Does single-sex education breed sexism?

A Science article argues gender-segregated classrooms reinforce stereotypes. We examine the evidence

Published October 19, 2011 11:01AM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

A gaggle of social scientists has no doubt about single-sex schooling: It reinforces gender stereotypes, legitimizes institutional sexism, and evidence of its supposed academic achievements is weak, cherry-picked or misconstrued. A new report published in Science Magazine launches an attack on sex-segregated classrooms, which critics say undermine a core value of public education by reducing "boys' and girls' opportunities to work together in a supervised, purposeful environment."

AlterNet"The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling" lands as single-sex classrooms are mushrooming in public schools across the nation. The report claims "teachers make children's sex salient" through segregation, which "exaggerates sex-typed behaviors and attitudes," while disputing that "single-sex classrooms CAN break down gender stereotypes," as National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE) argues. NASSPE claims that because single-sex education dissolves narrow cultural assumptions about what is appropriate for boys and girls, students flourish academically in the segregated classroom.

The report is likely to spark another round of debate bringing opponents and advocates back on the barricades in a battle that has raised heart rates for years.

After decades of decline, single-sex schooling has recently experienced revival. In 2006 the U.S. Educational Department reinterpreted Title IX of the U.S. Educational Amendment, which since 1972 had outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex from federal funded educational programs, and an estimated 509 public schools opened their doors to sex-segregated classrooms this summer, compared to only a dozen in 2002. NASSPE predicts many more in the pipeline.

To the eight authors of the report, professors in social sciences and founders of the nonprofit American Council for CoEducational Schooling, the development is alarming: "Beyond fostering academic skills, public education has many goals, including preparing children for mixed-sex workplaces, families, and citizenry." Sex-segregated classrooms cripple such abilities, they say; a point that, according to the report, is driven home by a UK study showing that men in their early 40s are more likely to be divorced if they attended single-sex schooling.

Thus, the report issues a warning: "The choice to fight sexism by changing coeducational practices or segregating by gender has parallels to the fight against racism." Research shows that when environments segregate along characteristics like gender or eye color, children infer that the groups differ in important ways and develop biases. "The preponderance of social science data indicates that racially segregated schools promote racial prejudice and inequality," even if it eliminates daily racial discrimination, argues the report, depicting single-sex education as a band-aid covering the wound of sexism while bacteria thrives beneath.

In the other camp, NASSPE maintains that sexist culture prevails in coed classrooms, pushing boys and girls into blue and pink cubbyholes. The association pulls out another UK study, showing that boys in coed schools prefer gender typical subjects such as math and science, whereas boys at single-sex schools were just as interested in drama, biology and languages. With students open to exploring different fields, the academic environment in single-sex schools is fertile and the yield is higher test scores, argues the association.

The new report does not buy into that argument. "Novelty-based enthusiasm, sample bias, and anecdotes account for much of the glowing characterization of SS [single-sex] education in the media," and "apparent advantages dissolve when outcomes are corrected for preexisting differences." The report concludes that "there is no empirical evidence that their success stems from their SS organization, as opposed to the quality of the student body, demanding curricula, and many other features also known to promote achievement at coeducational schools."

It looks as if this protracted debate is entering another phase, advocates and opponents throwing "scientific evidence" at each other, while accusations of discriminations roar from either side. Meanwhile, the camp of separationists is split down the middle; one faction believing that education should match gender specific experimental differences in a sexist world, another playing the brain card, arguing that boys and girls learn differently because of hard-wired neurological differences. The new report launches an attack on both "cultural" and "natural" arguments.

The first female academies sprung up in the early 1800s and with the early generation of educated women sprouting from the fertile soil of all-girls schools, single-sex education became an initial trope for feminists and social advocates featuring the social deterministic fraction. As women started to get their feet in the doors of coed schools -- which by 1910 counted 58 percent of the nations' 1,083 colleges -- the movement for all-girls schools lost broad momentum and narrowed to a dozen elite colleges led by the Seven Sisters, including Barnard, Wellesley and Vassar.

After years of dead water, the 1990s brought resurgence to single-sex schooling as coed classrooms were accused of creating roadblocks for girls to move ahead. In "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," the American Association of University Women showed a sharp drop of self-esteem among pre-adolescent and adolescent American girls and linked it to their experiences in the coed classroom. The Atlantic refers to the executive summary that cited "gender bias as a major problem at all levels of schooling," and claimed that girls were plagued by sexist teachers who paid more attention to boys, causing the girls to fall behind their male peers.

The report sparked a renaissance for single-sex education, soon spreading to public education. In 1996 the Young Women’s Leadership School (TYWLS) of East Harlem opened its doors to the first all-girls public school in 30 years. Occupying the top five floors of a commercial building, the school is in a neighborhood of Harlem that New York Times reporter Elisabeth Weil describes as a part of the hood where the girls "walk home so quickly that they often breeze by their own mothers before registering whom they’ve passed." Supporters of the East Harlem School cast the debate as a class struggle, asserting that it provides low-income families with the option of single-sex education that has always existed for the upper classes.

Parents’ most pressing concern choosing TYWLS is sheltering their daughters from sexualized classrooms and sexualized streets. Drew Higginbotham, assistant principal, explains to the New York Times: "Harlem’s a very intense environment. You’re constantly needing to prove yourself physically, to prove yourself sexually. Parents, when they come to our school, they sort of exhale deeply. You can hear them thinking to themselves, I can see my daughter here and she’s going to be O.K. for six hours a day."

And the daughters seem to be in safe hands. Since the school opened, every student has graduated and been accepted to a four-year college. Albeliza Perez, 12, was among the first batch to leave the sheltered classroom. She explained to the New York Times how academic achievements blossom in segregated classrooms: "You feel uncomfortable sometimes around boys. You feel like you have to look nice for them. I don't want to go to school to be a model. I want to go to school to learn."

Beyond impressive test scores, advocates say all-girls schools foster a spine for leadership. Emily Wylie, teacher at TYWLS explains, "It’s my subversive mission to create all these strong girls who will then go out into the world and be astonished when people try to oppress them."

Selena Rezvani, author of "The Next Generation of Women Leaders," argues in the Washington Post that the most valuable lesson taught in all-girls schools is one of self-agency. In coed classrooms girls learn their locus of control sits outside of themselves and their happiness depends on the prince on his horse who will come to their rescue: "Consider the commonalities in stories like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. You'll find that all of these stories depict women facing dire straits from which they can't save themselves. Men dash in, rescuing these women from harm, which is the key to the women's lives moving happily forward," writes Rezvani.

The authors of "The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Education" reject the argument that separation shatters sexism. In fact stereotypes are magnified "because the contrast between the segregated classroom and the mixed-sex structure of the surrounding world provides evidence to children that sex is a core human characteristic along which adults organize education." The outcome, the authors warn, is that "boys become increasingly aggressive" and "girls become more sex-typed."

Valerie Lee, professor of education at the University of Michigan and a leading expert in the field, supports the argument. Her findings, cited in the Atlantic, suggest that sexism prevails in all settings, but has different faces. It is most severe in all-boys classrooms, and in coed schools it is especially obvious in chemistry classes. And girls' schools "perpetuated a pernicious form of sexism: academic dependence and nonrigorous instruction," where, during chemistry for example, "undue attention was paid to neatness and cleanliness as well as to drawing parallels between domesticity and chemistry activities."

On that note it may be questionable whether stereotypes fade in schools like TYWLS, where many of the walls are painted pink, and they meet resistance from within the single-sex advocates’ camp as well. Dr. Leonard Sax, founder of NASSPE and the author of Why Gender Matters, calls schools of its ilk "anachronisms" -- because, he says, they’re stuck in 1970s-era feminist ideology and they don’t base their pedagogy on the latest research.

Dr. Sax is the tireless torchbearer for the faction of single-sex proponents who believe boys’ brains are neurologically different than girls’. Boys respond to classroom stress by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which supposedly makes them "thrilled" and "aroused" by loud, energetic teachers. For girls, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, intimidating them, even "to a point of nausea" by a hectic classroom setting. Further, Sax elaborates, boys don’t hear as well as girls and while boys’ visual systems are geared to capture action, girls are better at seeing color and texture. On NASSPE’s Web site, Dr. Sax highlights Foley Intermediate School, in Alabama, as a case where his principles have been successfully integrated. From the New York Times:

"Colby Royster and Michael Peterson, two students in William Bender’s fourth-grade public-school class, informed me that the class corn snake could eat a rat faster than the class boa constrictor. Bender teaches 26 fourth graders, all boys. Down the hall and around the corner, Michelle Gay teaches 26 fourth-grade girls. The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes. The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer."

The school reorganized the classrooms following Dr. Sax’s teachings some years back, hoping to improve test scores. School principal Lee Mansell told the New York Times that "her single-sex classes produce fewer discipline problems, more parental support and better scores in writing, reading and math."

But the new report cracks down on Dr. Sax’s rather radical argument that boys and girls have an essentially different mental setup. He is singled out for using: "obscure and isolated findings about brain maturation, hearing, vision, and temperature sensitivity." The authors acknowledge neurological findings showing bigger volume in boys’ brains and faster maturation in girls, but accuse Dr. Sax for confusing correlation with causation, and insist there is no evidence that these minor differences generate gender-specific styles of learning.

In addition, Dr. Sax drew evidence from studies on adult brains, and the report questions whether these are hard-wired or simply reflect lifelong experimental differences among sexes. If so, Dr. Sax's advice, "that boys should be taught through loud confrontation ('What's your answer, Mr. Jackson? Give it to me!'), whereas, girls should be approached with a gentler touch ('Lisa, sweetie, it's time to open your book.')" looks like a self-fulfilling prophesy. No wonder boys’ ears become less sensitive.

Wrapping up the report, the authors conclude: "There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex (SS) education improves students' academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism." Before weakening the protection against discrimination based on sex fostered by Title IX, and spending resources on training teachers in nonexistent "gender-specific learning styles," policymakers should "heed the scientific evidence."

Sensible as it sounds, it does not offer a solution to shatter prevailing sexual stereotypes in a system that spits out pink girls and blue boys. A gaze across the Atlantic might offer some inspiration as a rather radical project is brewing in Sweden.

Last year a new, tax-funded preschool opened in Stockholm igniting headlines across the globe with its progressive gender politics. Breaking down gender roles is a core mission of the national curriculum in preschools, and newly opened Egalia takes it to another level. "Society expects girls to be girlie, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing," Jenny Johnsson, a 31-year-old teacher at the preschool, told Huffington Post. "Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be."

The preschool staff is dedicated to shattering gender roles in every possible way. Instead of addressing the kids as "han" (he) or "hun" (she) the teachers use the gender neutral "hon" or simply address the kids as "friends." None of the stereotype-breeding Cinderella fairy tales can be found on Egalia’s bookshelf and, interviewed by Hufflington Post, director Lotta Rajalin noted that they place a special emphasis on fostering an environment tolerant of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. She pulled a book from the shelf about two male giraffes that are sad to be childless -- until they come across an abandoned crocodile egg.

Even for progressive Sweden, Egalia is controversial, and whether it offers a solution to sexism in schools is open for debate. Are gay giraffes more efficient eradicators of Cinderella stereotypes than sex-separation? One could argue that at least they foster an expansion rather than a contraction of the horizon, known to cultivate tolerance.

By Ida Hartmann

Ida Hartmann is a student of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley.

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