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Single-Sex Schools and Gender Stereotypes

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A tweet from the Unversity of Chicago Urban Education Institute last week pointed me to this Washington Post article, Study: Single-Sex Education May Do More Harm Than Good.

I have always been opposed to single-sex schools myself, even though I have friends who had wonderful experiences in single-sex schools growing up or in college. I have no trouble acknowledging what the study's authors also acknowledge, "excellent" single-sex schools exist.

If this were simply a matter of a small percentage of affluent or religious families choosing private single-sex schools, hopefully with eyes open about the pros and cons, then I might subscribe to a "live and let live" philosophy. However, No Child Left Behind opened the doors for single-sex classes in public education and in the past decade the number of public schools offering single-sex classes has increased dramatically. Yet this study found that there is no evidence that the success of some single-sex schools is a result of being single-sex as opposed to the quality of the program, the student population, or the focus that comes from a unifying philosophy. However, the study did find evidence that sex segregation "increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutionalized sexism."

The idea of public education contributing to and legitimizing gender stereotypes on a broader scale gives me nightmares.

Can you imagine anyone today advocating in earnest for public schools or classrooms to be segregated by race? By sexual orientation? By socio-economic status? Why are we okay with segregating by gender?

The article describes the argument of one single-sex advocate this way.

... boys and girls ... respond to classroom stress differently because of differences in their autonomic nervous systems, which make boys thrilled by loud, energetic or confrontational teachers, such as 'What's your answer, Mr. Jackson? Give it to me!' while girls prefer to be approached by a gentler touch, such as 'Lisa, sweetie, it's time to open your book.'

Interacting with all girls this way reinforces the stereotype that girls are and should be quiet and meek. I was not. The stereotypes reinforced by single-sex schools and classes raise my hackles because I was myself such a counter-stereotypical girl. I had a teacher who treated boys and girls differently using just these types of mannerisms, and to this day I get angry at the memory. To the extent that boys and girls are different, a major reason is because they are treated differently from the beginning. The most important reality to keep in mind is that all girls are different from each other and all boys are different from each other.

That same single-sex advocate is also quoted in the article as saying, "Writing poetry and keeping a journal is something girls do. Boys are going to need something different than what girls need . . . to deconstruct that." His benevolent intention in this instance is to protect boys from cultural stereotypes that he believes would keep them from writing poetry if they were in a co-educational setting. Benevolent intentions can't justify the reinforcement of the very stereotypes he thinks he's deconstructing - that all and only girls write poetry and keep journals. Or the simultaneous message to boys that they are incapable of learning to deal with gender stereotypes in a co-educational setting.

Sometimes the reasons given to support single-sex environment sound more like attempts to simplify the variables for educators and avoid the importance of addressing existing gender stereotypes and social interactions with children. For example, "in a co-ed class boys are called on more often" so segregate the classes to make sure girls are called on. Yet for every problem for which "single-sex" is given as an answer, there is a gender-neutral alternative. In this example, the problem can be addressed instructionally by using random selection strategies to call on students.

Gender stereotypes remain some of the most intractable in our society. We can't afford to have public institutions legitimizing them. Public education should design instruction and school environments based on research about what works and differentiate based on student learning styles and interests, not on outdated gender stereotypes.

Kristin Maschka

KRISTIN MASCHKA is a best-selling author and a consultant in organization development and change leadership. Kristin brings a fresh perspective and authentic voice to the issues at the heart of family and community life today: modern motherhood and fatherhood, public education, community organizations, worklife issues, personal finance and economics, technology and business. This is cross-posted from her blog.