The Feminist Case Against Single-Sex Schools

No, the studies don’t show that girls’ schools are better for girls. But they’re sure great at perpetuating sexist attitudes.

School girls.
An overwhelming body of research shows that coeducation is better for girls and boys.

Photograph by Ableimages/Thinkstock.

Feminists tend to be of two minds about single-sex schooling. One group thinks single-sex classes are wonderful (for girls) because they provide a protected environment in which girls can learn without playing dumb to attract boys, focusing on their appearance, being distracted by (hetero)sexual attraction to classmates, dealing with male classmates’ sexist behavior, or competing with males for leadership opportunities. (This camp tends to be more ambivalent about single-sex schooling for boys, given that elite all-male academies were formerly bastions of privilege.) Such advocates rattle off an impressive list of female leaders, including Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, who attended all-female high schools or colleges.

Another group of feminists views single-sex environments as harmful because they provide an artificial world in which gender differences are reified as legitimate bases for disparate treatment, and males and females are both left unprepared to negotiate egalitarian relationships. This group points to the impressive educational gains made by women since the 1972 passage of Title IX, which outlawed sex discrimination in federally funded schools. As proof of coeducational schooling’s merits, they note that women have since advanced to the point where they now make up 57 percent of college students, 44 percent of college math majors, and 47 percent of medical students, among many other accomplishments.

Together with six co-authors, we recently published a peer-reviewed article in the journal Science,The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Education,” in which we align ourselves with the latter group of feminists. It’s a provocative title, but our paper supported it with three lines of evidence. Now, our challenge is to persuade the first group of feminists that the very existence of segregated academies reinforces cultural attitudes about gender differences and abilities. But before we get to that part of the case, let’s look at the three lines of research we reviewed for Science.

First, decades of research on academic outcomes from around the world has failed to demonstrate an advantage to single-sex schooling, in spite of popular belief to the contrary. Of course, there are some terrific single-sex schools out there. However, research finds that their success is not explained by gender composition, but by the characteristics of the entering students (such as economic background), by selection effects (for example, low performing students are not admitted, or are asked to leave), and by the substantial extra resources and mentoring these programs provide. When researchers control for these factors, the advantages of single-sex schooling disappear. (And in the case of boys, the research looks even more favorable for coeducation—interesting, given how much the current surge of interest in single-sex programs is directed at them.)

The second line of evidence stems from neuroscience. It has become common lore among parents and teachers that gender differences in brain function mean “boys and girls learn differently.” However, the bulk of scientific evidence demonstrates nothing of the sort. Thousands of studies comparing brain and behavioral function between adult men and women have found small to insignificant differences, and even smaller differences between boys and girls.

This is important, because much of the new single-gender K-12 pedagogy is based precisely on the idea that girls and boys need different—and often highly gender-stereotypic—learning environments to thrive. News reports describe girls’ classrooms in which the lights are low, the temperature is elevated, students are seated in small, collaborative clusters, and teachers are trained to speak gently and quietly as they conduct lessons involving fashion and wedding planning. Boys’ rooms, in some communities, are brightly lit, with the temperature turned down, the desks removed, and the boys engaged by loud, assertive teachers who keep them running relays and tossing balls during math lessons. Even preschools have followed the trend. And in spite of many feminists’ belief that single-sex instruction counters it, such sexism still lurks at all-girls’ schools, albeit in a more subtle and therefore pernicious form, according to University of Michigan professor of education Valerie Lee and her colleagues. (Such sexism was also apparent in California in the late-1990s, when a state-sponsored experimental single-sex program failed: Five of its six academies closed within three years, with researchers finding that teachers in single-sex classrooms tended to reinforce, rather than break down, traditional gender stereotypes.)    

Which brings us to the third line of evidence supporting coeducation: research suggesting that single-sex schooling facilitates social stereotypes and prejudice in children. Just as racial segregation enhances racist attitudes among children, gender segregation reinforces sexist attitudes and the view that males and females have categorically different types of intellects. In dozens of studies, we have found that when teachers use group characteristics—whether familiar (“boys and girls”) or arbitrary (T-shirt color)—to label students, children develop stereotypes and biases against the “other” group. By separating the genders into different classrooms, educators lead children to view males and females as deeply different, and reinforce sexism in the culture at large.

On the flip side, other research suggests that coeducation offers boys and girls the chance to learn positive skills from each other. Mixed-sex groupings tend to buffer the bullying that often occurs in same-sex groups of adolescents. Studies of siblings, meanwhile, have found that girls with older brothers tend to be more interested in sports than girls with sisters, whereas boys with twin sisters demonstrate better verbal skills than boys with twin brothers.

Not surprisingly, our Science paper has been triggering some unhappy responses. But one group of critics stands out from our perspective: devoted feminists who believe that single-sex education is uniquely beneficial to girls’ development and who have responded to the article with stories of their own nurturing and empowering experiences at single-sex schools and colleges. We share these feminists’ desire to see every girl and woman respected and supported by her teachers and classroom peers—both as an individual and as a female. We hope to convince these critics of two final points.

First, feminists need to redouble our efforts to require gender egalitarian environments in our coeducational schools. Evidence suggests that even elementary school-age girls can learn to successfully advocate feminist goals and make allies and advocates of male peers. Whereas single-sex schools model the idea that gender exclusion is the answer to sexism, coeducational schools model the notion that the sexes must work together warmly and supportively. By working for these conditions, feminists can do more to support both girls and boys than by advocating single-sex schooling.

Second, feminists who favor girls’ schools have fallen for the myth that parents and educators can reliably identify particular girls who will benefit from an all-girls’ environment. Most proponents of single-sex schooling readily admit that it is not suitable for all, but they nonetheless believe it should be a choice for a minority of girls (and boys). What “type” of girl is that? There are vague suggestions: girls with low self-confidence who won’t compete with boys; girls with strong libidos who are distracted by boys; girls with low body satisfaction who are embarrassed to be near boys; girls who strongly dislike boys. But none of these beliefs is backed by research, and in fact, still other research tells us that the girls who are successful in single-sex settings are the same ones who would be successful in coeducational classrooms.

In any other situation, when schools offer special educational environments, it is because some diagnostic test is used to identify students (those with dyslexia, say) requiring special learning conditions. But in the absence of such measures, the decision to send a girl to an all girls’ school rests solely on parents’ judgment and is often based on precisely the kind of stereotyping they profess to be protecting their daughters from.

Instead of letting gender exclusion and essentialist attitudes back into schools, we believe feminists should celebrate girls’ dramatic educational achievements in the 40 years since Title IX became law. Hillary Clinton helped reopen the doors to single-sex public education by supporting the Deptartment of Education’s 2006 relaxed regulations of Title IX. We don’t doubt that she did, as she has said, “find her voice” as an undergraduate at Wellesley in the 1960s. But who’s to say that, if she’d gone to Stanford (like Chelsea), she would not have been equally empowered?