What about single-gender schools?

Recently, I responded via blog to the question posed in The Atlantic regarding the value of private schools. I concluded that independent schools, a subset of private schools that serve “purely academic purposes,” are indeed worth it because they help children become better people as well as great scholars.

What about another subset of private schools, single-gender schools like Seattle Girls’ School? A national poll I ran across a few years ago reported that over 60% of families polled thought a single-gender option was actually harmful for their daughter. As a middle-level educator who has come to fully embrace this single-gender model, this finding startled me, so I looked into where these misperceptions might originate. It turns out that it is a model that is critiqued from both ends of the political spectrum. Back in 2004, I found myself debating with the National Organization for Women (NOW) on public radio over the question of making it easier for public schools to establish single-sex classrooms and schools.

So what myths did I come across, and what is the current thinking and research regarding these myths?

“Girl in the Bubble” Myth

This myth surfaces every admissions season with the very common question, “How will my daughter be prepared to deal with boys?” I am always surprised that in today’s 24-7 connected world, we think that boys and men will somehow be excluded from the life of a girl at a single-gender school. At SGS, we pride ourselves on educating male allies – myself included – to play meaningful and empowering roles in the lives of our students. Furthermore, the all-girl environment plays a defining role in helping each girl find her voice, fully collaborate on projects, and excel in academics that prepare her for a purposeful life. A self-actualized young woman, with her hallmark confidence and sense of self, is more than prepared to deal with boys and girls.

“The Mean Girl” Myth

Contrary to public opinion and media portrayals, relational aggression and bullying are actually LESS likely to happen in a single-gender environment. It turns out that much of the “drama” that is glamourized in movies and TV often has a boy or two at its center. Subtracting boys actually adds opportunity. At a girls’ school, a girl occupies every part in the play, every student government office, every position on every team. She has many avenues for self-exploration and so many peer role models that she can admire and emulate rather than compete with and dislike.

“The Girls Schools Can’t be Good at STE(A)M” Myth

Did you know that the National Coalition of Girls Schools (NCGS) was founded in 1991 in part because we needed national advocacy for the outstanding, but generally unrecognized, work happening in science and mathematics education in our schools? In an all-girls’ school, classroom dynamics shift, particularly when it comes to STE(A)M. Alumnae report that teachers demanded work that met the highest standards, but also encouraged students to explore areas like science, math, and technology, areas where many young women have been “taught” not to venture. When rating their computer skills, 36% of graduates of independent girls’ schools consider themselves strong students, compared to 26% of their co-ed peers. Forty-eight percent of girls’ school alumnae rate themselves great at math versus 37% for girls in co-ed schools. Three times as many alumnae of single-sex schools plan to become engineers.

Ultimately, it turns out that girls’ school grads have a significant advantage. Why?

  1. 1. Girls’ schools foster a culture of achievement.
  2. 2. Classroom time is spent learning.
  3. 3. The school is centered on what is good for girls as well as what the research tells us about developing resilient and confident young women.
  4. 4. Strong female mentors and positive role models + reduced sex stereotyping in curriculum and classroom + abundant learning opportunities = clear and compelling outcomes.
  5. 5. The Case for Single-Sex Schools, A national study of secondary schools and colleges, showed that single-sex schools for females provide greater opportunity for educational attainment as measured by standardized cognitive tests, curriculum and course placement, leadership behavior, number of years of formal education, and occupational achievement.

There is so much more to learn about all-girls’ education. Visit the Seattle Girls’ School website for links to more resources.

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