As someone who feels it was a privilege to have attended an eccentric, all-girls high school in Memphis, Tenn., I am always on the lookout for articles defending same-sex education. Strangely, this time-honored form of educating boys and girls seems to offend a lot people today.
A group of eight activist academics recently contributed an article to Science magazine saying that same-sex education should be banned in public schools. They argued that it leads to “gender stereotyping” and doesn’t improve academic performance.
Christina Hoff Sommers responded this morning in a piece in USA Today. Hoff Sommers says that such a ban would destroy many excellent programs (there are currently about 400 single-sex public schools in the U.S.):
The Irma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School in Dallas, opened in 2004 and enrolls 473 girls in grades 6 through 12. Its success has been dazzling. The school has scored at or near the top of all Dallas public schools on state tests for the past five years. Dallas has opened a comparable academy for young men and has been inundated with applications from hopeful parents.
What do the data say about the pros and cons of single-sex schools? When the Department of Education carried out a systematic review in 2005, it found a muddle of contradictory results. Like much education research (large schools vs. small, charters vs. public), advocates on either side can find vindication if they look hard enough. The Department of Education rightly deemed the research "equivocal" and called for more studies. But it drew no strong conclusions and advised that the matter might never be resolved by quantitative investigation because it involves issues "of philosophy and worldview."
What explains the intolerance of the Science authors? For them, gender segregation is analogous to racial separatism. As the lead author, Diane Halpern, told reporters, "Advocates for single-sex education don't like the parallel with racial segregation, but the parallels are there."
But, of course, the parallels aren't there. Unlike legalized racial segregation, which was destructive and stunting, single-sex schools can give kids a sense of freedom, allowing them to be themselves in a world less affected by social pressures.
But, as Hoff Sommers points out, this freedom to learn in a congenial atmosphere is probably not a matter of great importance to the anti-single-sex education authors:
A clue to their philosophy and worldview is found in one of the author's recent books. In Lise Eliot's Pink Brain, Blue Brain, she acknowledges it will be difficult to "cure children's desire for gender-appropriate toys." Still, she advises parents to urge their sons to "cuddle a doll." Why speak of children's natural preferences needing a "cure?"
Affluent families, which can send their offspring to private schools, won't be affected by a ban on single-sex education.
As usual, it would be the poor who pay the price.