Single-Sex Schools And Gender Stereotypes

Republished here with permission from Kristin Maschka’s blog.

A recent tweet from the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute pointed me to this Washington Post article, Study: Single-Sex Education May Do More Harm Than Good.

I have always been opposed to single-sex schools myself. I believe single-sex schools make it harder for boys and girls to learn how to have healthy interactions with each other they will need to have in the real world. I also believe that the rationale and pseudo-science behind many single-sex schools or classes rely on and reinforce stereotypes about girls and boys that grate on me perhaps because I was myself such a counter-stereotypical girl.

I have friends who had wonderful experiences in single-sex schools growing up or in college. I have no trouble acknowledging what the study’s authors also acknowledge, “excellent single-sex schools exist.” If this were simply a matter of a small percentage of affluent or religious families choosing private single-sex schools, hopefully with eyes open about the pros and cons, then I might subscribe to a “live and let live” philosophy. But No Child Left Behind opened the doors for single-sex classes in public education and in the past decade the number of public schools offering single-sex classes has increased dramatically.

The idea of public education legitimizing and contributing to gender stereotypes on a broader scale gives me nightmares.

Can you imagine anyone today advocating for public schools or classrooms segregated by race? By sexual orientation? By socio-economics?

Why are we okay with it by gender?

The study’s authors have their own bias, judging from the fact that they also created an organization to advocate for “co-ed schools as the best environment to prepare children for a co-ed world.”

 Their study concludes:

  • There is “no empirical evidence that [excellent single-sex schools’] success stems from their single-sex organization,” as opposed to the quality of students, the curriculum or short-lived motivation that comes from “novelty and belief in innovation.”
  • “Evidence is more clear that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutionalized sexism.” 

My real visceral reaction was to the quotes in the article. The article describes the claim of one single-sex advocate this way.

“…Boys and girls…respond to classroom stress differently because of differences in their autonomic nervous systems, which make boys thrilled by loud, energetic or confrontational teachers, such as ‘What’s your answer, Mr. Jackson? Give it to me!’ while girls prefer to be approached by a gentler touch, such as ‘Lisa, sweetie, it’s time to open your book.’”

If a teacher had called me “sweetie” in middle school, I would have been reporting that nonsense to the principal before the end of the day.

That advocate is also quoted in the article as saying, “Writing poetry and keeping a journal is something girls do. Boys are going to need something different than what girls need . . . to deconstruct that.” It sounds like his benevolent intention is to protect, in this instance, boys from cultural stereotypes that would keep them from writing poetry if they were in a co-educational setting. Embedded in that strategy is the reinforcement of the very stereotype he thinks he’s fighting – that all and only girls write poetry and keep journals. Plus there’s a message to boys that it is not possible for them to deal with gender stereotypes in a co-educational setting.

For every boy or girl for which these anecdotes ring true I can show you my own daughter, my own childhood or scores of other children for whom they do not. It is precisely this type of generalization and basing instruction and an entire school environment on it, that worries me deeply about the effect on gender stereotypes.

I learned about the existence of gender stereotypes and how to bust them and be myself in a co-educational environment that confronted me with them every day. Let’s base instruction and school environments on research about what works, and differentiate based on learning styles and interests, not on outdated gender stereotypes. Let’s find ways to explicitly teach kids about gender stereotypes and how to navigate them, not reinforce those stereotypes in a misguided attempt to protect kids from them.

For every problem for which “single-sex” is given as an answer, there is an alternative. For example, “in a co-ed class boys are called on more often” can be addressed by teaching teachers how to use random selection strategies to call on students.

Sometimes the reasons given to support single-sex environment sound more like ways to simplify things for teachers and to avoid addressing the reality of social interactions and existing gender stereotypes in adolescent children.

Kristin Maschka is a best-selling author and a consultant in organization development and change leadership. Kristin brings a fresh perspective and authentic voice to the issues at the heart of family and community life today: modern motherhood and fatherhood, public education, community organizations, worklife issues, personal finance and economics, technology and business. You can find her on Twitter at kristinmaschka.

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