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The Single-Sex Education Debate: Sorting Through The Issues For Parents

Friday, October 7th, 2011

The pros and cons of single-sex education have received intensive coverage of late. That said, many parents might still feel confused about the issues and the bottom line. So I decided to get guidance from an expert to help me determine the take-home messages for parents.

I spoke at length with Dr. Rosemary Salomone, who is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St. John’s University. She has written many influential books on education – including her award winning “Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling”  – and is a leading expert on single-sex education and so recognized in educational, legal, and government circles. Here are some of the issues I raised with her, and my take-away messages based on our conversation. 

Are there definitive studies that demonstrate that single-sex education is either good or bad for kids?

No. There are a number of imperfect studies that gather data that either partially support or refute some of the claims made for or against single-sex education.

So what should a parent think when they read extreme claims (either pro or con single-sex education)?

Keep in mind that many times people grab certain studies to support their claims without giving a balanced picture of the evidence to date (including the evidence that does not support their claims). It’s a mixed bag and we can’t expect the imperfect science that exists to resolve the issues right now.

What exactly are the issues?

Many of the discussions right now focus on the legality of offering single-sex education as an option (it has to be voluntary) within a public school system (private or independent schools can do what they want). In order for the law to support this, there needs to be “persuasive justification” that it is accomplishing something beneficial. That’s what people are debating. Many arguments supporting single-sex education rely on contentions that girls and boys have very different brains and learn very differently. In general, these are not well supported scientifically and are very simplistic (the fact is many girls and boys learn in essentially the same way). That said, many people who are opposed to single-sex education only look at very narrow indicators of success such as test scores. It is important to examine if, for example, single-sex education leads to other important achievements, such as more girls taking advanced math and science classes, or more boys studying foreign languages.

How should parents sort through these issues if they are considering a single-sex school (not just classes) for their child? 

Many of the single-sex schools provide the same benefit as any good school: smaller classes and a positive culture for learning. Are these unique advantages to single-sex schools? Probably not. Are they advantages nonetheless? Many times yes.

If you are considering single-sex education for your child, evaluate the factors you would always consider if you have a choice. What’s the philosophy of the school? What is the size of the classroom? What does the curriculum look like? How do kids do in the school? What is less relevant is the extreme rhetoric about why single-sex education is beneficial (the unsubstantiated notion that boys and girls have profoundly different learning styles) or not beneficial (the unsupported notion that it promotes gender stereotyping). These are complex issues that have not received sufficiently rigorous scientific examination to lead to a conclusion one way or the other.

So given that there are pragmatic pros and cons to any school choice (and you can always find someone who either loved or hated single-sex schools, just as is the case for coed schools), the ultimate bottom line right now is to forget all the stuff being debated and ask yourself the real question: What seems to be the best school for my child right now? And use all of your tools as a parent to answer that question for yourself.

 

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