The USA is #36 and it may not matter!

Last week, The Atlantic followed up its provocative question back in the fall, “Are Private Schools Worth it?” (my response here) with “The Never-Ending Controversy Over All-Girls Education.” At the risk of beating a dead horse, I am going to wade right back into the ongoing blogging barrage regarding the efficacy of educational models, which ones work and which ones don’t work. Where is the scientific research? Which educational frameworks are backed-up pedagogically and which are backed by political or cultural battles that seem to rely on proving or disproving the efficacy of various types of schools? The list seems infinite for the US educational consumer -private schools, single-gender education, high-tech, high-touch, Waldorf, Montessori, religious, progressive, traditional, etc.

Beyond our own borders, we are told that our schools and our children are falling behind other nations based on international comparisons such as the 2012 PISA. Here Shanghai-China tops the rankings with the USA sitting just below the Slovak Republic at #36. Oddly, 85% of Chinese millionaires plan to send their children abroad for education. For billionaires, the figure is 90%.

In my birth nation of Cuba, there is only one choice. School attendance is compulsory from ages 6 to 16 and all students, regardless of age or sex, wear school uniforms with the color denoting grade level. The curriculum is based upon principles of “hard work, self-discipline and love of country.” The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and Cuban revolutionary history. At the end of basic secondary education, pupils are sorted into pre-university education and non-university education where they are further sorted into “skilled workers” and “middle-level technicians.” Cuba chooses not to participate in international comparison tests like PISA.

So we debate our “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to education choices that allow for matching the child with the educational environment that best promotes confidence, competence, joy, and the development of a democratic citizen. I would suggest that the debate is counterproductive. Why do we not celebrate that our educational landscape – critiqued at home and studied and emulated abroad – includes such diversity?

As the Head of a girls’ school, I go back to the very basic premise: Single gender education is a choice, and it’s a valid one for those families making it. Girls’ schools are not about protection from boys, they are about the freedom to be you. Dr. Linda Sax of UCLA has conducted rigorous research which acknowledges that methodology is the key challenge to “proving” that single-gender schools make a difference. She emphasizes that they may very well make a difference where the difference is most needed. Yes, STEM is one area where intervention is still needed! The number of female engineers has increased from 5.8% in the early 1980s to 14% of engineers today. This is not a success story. However, STEM might be too narrow a lens. What about the resonance between confidence and competence that seems to be at the heart of this and other significant gender disparities? When asked if society’s male-dominated power structure needs to be balanced before the gender gap in education is bridged, Dr. Sax responds, “I would probably turn that question around and say that by addressing the persistent gender gaps in education, we are better-positioned to achieve gender balance in the power structure.” More from Dr. Linda Sax here.

So I think that I will now officially exit the debate over rankings and what “works” and return to the daily experience of Seattle Girls’ School that provides for me the ultimate proof points directly from our alumnae as well as the young woman recently quoted in the same Atlantic article, “Until you experience a single-sex classroom, it is hard to understand how beneficial it is.”


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