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Single Sex Schools?

Do we need single sex public schools?

This year my research on gender got me invited to speak at the annual conference of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). I had not heard of this organization previously, but I attended with an open mind. I must say it was all rather inspiring.

Nobody there is saying we should require kids to be in same-sex classrooms. They are merely in favor of choice. I also support choice, so this resonated with me.

America's schools have many problems, and there is no one solution. But if there is one suggestion that is likely to yield solutions, it is to allow experiments. Let's have coed schools and single-sex schools and see which works best. Most likely, one will work best for some kids, the other for other kids. In that case, society will function best if we offer both opportunities and let the students choose.

In the opening address, Leonard Sax told the story of a boy whose older sister had been a star student in coed schools but who himself was getting bad grades. In particular, he hated writing assignments and would either do them reluctantly (and poorly) or not at all. His parents tried transferring him to a boys-only school. His first writing assignment was one that probably would never be assigned at a coed school: Imagine you are a gladiator who must go into the arena tomorrow, and write how you would prepare today. The boy's mother found him in his room that night at 10 o'clock, still eagerly writing down ideas. The boy went on to become one of the top writers at the school.

How typical are such cases? In a sense it doesn't matter. It's very possible that some boys will do worse at a boys-only school than at a coed school. But let's offer both options. If one option consistently works best, parents will choose it, and the other will be discarded. More likely, both options will find their market niche, and parents will move their children among them according to which option is best suited to their individual needs and talents.

One theme I heard repeatedly and appreciated was that the differences between boys and girls probably have more to do with motivation than ability. The case for single-sex schools does not depend on believing that boys and girls are naturally talented at different things. My own reading of research on gender suggests that ability differences are in fact generally quite small. (This case has been made in impressive scholarly works by Janet Shibley Hyde and, earlier, by Elizabeth Aries.) But the differences in motivation can often be big.

Effective teaching of children often depends on getting them engaged and excited about learning the material. And for that, the teacher has to work with the children's motivations, including interests and preferences. If those differ by gender, then same-sex classrooms can sometimes be more effective than coed ones.

Look again at the example I quoted from Dr. Sax's talk. It wasn't because of ability that switching schools helped the boy. Motivation was the key. The boys-only school did better for him because it engaged his interests. The teachers at the coed school probably never gave a writing assignment about preparing to fight in the gladiatorial arena. Such an assignment may well be less than suitable for girl students, most of whom are probably not fascinated by thoughts of deadly hand-to-hand combat. If a teacher in a coed school did make such an assignment, he or she would risk being accused of sexism. But the girl-friendly assignments of the coed school did not work so well with this particular boy.

Many boys and girls do fine with coed schools. But some do better in same-sex schools. Society can benefit from choice and diversity. Let's offer both coed and same-sex schools.