Study Suggests Same-Sex Schools Result in "Collateral Damage" – A Teacher's Response

Guest Blogger – Rosetta Lee, SGS Teacher and national presenter on issues that impact girls

I AM in hearty agreement with the authors that gendered classrooms where teachers in a warm room speak softly to girls and teach fashion IS a horrible idea. I do also agree that teaching a monolithic pedagogy of only group work is not good for girls as they enter coed high schools, colleges, and work places. Finally, I do agree that many of the “achievements” of single gender graduates may be more due to unrelated factors like socio-economics or intelligence.

HOWEVER, this study makes me wonder about certain things:

-The strong data they have is that there is no strong data. There are indeed no definitive studies that point to statistically significant evidence of the success of singe sex schools. Much of the data around single sex schools is ambiguous indeed. I imagine this is inevitable, as most studies look at the average of ALL types of single sex schools, and not all schools approach single sex education the same way. I wonder what we would find comparing methodologies BETWEEN single gender schools as well as in comparison to coed schools. No matter what, though, there is also NO empirical evidence that single sex schools are harmful. This proposition is supported by more speculative data. Interestingly, after such a strong call for blind, controlled studies to assess, they use proxy research to support their conclusions on harmfulness.

-In the academic achievement section, much of the “benefits” they were looking for were in test scores. It is true that this is a measure that is very easy to compare between schools, but they do not describe qualitative factors like self esteem, body image, self advocacy, ambition, and more.

-In the brain research, I agree that there is way too much emphasis on “brain sex differences”, and that many of these differences that appear in adults are less significant in children. Again, no controlled studies tell us for sure that socialization increases these brain differences, but we do know for sure that experience hard-wires differences between brains. When we teach girls only in the ways girls learn and boys only in the ways boys learn as IMPLIED by brain research, we solidify the socialization that may exaggerate these differences. And for the “20-percenters” who do not fall within sex norms, this approach is downright awful. However, can a single sex environment use this information as inspiration and impetus to make sure kids are challenged in learning methodologies that are NOT biologically preferred? As JoAnn Deak advocates, should we know what the “small rubber bands and big rubber bands are so we can make sure to stretch the short ones a lot more than the big ones?” For example, I insist on incorporating more spatial tasks in my class to ensure that girls get experience in this realm (and help them rewire their brains for such tasks) because research implies that adult female brains are less developed in this area. Sure, I pay attention to the importance of collaboration and relationship with many girls to increase my chances of “reaching” as many girls as possible, but I certainly don’t use this as an Idiot’s Guide to Teaching Girls! I think you would find the outcomes and evidence very different in girls who have experienced the former “this is the way girls learn so we will design all of our classes to cater to that” versus girls who experience the latter “this is the way girls learn so we will design intentional learning experiences that challenge their norm”.

-In the section about reinforcing sexism, again, the type of environment is not fully expanded upon. It IS true that, in mixed environments, the more grouping there is, the more there exists the possibility of reinforcing stereotype and inter-group biases. What the research actually says is that the more heterogeneous a group (and the more individualism is a core value), the more segregation and “in-group-ism” there is. Without meaningful mixing and positive interaction, the segregation DOES aggravate differences (yes, boys who hang out with more boys in a coed environment become more aggressive and girls who hang out with more girls in a coed school become more sex-typed). BUT the research has been a comparison of already mixed groups – ranging from mostly homogeneous to mostly heterogeneous. I have not encountered research that looks at how true homogeneity (i.e. single sex schools) affects in-group stereotypes and inter-group bias. Sure, the authors describe all-Black or all-Latino schools promoting prejudice and inequality, but I’ve always wondered who funded these schools, who works at them, who attends them, and do they do explicit race work around systemic oppression, stereotype threat, and empowerment strategies? In other words, are they brought together in a powerfully Eurocentric system and then expected to simply not experience the systemic injustices because they don’t have white classmates?

I was reading Redirect recently that talked about how intervention strategies to sway kids away from a life of crime, drug use, or teen pregnancy that brought together high risk kids had no effect because the kids reinforced the normalcy of the negative behaviors and, perhaps, re-wrote their self-construal to “maybe I AM criminal, less able to handle pressures to use drugs, or get pregnant early”. BUT the approach is inherently “there is something lacking in you and we need to fix it”. What about an approach that says “people will say something is lacking in you, and we know that’s not true, so here’s what you can do about it”? I look at models of “positive segregation”. Affinity groups, for example, engender pride (not chauvinism) and teach leadership and advocacy. This separation actually allows young people to thrive in ways that they would not otherwise and actually increases the investment and engagement of students of color in mixed-race settings. It seems to me that the authors hand pick research in certain settings and draw expansive conclusions on different circumstances. And again, looking at single sex schools, I think you would find different outcomes in schools that teach from a patriarchal perspective versus an equity and justice perspective – whether they try to create “well-mannered young ladies that do what they’re supposed to” or try to create “empowered learners, citizens, and women who recognize injustice and try to change for the better their own circumstances and world beyond”.

-Finally, the article is written very much to try to sway public policy. I actually DO agree with the authors that we need to spend more public funds and time on meaningful teacher training and on meaningful integrative practices and NOT not on teaching pseudoscience elements of “gender learning differences” or organizing single gender subject classes. I would really love it if ALL teachers knew how to recognize and combat gender bias in the classroom, if they could develop classroom and pedagogical practices that ensure boys don’t always “lead and do” while the girls “watch and write about it”, if they knew how to teach every subject in a multitude of learning modes so that children can always have opportunities to experience ease and comfort AND challenge and discomfort. And I would also love schools to teach all children to combat the influence of a society that bombards them with gendered messages in their every waking moment. However, I know that this hasn’t happened, and it will be a long time before we can get to this ideal. So in the meantime, I am a firm believer in the availability of the RIGHT KIND of single sex school environment like SGS. I wish the authors had made a stronger case for improving public schools for all kids, boys and girls, without bashing the single sex model to support their case.

-To tell you the truth, the actu
al Science article, as you can see, doesn’t make its claims very strongly. Scientists are notorious for saying “we don’t know for SURE but the corollary evidence we do have suggest something”. Of course, this doesn’t make very good headlines in the mainstream media. The New York Times, unfortunately, has spun a “strong hunch based on a certain collection of various valid studies” article stating misgivings about single sex schools into “proof undeniable” that single sex schools are bad. I hope that not too many folks take the editorializing as fact and throw away the baby with the bath water.

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