12 June 2008 10:00 AM

Single Sex Education

by Dr. Rick
There’s lots of talk – once again – about the value of single-sex education. Do boys and girls benefit from being in classes with only other boys or girls? Some research indicates yes; some says no. This is typical of most education research. Reports clash with astonishing regularity and confusion. Oprah clearly thinks yes; her school in Africa is for girls. Many highly successful single-sex parochial and private schools think so, too. On the other hand, many once single-sex schools – especially colleges – have gone coed. What’s the right answer?

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think. It’s up to us adults to recognize what’s best for our kids, knowing that what’s right for one child is not the same as for another. Any parent with more than one child knows that. For some students, single-sex classes make good sense. Many children do, indeed, succeed with more ease when they’re free of the distractions of the opposite sex. Other students, however, blossom when in the company of the opposite sex.

I say if it’s right for a child, if it’s what she needs, it’s good to have the single-sex option. The wider the range of school options, the better. It’s what we expect when we go shopping for clothes and cars; why would we want any less from our schools?

Beware of anyone who tells you that there’s one way to teach all students, one method, one curriculum, and one research study that proves it. Show that person the door.

If there’s anything we educators have learned in the past few years (thank you, brain researchers, thank you Howard Gardner, thank you Mel Levine), it’s that all children are capable of learning, but they learn in different ways and at different rates. A superintendent friend says, “All kids can learn, but not in the same way and not on the same day.”

That’s why schools look so different today from when we adults went to school. That’s why teachers’ jobs are so much more difficult now, trying to reach every child, teaching in the way each child learns best. That’s why there are so many school options for families, single-sex schools being just one.

There are also home schools, magnet schools, and charter schools. Online schools, summer schools, and boarding schools. Schools-within-schools, international schools, and foreign-language schools. KIPP schools, schools with uniforms, and for-profit schools. K-8 schools from my long-ago youth are making a comeback. Freshman-only divisions in high schools seem helpful for many students.

And, oh yes, single-sex schools. The diversity is remarkable. The more we learn about the many ways children learn, the more we can expect different configurations of schools, classrooms, and learning environments. We should embrace these new configurations not run from them.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have high expectations from them. What should we expect from these schools, from the people who run them, and the students who go to them? We should expect that the adults who propose them have done their homework, know what kinds of learners will benefit from their schools, and can articulate what they hope to accomplish and how they hope to do so.

We should expect that teachers are chosen not because of seniority or some other artificial criterion but because of their talents, because they understand and approve of the philosophy of the school, because they’ve shown they can adjust their instruction and curriculum to fit the school’s mission, and because they can meet the needs of the students and families they serve.

We should expect students – and their families – to take seriously these new ways to learn. Parents should communicate regularly with teachers, know when assignments are due, when tests are given, and give their children the support they need. Every day. Students should learn quickly that the adults in their lives will be watching them, supporting them, rewarding them, and, when necessary, dishing out consequences.

Education and learning are too important and too diverse to fit into a one-size-fits-all box. How and what we taught in the past may have worked for our needs then, and may still work for many students today, but, for others, times and needs have changed. Single-sex schools (or even a single-sex class or two within an otherwise traditional school) may be the answer for some kids. So might some of those other options I mentioned. Just don’t expect one option to work for all learners.

I say let’s try as many as we can. What’s more important than our kids?


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