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What Is the One Overlooked Advantage of All-Girls Schools?

Research shows that girls attending all-girls schools excel in many ways.

I write this post as a former teacher in both single-sex and co-educational settings, as a sociologist, and as an alumna of Louise S. McGehee School, an all-girls school in New Orleans. First, let’s see what the research tells us about the school situation related to gender:

  • Girls exposed to high-achieving boys in the classroom are apt to set their educational goals lower and to lack confidence in their own abilities than girls not so exposed;
  • Girls in classrooms with high-achieving females are more likely to pursue ambitious educational goals even when of average ability themselves;
  • Greater exposure to high-achieving boys in high school negatively impacts girls’ science and math grades, according to recent findings from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Teachers are shown to be more attentive to boys than girls in the classroom and to call on boys more often than girls;
  • In general, teachers interact with boys more often than with girls by a margin of 10 to 30 percent, depending on the grade level of the students and the personality of the teacher;
  • Teachers’ bias toward boys is especially apparent in science and math classes;
  • When children learn with single-gender peers, they are more likely to attend to their studies, speak more openly in the classroom, and feel more encouraged to pursue their interests and achieve their fullest potential;
  • Girls in same-sex schools are more apt to excel athletically and to have opportunities for school leadership roles;
  • Both boys and girls thrive in educationally challenging classes and in classes of small size in which they receive a lot of individual attention
  • On the other side of the argument, an advantage of co-ed schools is that boys and girls can relate to each other as equals and become comfortable in each other’s presence.

This is what the research shows. But what I have discovered simply from follow-up with former classmates (class of 1962 and their sisters) is possibly more significant and, as yet, totally unrecognized concerning the value of same-sex schools for girls. This value is long-term and enduring.

To provide some background, my class of 1962 was considered problematic, especially during my early-teen years. As one teacher later said, “The leadership was mostly negative.” For me personally, a very shy and immature student, the teasing was so out of hand that I sadly chose to leave.* I mention this because it makes my conclusion about the benefits of having girls in schools without boys even more meaningful. Also, I can compare my experiences in a single-sex and co-educational high school.

Fifty years later and I have reconnected with McGehee girls who I was friends with during the earlier pre-puberty years. All of them, from what I can tell, have turned out to be kind, thoughtful adults, serving society professionally and through their families.*

Through social media, I am in touch with graduates of both schools that I attended. The differences are profound. While my classmates from the co-ed (also a small private school) have friendly but fleeting encounters with each other, often across gender lines, the McGehee alumnae are bonded in very deep and meaningful ways. This seems to be the case, according to reports, for the classes of the girls’ older sisters as well. If I lived in New Orleans, I would have a support system ready-made. As in the song we sang in assembly: “We are McGehee girls with spirit true, and we’ll go forward in all we do…for McGehee’s we’ll always honor you; we’ll preserve, protect, and defend you.”

Yes, when girls go to a single-sex school, they emotionally invest in relationships with each other. In contrast, when they attend a mixed-sex school, they put a lot of this energy into cross-gender relationships and dating. These boy-girl friendships most often get defused later in life for obvious reasons. The girl friendships that achieved an intensity in the all-girls school, on the other hand, can only grow stronger over the years.

It took me years to work all of this out, to discover why a school designed by women and devoted exclusively to girls and young women is so special. The beauty of McGehee’s and other small girls’ schools is that the loyalties and ties are deep and long-lasting, in fact, lifelong. And in today’s fast-paced, high-pressured world, such close friendships are everything.


*Today’s McGehee’s, like other modern schools, is expertly prepared to deal with these sorts of scapegoating situations through anti-bullying programming and psychologists and/or social workers on the staff.

More from Katherine S. van Wormer M.S.S.W., Ph.D.
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More from Katherine S. van Wormer M.S.S.W., Ph.D.
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