header image

Leonard sax

Should single-gender education be outlawed?


Leonard sax

Should single-gender education be outlawed?

Leonard sax

This coming Wednesday August 28, CNN anchorwoman S. E. Cupp will host a debate on the question: Should single-gender education be outlawed? The debate will take place at 1150 Connecticut Ave, Washington DC. There is no charge to attend, but pre-registration is required. The link to register is below. But first, a little background.

Earlier this month, Michael Kimmel – Distinguished Professor of gender studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook – wrote a commentary for CNN denouncing single-gender education. He began by sharing the fact that his son plays lacrosse and also sings in his coed high school’s choral group. Dr. Kimmel believes that single-gender formats don’t allow boys to be both athletes and scholars. He praises the ACLU for shutting down single-gender formats in public schools, an action which he believes will promote more boys playing lacrosse AND singing in the high school choral group. You can read his essay here: http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/09/opinion/kimmel-single-sex-classes.

In answer to my emailed request, Dr. Kimmel has notified me that his son does indeed attend a private coed day school.

Over the past 12 years, I have visited more than 380 schools. I haven’t found a coed public school where the boys who play lacrosse typically also sing in the choral group, although I don’t doubt that some elite private schools would meet this description. Dr. Kimmel clearly has found such a private school for his son. But at the coed public schools I have visited, it’s more common to find that the athletes beat up the boys who sing in the glee club, or at best that the athletes ignore the choir geeks. In my first-hand experience, well-rounded boys like Dr. Kimmel’s son are more often found at boys’ private schools than at coed private schools. More to the point, Dr. Kimmel provides no shred of evidence to support his assertion that the well-rounded scholar-athlete-artist is more common at coed schools than at boys’ schools.

At public schools, lacrosse is rare and choral groups have taken a hit in recent years, with all the budget cuts, especially in urban districts. Dr. Kimmel’s description of a school which offers lacrosse and an after-school choral group would sound like a fantasy to teachers and administrators at many of the urban school districts I have visited in recent years, in Buffalo, Dallas, Charlotte, etc. where budget cuts have forced the reduction or elimination of such luxuries.

In real life – in the world of public education, far removed from the world of privilege which Dr. Kimmel seems to regard as the norm – students are struggling in dilapidated schools where teachers have to deal with larger class sizes and fewer resources.  At some of these schools, administrators have found that the single-gender format allows teachers to accomplish more with less. But Dr. Kimmel is quite certain that these schools, such as Van Devender Middle School in Wood County West Virginia, should not be allowed to offer these formats.

Unlike Dr. Kimmel, I have actually visited the schools in Wood County West Virginia and have spent several days with teachers there. I have learned firsthand how the single-gender format – with appropriate training – allowed those teachers in West Virginia to boost academic achievement and break down gender stereotypes, so that the same boys who loved video games and football were demanding more books to read, on a wide range of topics. Reading scores rose for both girls and for boys, but the jump in achievement for boys was so dramatic that the gender gap was closed. When the ACLU began harassing the district, I wrote an article for the West Virginia newspaper, describing some aspects of the success of the program: http://www.dailymail.com/Opinion/Commentary/201206040082?page=1&build=cache.

When the ACLU began harassing the district, Wood County district officials asked to meet with the ACLU attorneys, to show them the improvements in grades and test scores which occurred after deploying the single-gender format. But the ACLU attorneys refused to meet with district officials. They had no interest in what was happening in the schools. They were playing to a different audience, not based in West Virginia.

Dr. Kimmel’s commentary for CNN has received national coverage and has been picked up by many other media. Also earlier this month, the local newspaper in Tampa published a story about the success of the boys’ public school and the girls’ public school there. Quoting from that article:

 Girls Preparatory Academy at Ferrell Middle Magnet School and Boys Preparatory Academy at Franklin Middle Magnet School were two of only four elementary and middle schools to jump two full grades in the state’s recent grading period — from a C to an A at Ferrell and a D to a B at Franklin.

John Haley, principal of the boys’ public school, observed:

“It’s not the best environment for every child. It’s not. There are children that thrive perfectly fine in a co-ed environment. But it’s statistically true that it is a tremendously positive environment for many students.”

Karen French, principal of the girls’ public school, said that the initiative was all about giving parents more choice. “Why would you be against it?” she said. “Single-gender in our district is a choice. It’s not a mandate. We are providing something that our parents say they want.”

The schools have the same funding and the same class sizes as other public schools in the district. But the single-gender format allows teachers and administrators to deploy gender-specific strategies which break down gender stereotypes (see my books Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge for more discussion of these strategies).

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t mention the years of preparation, the book studies, conferences, etc. which went into this success. The School District of Hillsborough County (the Tampa public school district) sent 60 teachers and administrators to our 2011 NASSPE conference, and that was after I had made multiple visits over several years to work with individual schools, and two years (2009 and 2010) in which the district sent teams of senior leaders to our conference. They really did their homework.

The article about the success of the Tampa single-gender public schools is at http://tbo.com/news/education/hillsboroughx2019s-single-gender-schools-find-success-20130811/. The article in the Tampa newspaper has received almost zero attention outside Tampa. That’s been a pretty consistent story over the past 12 years. The success stories, based in the actual experience of public schools, and published in the local newspapers, receive little coverage outside the home district. The diatribes based in ideology receive wide distribution at CNN.com, Time.com, the Atlantic website, the Huffington Post, Slate.com, etc.

Eight professors (not including Dr. Kimmel) have created an organization devoted to criminalizing this option in public schools, to ensure that no parent will have the option of single-gender education unless they remove their child from the public schools and can afford to send them to a private school. Their website is www.coedschools.org. I debated the Executive Director of this group, Dr. Rebecca Bigler of the University of Texas at Austin, at our NASSPE conference in Houston last October. At one point, I asked her: “Dr. Bigler, if it were in your power, would you outlaw the Girl Scouts?” She answered that she would, if she could. She explained that she had nothing against the idea of scouting in general, but she doesn’t think any parent should be allowed to enroll their daughter in an all-girls scouting activity.

That moment epitomizes what I find so troubling about these folks. They have no hesitation about translating their own personal prejudices and preferences into government-enforced prohibitions. I have no objection if Professor Bigler wants to enroll her daughter in a coed scouting program. But what gives her the right to think that she knows better than I do, regarding what is best for my own daughter?

Anyhow. If you have an interest in this topic, you might consider attending what may be the “biggest” debate yet on this topic, next Wednesday August 28 at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), 1150 Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC. Speaking in favor of single-gender education will be AEI fellow Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers. Speaking against single-gender education will be Dr. Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: how small differences grow into troublesome gaps. Admission is free but you have to register in advance at http://live.aei.org/Event/Should_single-sex_schooling_be_eliminated.