Learning Separately: The Case for Single-Sex Schools

Article excerpt

Susan Vincent reached into the cage and pulled out a small yellow bird, saying, "This is Kiwi. He loved us, but he was lonely." It is a lovely spring day in Spanish Harlem on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Vincent, a former children's clothing designer turned award-winning high-school science teacher, is explaining some facts about the facts of life. "We had to get Kiwi a mate. It was a perfect way for the girls to learn something about nature, about birds, about"--she smiles, holding little Kiwi up--"about the birds and the bees."

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It was, as they say in the field, "a teachable moment." And for Vincent it was much more teachable because all of her 10th-grade students were girls. "There was no giggling and whispering, no holding back," she recalls. "The girls gathered round and we talked about the mating habits of birds and they asked good questions and learned a lot. Boys would have been a big distraction."

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It seems so logical. Separate boys and girls so they can get their work done. It was clear to me and my classmates 40 years ago, as we gazed out the window during English class in our all-boys high school (a Catholic seminary) and watched the teenage kids from town "making out" on a stone wall; at least it was clear to Father Ignatius, who would threaten a "bastinado with salt rubbed in the wounds" if we didn't focus on the sentence that needed diagramming.

"We can concentrate a lot better without boys," is a comment I heard dozens of times in the course of researching this story. Boys seem less sure of the benefits. "Yeah, it's okay," says a student at the private all-boys Roxbury Latin School, outside of Boston (see sidebar, page 14). But the headmaster, Kerry Brennan, is certain: "Young men are able to focus much more ably on academics without the girls."

Rosemary Salomone, professor of law at St. John's University and author of the 2003 book Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling, agrees: "Many students in single-sex classes report feeling more comfortable raising their hands and expressing uncertainty regarding a lesson or topic without fear of embarrassment or teasing from the opposite sex."

The fact that researchers like Salomone are talking about single-gender education represents a sea change in attitudes--and policies and practices, a change that was formalized by the historic rewriting of Title IX of the federal Education Amendments in 2006. The new rules give local districts the option of offering single-gender public schools and programs for the first time in more than 30 years. The regulations permit single-sex classrooms when districts "provide a rationale," "provide a coeducational class" as well, and "conduct a review every two years." Districts may operate a single-sex school as long as they provide equal services either in a coed school or a school for the opposite gender. Charter schools are exempt from all restrictions. Prior to these changes, educators lived in a vague legal world, at the mercy of a Supreme Court decision (the 1996 Virginia Military Institute [VMI] case, United States v. Virginia), which required an "exceedingly persuasive justification" of anyone wanting to set up single-sex schools or classes.

As late as 1990, James Coleman remarked that that it was considered suspect to even study the question of single-sex schooling. The famous University of Chicago sociologist noted that there were times when "a societal consensus" dictates that "one institution is right" and, he concluded, "coeducation is such an institution."

At the time, Coleman was writing to introduce a pioneering book on the subject, Girls and Boys in School: Together or Separate? by Providence College sociologist Cornelius Riordan. The questions Riordan was asking--"just what are the consequences of single-sex and coeducational schools for those who pass through them? …