Single-sex schools and public education
On Oct. 24, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, announced that final Title IX single-sex regulations would loosen 30-year-old restrictions on single-sex education in public schools - if enrollment is voluntary and if coeducational teaching of "substantially equal" quality is also available. Public school districts nationwide may offer more single-sex classes and extracurricular activities and open more single-sex schools.
The announcement was applauded by the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, claiming, "...Gender-separate format can boost grades and test scores for both girls and boys. . . ."
Lorraine Garnett Ward, a teacher at the private, boys-only Fenn School in Concord, responded the following week with glowing praise in a Boston Globe Op-Ed piece: "Schools that use gender as a lens to understand boys and girls on their own terms create opportunities that open them up, not close them down, and that make them feel good about being boys and girls learning new things."
However, the National Organization for Women disagrees. On the NOW web site, President Kim Gandy commented on the decision: "'Separate but equal' has never really been equal for girls, and that has been true of recent experiments with single-sex schools. Segregation was wrong in the past, and it's wrong now."
No public school on Martha's Vineyard is considering single-sex classrooms, according to Superintendent James Weiss.
Been there, done that
In the 1950s, when I went to school, most independent (private) schools were single-sex schools. From grades four through eight, I went to that self-same Fenn School, which is in my home town. After that I became a boarder at Phillips Exeter Academy, also all-male in those days. Nearly everyone I knew who did not attend a public school, boys and girls alike, went to schools that were segregated by gender. In the 1950s there were hundreds of single-sex private schools in New England and the Middle Atlantic states.
I began my teaching career at two independent schools which in those years were single-sex. So I've seen single-sex education from both sides of the teacher's desk.
Then in 1966, I became sold on coeducation. I took a job at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, unusual in the private school world at that time. Cushing, founded in 1865, is one of the oldest coeducational schools in the country.
At Cushing, I discovered - as if it were something new - what most people must have always considered obvious: that boys and girls in a coed school relate to each other in ordinary ways, and they do it every day. Certainly there were distracting relationships and hurt feelings and showing off, but all of this was against a background of normalcy. Young men and young women read the same English assignments and argued in History class and were baffled by the same physics problems. They grumbled about the food in the dining hall and were ecstatic when the football team went undefeated. They listened to the Beatles and talked about civil rights and the Viet Nam war. Some were into drugs, just as everywhere else in the '60s and '70s. Of course sexuality was there. But boys and girls had plenty of opportunity to just be people, and most of the time they knew the opposite sex as just people, too. With rare exceptions, that piece of everyday experience had been missing from my own youth.
For most of my school years, I saw girls only in situations narrowly focused on what a sociologist might call courting rituals - dances, parties, and dates. I had a number of short-term romantic attachments and wrote dozens of goofy letters I pray nobody has saved. Intellectually, of course I knew girls were human beings, but in my high school years I thought of females as not quite like me. Not inferior necessarily, but different. How they were different, other than in outward appearance and underwear styles, I couldn't have articulated. I knew that I was fascinated by and drawn to these alien creatures, but to me they were not quite genuine. That is, not fundamentally persons in the same sense that I was a person or my close male friends were persons.
Luckily for me, in college I fell in love with and married a young woman who is so stunningly genuine that I was able to begin overcoming my alienation from half of the human race.
A change in
Coincidentally, my own new enthusiasm for coeducation happened in the '60s and '70s, during the time of a national decline in single-sex independent schools. The Age of Aquarius was not single-gender, and teenagers suddenly didn't want to go to Mom's or Dad's alma mater if it was single-sex. Coed schools grew popular. Several old, established schools opened their doors to the opposite sex, usually amid howls of protest from the alumni or alumnae. Many schools merged (a boys' school with a nearby girls' school). Part of the change was philosophical, driven by a new America in which gender segregation didn't belong. In other cases the change happened just to keep a struggling single-sex school from going out of business.
Whatever the reason, a movement to coeducation in independent schools and colleges was underway. And as a teacher at one of the oldest coed schools, I became an enthusiastic advocate. For the rest of my career, I worked only in coed schools.
There are today almost no single-sex independent secondary schools for males. However, a few girls' schools and women's colleges have resisted the change and stayed single-sex. But just this fall Randolph-Macon Women's College, one of the very best in the country, announced that it will begin accepting males in 2007.
The new single-sex movement
Nevertheless, the pendulum may be swinging back, as the decision announced last month by Secretary Spellings shows. All educators agree that students learn in different ways. In the last 20 years or so, research has concentrated on gender-specific learning differences. Also, now it appears that it is boys who may be falling behind in school. After years of being out-performed by boys in math and science, girls (on average) are now drawing even, and girls (on average) are maintaining and perhaps widening their traditional advantage in language arts. At-risk urban males especially, often poor and black, are increasingly left behind. Some educational leaders are arguing that at-risk urban boys would benefit from the same educational philosophy that isolates women and girls in their own learning environments.
As part of growing experimentation with single-sex education in the city, the Philadelphia School District in September opened its first all-boys high school since 1983, when a lawsuit forced Central High to go coed. A charter school in Chicago has opened a girls-only public school, and there are plans for a boys-only version.
My old alma mater, the (private) Fenn School, is still an all-boys school and proud of it. In her Globe essay, Ms. Ward writes that the Fenn curriculum and schedule fit the natural rhythms of boys at work and play. I'd be the first to say that at Fenn I got a good education and enjoyed all the "boyish fun" that Ms. Ward praises in her essay. That is not to say that I think it was worth it.
Ms. Ward writes, "The right question to ask is, what must we do to ensure that both boys and girls grow to their full moral and intellectual potential? We can start by taking them away from each other at crucial junctures in their schooling."
While I agree that gender-based research can help all teachers be better teachers, I disagree that gender segregation allows a student to reach "full moral and intellectual potential." What Ms. Ward calls "the freedom to be boys" comes at too high a price. While taking them away from each other may give boys the freedom to be boys, and girls the freedom to be themselves, it may also make it harder for them both to be whole persons in a coed world, and that is "their full moral and intellectual potential."