By: Mozelle Mimran, Lcsw

Does separate education really offer students an edge?

It is among the most controversial issues today in education – and particularly in our own community. But the question of which is ultimately “better,” single-gender or coed schools, is far from a new debate.

While almost 99.5 percent of US public schools are entirely coed, for generations, many of the most elite private prep-schools have intractably maintained their single gender character, even going to court to defend against challenges to their separate status. Many parochial institutions, including the vast Catholic school system as well as many yeshivot, have also long upheld a single-gender philosophy to education. Yet collectively, these examples account for scarcely five percent of the 55.4 million students enrolled in US schools. Recently, however, even at public schools, the tide appears to be shifting towards separate education.
Gender-focused education, either in the form of separate schools or separate classrooms in coed schools, has gained significant traction in the wider public education spheres over the past seven years. According to the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education (NASSPE), in 2002, only eleven US schools in the public education system offered single-gender classrooms. That number has since exploded to 545 as of September 2009 – and 91 of those schools are entirely separate. Interestingly, many of the institutions adopting a separate education format are charter schools, which are carefully evaluated and judged based on academic success.
Within the Sephardic/Syrian community, too, recent trends appear to favor separate education. The vast majority of the dozen or so mainstream elementary and high schools catering to the community which opened over the past decade – including Maor Yeshiva, Or Hatorah, Keter Torah, Magen Abraham, Barkai, Mikdash Melech, Mikdash Shelomo, Meorot, Bnot Yisrael, among several others – all provide separate education beyond preschool.
But aside from the religious concerns involved in mixed education, is separate education any better or worse at developing the maximum potential of each student?
Psychological research has confirmed scientifically what many had long suspected: men and women are wired to think in fundamentally different ways. Among many other differences, it has been found that women tend to react to stress less aggressively and more emotionally than men, and that men tend to be less cooperative and more competitive than women. Men and women also differ in their responses to emotional cues and fear and in the way they process language. Over the past two plus decades, Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters, has been highlighting the mountains of scientific research that reveals how gender differences are so deeply ingrained from birth. In one study it was found that male and female infants responded differently to sound, movement and isolation – even on the first day of life. The question that begs answering, then, is: If men are really from Mars and women are from Venus, does that mean that they should be educated using different techniques?
A History Lesson
When formal education began in this country circa 1650, the coed-separate education debate was entirely moot. Schooling was focused on teaching young males aged 8-14 the basic skills of reading and writing, while girls received an informal education at home which centered around the role of homemaker. In the 1880’s, when women sought formalized education and began attending school, they learned in a single-gender classroom, with the idea that they would be taught to fulfill the roles they were destined to play in society. But the women’s movement of the early 1900’s believed that equality in education was to be found in a coed classroom where girls could be guaranteed to be taught the same subjects as boys, allowing them the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
In the inclusionary spirit generated by the civil rights movement of the 1970s, feminists sought education reform, claiming that women were oppressed and denied equal academic opportunities. In response, in 1972 policy makers instituted Title IX, an educational amendment aimed at preventing gender discrimination. Title IX stated that no public school shall “provide any course or otherwise carry out any of its education program or activity separately on the basis of gender.” Although this was not its intent, Title IX in effect eliminated single-gender education as an option in American public schools.
In an effort to achieve inclusion and sameness in public education, a policy dedicated to ignoring gender difference was put into effect. “The assumption was that by teaching girls and boys the same subjects in the same way at the same age, gender gaps in achievement would be eradicated,” explains Dr. Sax. The single-minded approach to equality has in fact promoted “a bizarre form of political correctness, suggesting that it is somehow chauvinistic even to hint that any innate differences exist between female and male.” Ironically, over 30 years of “gender blindness” has in fact intensified gender stereotypes and gender gaps in subjects studied. Sax recommends that rather than try to overlook or overcome gender differences, magnifying them and understanding them will lead to better education for our children.
What We Now Know
Dr. Sax, a staunch advocate of single-gender education, claims that “it’s not sufficient just to put girls in one classroom and boys in another. In order to improve academic performance and broaden educational horizons, you need to understand how girls and boys learn differently.” He advocates educational techniques that meet the needs of the uniquely hard-wired differences in the “boy” brain and “girl” brain, while cautioning that research findings should not be seen as grand generalizations about individual boys and girls. Sax clarifies that his findings about gender differences in no way mean that all boys and all girls learn the same way, but that we must recognize and respect biological differences between the genders and have them inform classroom environment and curriculum development.
New brain research shows that the language areas of a girl’s brain develop before the areas used for spatial relations and for geometry. The opposite is true for boys. Dr. Sax believes that “a curriculum which ignores those differences will produce boys who can’t write and girls who think that they are dumb in math.” Indeed, numerous studies have shown that girls are more successful in single-gender math and science classes, while boys in single-gender classes are more likely to write poetry.
The innate biological differences in boys and girls affect their learning styles, as well. “Girls thrive in noncompetitive collaborative learning situations; boys are motivated more effectively by competitive environments with clearly defined winners and losers,” says Dr. Sax. Perhaps the most striking difference between boys and girls is their response to stress. Scientific studies of all mammals, including us humans, show that stress enhances learning in males while it impairs learning in females. And just as the genders learn differently, their approach to school stress is experienced differently. Roni Cohen-Sandler Ph.D., author of Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure, elaborates: “Boys are not immune to stress, but teen girls are far more prone to taking on intense pressures to succeed academically and socially.” In addition to their desire to succeed academically, emotionally “girls feel like failures when they think they upset someone, can’t help a friend, or let down an adult.” 
The stress girls feel when attending coed schools is often exacerbated by the presence of boys, beginning in middle school. A female high school senior who has attended both coed and single-gender schools describes the anxiety she experienced in a coed environment:
“When I went to school with boys, I spent a lot of time in the morning worrying about what I was going to wear and how my hair looked. I spent more time on my wardrobe selection than I did on my school work. And when I went to school with boys, I ate less because I was embarrassed to eat in front of the boys and I didn’t want to get fat. In my all-girl school I felt much more relaxed about those things and I actually got better grades.”
Practical Implications
While few will dispute the innate differences between the genders in the learning process, some still don’t believe that separating the genders is beneficial from an academic standpoint. Opponents of single-gender education point to an October 2005 US Department of
Education (DOE) review of research on single-gender education which appeared to indicate inconclusive results from single gender trials. However, Dr. Sax points out an obvious flaw in the studies, which show little or no improvement after gender separation. The studies reviewed by the DOE involved merely segregating girls and boys, with no attempt made to incorporate best practices for all-female classrooms and best practices for all-male classrooms.
But even without specialized teaching, many such studies did show that merely separating classes produced better scores. In England, for instance, a formerly coed school divided its students into single-gender classes which learned the same courses with the same teachers. Standardized test scores for the boys rose by 26 percent and 22 percent for the girls. In Manchester, students at five public schools were assigned single-gender and coed classes and then their standardized test scores were compared. Findings showed that 68 percent of boys in single-gender classes passed the language skills test compared to 33 percent of boys in coed classes. Among the girls, 89 percent assigned to single-gender classes passed versus 48 percent in coed classes.
While statistics about academic achievement tell us part of the story, teachers and students attest to the fact that the single-gender classroom poses many benefits.
Mrs. Audrey Calvo has taught middle school-aged students in both coed and single-gender boys classes. “In my experience,” she tells, “I believe that both girls and boys do better when they are learning separately. I have seen girls, who normally are quite animated in class, sit quietly and not share their thoughts when the boys are present.” Mrs. Calvo, who teaches drama, math, English, science and history, notes that “when teaching the Holocaust, the students in the boys-only class engaged in discussions, sharing their thoughts and feelings much more than the boys in the coed class. They were more apt to say how sad and angry they were about the atrocities of the Holocaust than when the girls were in class with them.”
Mrs. Calvo acknowledges that teaching an all-boys class presents a behavioral challenge because the boys act more calmly in the presence of girls. As one male high school student put it, “We didn’t want to look like jerks in front of the girls.” Still, Mrs. Calvo maintains that she has “seen a major difference in the overall engagement of my students in a single-gender class, and, despite the challenge, it is incumbent on all teachers to learn how to manage the class because they do learn better.”
To this end, the NASSPE offers one- and two-day workshops for teachers devoted to what works best in girls’ classrooms and boys’ classrooms. “The single-gender format with the right kind of leadership offers a great opportunity to break down gender stereotypes…” The NASSPE urges teachers “to customize what they do to the needs and abilities of each individual student…and this is much easier to implement in a single-gender classroom than a coed one. Educators are introduced to teaching methods that consider gender differences and use those differences to enhance the classroom learning experience.”
Dr. Sax focuses on the academic needs of boys in his book Boys Adrift, where he asserts that “boys schools can tailor the curriculum to the way boys learn. Experienced teachers know that the best way to get boys energized to learn is to keep the classroom loud and lively. The teacher never stops moving. A boy never knows where the teacher will be 20 seconds from now. The teacher roams the class, speaking in a loud voice, involving every student.” In a single-gender classroom, teachers can utilize a boy’s sense of adventure to make a lesson more exciting. “Most boys will perk up and show some interest if you talk about things that are dangerous, or intense, or ‘yucky.’ The boy who was bored by biology at the coed school will be interested if you bring in some black garden snakes.” Likewise, boys like explosions, so chemistry can become an exciting laboratory where things go “boom.”
Clearly, what works best for the boys will probably not work for the girls. Newborn girls have hearing that is seven times more sensitive than newborn boys’ hearing, and that sensitivity increases with age. This would put girls at a distinct disadvantage in a classroom where the teacher speaks loudly and moves around the room. Likewise, if a girl is squeamish about snakes, she may be more concerned with how she appears to her male classmates in biology than she is about the lesson. David Chadwell, coordinator of Single Gender Initiatives at the South Carolina Department of Education, believes that when teaching girls, educators should focus on their ability and desire to connect with others. Girls, by nature, like to share, and so “if you try to stop girls from talking to one another, that’s not successful.” He suggests that girls should meet in circles for discussion “where every girl can share something from her own life that relates to the content in class.” Rather than interpret their willingness to share as going off topic, challenge them to make their experiences relevant to the material.
What About Socialization?
When contemplating single-gender education for their children, many parents are concerned that the lack of exposure to the opposite gender will deny their children the opportunity for proper social adjustment. However, studies show that both boys and girls in single-gender schools have unique social and leadership opportunities that would not be available to them in coed schools. In an all-girls school, girls are exposed to diverse role models: the best athletes are girls, the student council president is a girl, the top scorer on a math exam is a girl, and even the computer wiz is a girl. When younger girls see this, they get the message that it is acceptable for them to be smart and athletic, and they won’t be intimidated by being the only girl on a debate team.
Boys in single-gender schools, too, are freed from the gender stereotyping that keeps them from exploring “girly” subjects like poetry and drama. Andrew Hunter, a school principal who has taught in both coed and single-gender schools, says, “There is subtle pressure toward stereotyping in mixed schools. In boys’ schools, boys feel free to be themselves and to follow their interests and talents.” And with regard to maturity and social adjustment, Dr. Bruce Cook, principal of the Southport School on the Gold Coast, believes that boys educated in single-gender schools end up being more confident around girls. “In coed schools, boys tend to adopt a ‘masculine’ attitude because girls are there,” he said. “They feel they have to demonstrate their emerging masculinity by gross macho over-reaction.” Boys in single-gender schools, by contrast, “become more well-rounded and sensitive men,” and are also more polite.
A nationwide study by Marcia Gentry and her associates, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, confirmed that boys in coed schools are less enthusiastic about school than girls are, and that this gap widens as boys get older. “The older boys get, the more they tend to perceive doing well in school as ‘geeky.’ Boys perceive the coed school as an institution run largely by women and run largely according to women’s rules: sit still, don’t make too much noise, don’t be disruptive.” Prevailing social norms in a coed school say that boys should be athletic and macho, and if top students are girls or geeks, the boys may distance themselves from academic success. “If you’re a boy at a coed school, being an ‘A’ student does not raise your status with other boys. At many coed schools, being an ‘A’ student may actually lower your status with other boys.” In single-gender schools, by contrast, the top students and the top athletes are boys, so academic success has no stigma attached to it. This allows the boys the freedom to compete for top scores both in the classroom and on the playing field.
Different But Still Equal
Despite substantial evidence that students thrive and achieve better academically in single-gender environments, opponents of single-gender education believe that it reinforces gender stereotypes, such as the belief that boys are more aggressive and girls are more cooperative. Wendy Kaminer, in her bluntly-titled article, “The Trouble with Single-Gender Schools,” found fault with the “undue attention paid to neatness and cleanliness” in all-girls schools, as well as “drawing parallels between domesticity and chemistry activities.” She felt that the idea of femininity was too pronounced in a particular single-gender school because the walls were painted pink. Kaminer believes that all-girls schools “reinforce regressive notions” of gender difference, as if the difference between men and women is an antiquated notion.
Contrary to the fears of those who believe that separating boys and girls leads to further accentuation of gender differences, well run single-gender classrooms actually combat the phenomenon of gender intensification. Dr. Sax writes that “when girls and boys are together, they are very mindful of what the prevailing culture says is appropriate for girls, and what’s appropriate for boys… Our culture is a sexist culture (and the culture of children and adolescents is even more so than the adult culture). The prevailing culture sends all sorts of gendered messages pushing girls and boys into pink and blue cubbyholes. Flutes are for girls, children tell one another, and trumpets are for boys (or so the children say). Physics is for guys, and art history is for girls – or so the teenagers will tell you. You, the adult, can try to tell them otherwise, but in the coed format the forces driving ‘gender intensification’ may be too strong for mere words to counteract.”
The prevailing culture has somehow equated the notion of gender differences with a designation of a “stronger” and “weaker” gender. In an effort to combat this thinking, many have tried to prove that no such difference exists. It is perhaps easier to understand that different does not necessarily mean better, stronger, or more desirable with a simplistic analysis of a neutral item, like…fruit. If we were discussing the apple and the orange, we could discuss differences about color, texture, and flavor. We might prefer one over the other based on personal taste, but we couldn’t say unequivocally that one fruit is better than the other. Of course, I would never use oranges in my apple pie, and a mimosa (a cocktail of champagne and orange juice usually served at brunch) would never be a mimosa if we substituted apple juice. Saying an orange is inferior to an apple because of its inherent difference and unsuitability for pie is as ridiculous as saying that boys are inferior to girls because they often get restless and get out of their seat during class. Although the nuances between males and females are much more complicated than fruit, recognizing and accepting the special distinctions of boys and girls allows us to better educate them.
King Solomon famously exhorts parents and educators, “Hanoch lenaar al pi darko – Educate the child according to his way” (Mishle 22:6). As Dr. Sax states, “girls and boys differ fundamentally and innately in what they like to read, how they study, and how they learn.” When it comes to educating children, one size apparently does not fit all. Of course, for some parents who prefer a coeducational environment for their child, there’s more to school than just scholarship. But from a purely academic and developmental perspective, the evidence seems convincing that properly formatted separate education is functionally superior. Dr. Sax concludes, “[Single-gender] education and the opportunity it offers to custom-tailor learning to the student…helps us fully appreciate that girls and boys enter the classroom with different needs, different abilities, and different goals.”