Williams Jan 25, 5: Los Angeles Times In her first days on the job, L. Unified's new Superintendent Michelle King suggested that single-sex education might attract more families to the district and improve student achievement. She wouldn't be the first district leader to vest hope — not to mention public funds — in all-boys and all-girls schools. The notion of boys' and girls' schools conjures rosy images of elite private institutions, but the history of single-sex education in the United States is rife with misguided prejudice.
In the s, retired Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke ignited popular interest in single-sex education — by arguing that exposing adolescent girls to the rigors of a standard education would cause their reproductive organs to wither.
In the s, after racial segregation was declared unconstitutional, sex-segregated public schools were created across the South to keep boys and girls of different racial backgrounds apart. Yes, there are some terrific boys-only and girls-only public schools out there. But are they great schools because they are single-sex? Hilary Clinton co-sponsored a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that provided federal funds to fledgling single-sex public schools, spurring local school districts across the country to experiment with sex segregation.
A few years later, however, a government-commissioned study noted a lack evidence proving that single-sex education improved student performance. The Bush administration decided to press forward anyway, and in issued guidelines signaling it wouldn't go after single-sex public schools for violating laws against sex discrimination in education.
Today, there are nearly 80 single-sex public schools in the U. Hundreds more schools separate boys and girls during academic instruction, though the campuses are technically coed. So, how's it going? Supporters point to a few carefully chosen examples to prove single-sex education raises test scores and boosts students' confidence. But the larger story is the overwhelming number of single-sex public school programs that haven't produced any positive results.
Allison published a meta-analysis of existing studies on single-sex instruction. Their exhaustive review found no significant advantage, for boys or girls, over coeducation. The evidence suggests not.
Research shows that successful schools do certain things — such as creating strong mentoring relationships and keeping class sizes to a manageable level — that benefit students whether boys and girls learn together or apart.
Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that single-sex education can do real harm by perpetuating limiting gender stereotypes. In single-sex schools across the country, girls' classrooms are decorated in pastels while boys are surrounded by bold colors; girls are assigned to read romantic fiction, while boys are given non-fiction books; boys are subjected to frequent drills and timed tests, while girls are assigned group work and non-competitive activities — and on and on.
Advertisement These "gender-sensitive" teaching methods sometimes are dressed up in the legitimating jargon of neuroscience, but the popular notion that boys and girls are "hard-wired" to learn differently rests on gross generalizations about sex differences in the brain. Today, much of the so-called "science" of sex difference has been debunked, but that hasn't kept public schools from modeling programs on bogus theories.
As a result, boys are being deprived of the opportunity to develop crucial social skills, such as working collaboratively and thinking creatively, while girls are being denied the opportunity to build test-taking skills and learn how to succeed under pressure. Past mistakes don't prove that single-sex schools can never work in public education in the future.
But unless LAUSD takes a critical look at the facts and research on single-sex education, it hardly can be expected to do any better moving forward.