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Matthew Lynch, Ed.D. Headshot

Single-Sex Classrooms Making a Comeback for All the Wrong Reasons

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There is a debate about equity in education that extends beyond zip codes, race and socioeconomic status and cuts right to the heart of something predetermined: sex. The controversy over whether or not single-sex schooling models actually make an academic difference is one that has raged for the better half of a century. Early reasons for separating young men and young women in their studies were simple enough - there was a cultural belief that removing the distraction of the opposite sex would lead to greater focus and higher academic gains. As the country moved away from the "separate but equal" mentality in all facets of life, the virtues of single-sex schooling faded too. In some eyes, separating young women and young men was not just pointless but was sexist.

The back-and-forth over single-sex schooling never completely faded from the educational landscape, though, and neither did all-girls or all-boys schools. In recent years, it seems that the argument FOR single-sex schooling is making a comeback for many of the same reasons it was born in the first place. Around 500 public schools in the U.S. now offer some form of all-girls or all-boys schooling, either in entirety or in individual classrooms. It is a fact that young women, even those who show strong propensities toward STEM topics, lose interest in math, science and affiliated fields around middle school. This is also a sensitive age where young women traditionally start to put more stock in what the opposite sex thinks about them. This is enough to make some people like former New York City mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn spearhead campaigns to open public magnet middle schools for girls where they can pursue STEM topics without a loss of self-confidence around men.

But is the loss of interest in traditionally non-glamorous topics like engineering, science and math really related to the presence of the opposite sex? It seems that would be a simple answer but of course, nothing simple can ever be accepted at face value. This idea that young women are dropping non-feminine topics at an impressionable age because of the opposite sex is flawed.

It is possible that outside factors like parental influence weigh on what a young woman pursues as she gets older. This can be a direct effect when a parent steers a child in a certain direction, or it can be the indirect effect of seeing the roles a mother and father play in their own homes. If father is an engineer, and mother is a preschool teacher, it is possible that a young woman will relate more fully to her mother's path, even if she has an interest like dad in engineering topics. A preschool teacher is a noble career, of course, but one that is also dominated by females. In 2011, only 2.3 percent of U.S. preschool teachers were male. In this example case, even a young woman who attends an all-girls STEM school may end up taking the young childhood education path for reasons that have nothing to do with her feelings about the opposite sex.

And what about LGBT students? The number of K-12 students who identify themselves as non-heterosexual in one way or another is rising. One of the arguments for single-sex schooling is that it takes away the tingly, budding attraction emotions in young people but it becomes irrelevant if a student has no interest in the opposite sex anyway.

The American Civil Liberties Union has even come out against single-sex schools, particularly in cases where those schools are public ones, in its "Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes" campaign. The ACLU believes that separating young women and young men is a slippery slope and one that could inadvertently bring unfair outcomes to the students. It seems that there must be a better way to encourage young women, and men, in their academic studies without implementing the archaic practice of total separation in classrooms.

Are you in favor of, or against, single-sex schooling models?