently and quietly as they conduct lessons involving fashion and wedding planning. Boys’ rooms, in some communities, are brightly lit, with the temperature turned down, the desks removed, and the boys engaged by loud, assertive teachers who keep them running relays and tossing balls during math lessons. Even preschools have followed the trend. And in spite of many feminists’ belief that single-sex instruction counters it, such sexism still lurks at all-girls’ schools, albeit in a more subtle and therefore pernicious form, according to University of Michigan professor of education Valerie Lee and her colleagues. (Such sexism was also apparent in California in the late-1990s, when a state-sponsored experimental single-sex program failed: Five of its six academies closed within three years, with researchers finding that teachers in single-sex classrooms tended to reinforce, rather than break down, traditional gender stereotypes.)    

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